76ers — A Season Review

By MIKE CUSTER
Staff Writer — mcuster@highhopesblog.com
_______

Resiliant is the best word to describe a successful 2010-11 season for the Sixers. (Courtesy Philly.com)

After the curtains closed for the 76ers’ season on Wednesday night, the players shuffled back to the locker room before boarding their final flight to Philly, as the Miami Heat immediately turned their attention to their impending Round 2 battle with the Boston Celtics.  As was the story of the series, the Sixers started hot, and played well enough to stay in the game until the end.

Alas, unlike Game 4’s dagger 3-ball from Lou Williams, the team couldn’t muster up the heroic shot it needed to extend the series another game.  Though they failed to keep their season alive, “failure” is the last word anyone should use to describe the season as a whole.

In fact, pressed to find one word to describe the season, I’d settle on “resilience”.

Philly looked poised to duplicate its horrendous ’09-’10 campaign (27-55) with their 3-13 start to the season.  Doug Collins’ move from the booth back to the bench was immediately questioned – critics said the game had moved past him during his time at TNT, that his coaching style ill-fit a young roster that had given up on Eddie Jordan by the end of last year.

Personally, I thought that was an unfair, not to mention detrimental, description to plaster over the team.  The two biggest malcontents from the previous year (Sam Dalembert and Allen Iverson) were gone.  Whether the early struggles could be attributed to adjusting to a new scheme, or just overall youth (the squad boasts 8 players under 25), the outlook was bleak.

But, the team did more than just recover; they were, at points during the year (such as their 9-3 run in February), the hottest team in the NBA.  Without the stumbling start, the team posted a 38-28 record, a .576 win %.  Had they played at that pace all year, they would’ve finished between 47 and 48 wins, good enough for the 5th best record in the East.  Of course, there is little to be taken from retroactively adjusting records.  But, with a core roster that made a 14 game leap in one off-season under a new coach, there is no harm in projecting another improvement in the wins column if the roster stays intact.  That, however, may prove to be a big if.

(Note: all the following off season speculation will totally disregard the lockout that may loom ahead)

For instance, what if another team swoops in to sign Thad Young to big dollars?  A restricted free agent, Young has tantalized some GMs around the league with the strides his game made this year.  At first glance, his numbers from the past two seasons almost mirror themselves (13.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg in ’09, 12.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1 apg in ’10).  But, he posted his numbers at a much more efficient rate, in less minutes (26 mpg in ’10 compared to 32 mpg the previous year) and with more accurate shooting (54% from the field this year, 47% in ’09).  His athleticism was display all season, especially since he killed any and all notions of incorporating a 3-pointer into his repertoire in favor of assaulting the rim at a relentless pace.  Defensively, his length and propensity to hustle pestered the opposition.

Thad’s letdown in production after Game 1 of the Miami series might actually help us here, as Young was on the brink of really establishing a name for himself league-wide if he followed his late-season 6th man of the year push with a strong series.  Sometimes all it takes are some staggering playoff numbers to turn an under the radar guy or even a complete unknown into a hot commodity (look up Jerome James if you don’t believe me).  The front office is handcuffed here a little bit, as the Brand and Iguodala contacts still weigh heavy against the salary cap.  If the team can put together a smart deal like they did with Lou Williams (5 years, $25 million), they can lock up an immense talent for years to come.  If another team offers something substantially more lucrative, the team will probably have to see Thad walk.  On the other hand…

What if the team shops Iguodala in the offseason?  Iguodala, for all the things he does well, is not a legitimate superstar.  Oh yes, he dunks like one, he locks up on the defensive end like one, and sure as hell he’s paid like one, but a superstar he is not.  His point production dropped 3 points from ’09, and his degenerating knee is a cause for concern.  I truly believe he could be a key piece on a contender, but he’s proven he can’t lead a team past mediocrity with himself as the focal point.  The heat may have dissipated as far as his trade value goes, so it’s unlikely the team would find many offseason takers.   I’d place a hefty bet that fans and analysts alike will be debating where he’s headed next trade deadline.

So here’s a better proposal; what if he practiced his pull-up jump shot before next year?  He’s one of the rare NBA players whose go to move is his worst weapon.  Every time he crosses from right-to-left between his legs around the foul line/elbow area, I cringe at the impending pull-up brick.  When it’s falling, it’s nice, no doubt.  Throughout the 4th against Miami in Game 5, he got hot and sank them down the stretch.  When it really counted; with the clock winding down and the team trailing by 3, he clanged one from the foul line instead of charging to the rim (or at least, if a jump shot was his plan, shoot a trey).  Nothing new there.

Not to pile on Iggy here, but the rest of the team grew by leaps and bounds around him as he regressed this year.

Jrue Holiday has proven his aptitude to take the reins of the offense.  He doubled his assist output from his rookie year to lead the team with 6.5 dimes a game.  Plus, he took better care of the ball as the season went on, finishing with a respectable but not-quite-there-yet 2.4:1 assist to turnover ratio.  His smooth ball-handling was on display when he split a Chris Bosh-Dwyane Wade trap with a spin move in Game 5.  The team did an excellent job collectively taking care of the ball this season, and a lot of credit has to go to primary ball-handlers Holiday and Iguodala.

Jrue’s scoring jumped from 8 ppg in his rookie campaign to a solid 14 ppg, and he was second to Meeks on the team in 3-point shooting, including a huge 3 against the Heat in Game 4 that cut the lead to 1 with 30 seconds to go.  In the NBA, one of the point guard’s most important jobs behind running the offense is knocking down open jumpers.  Holiday has shown he has the penchant to do so, and doing it in big moments only makes it that much more encouraging.

After an up-and-down first year, Jrue has adjusted well to the rigors of the league.  Now, Holiday appears to be well on his way to approaching the high ceiling the team projected when they drafted him.  Even in the thick of what may be remembered as the greatest era of point guards in league history, he might have an All-Star appearance in his future, if he continues to progress.

Lou Williams sacrificed a lot of playing time and personal stats coming off the bench this season (after starting 38 games in ’09), while still being heralded by Collins as the team’s leader and voice.   Not to mention the fact he is the team’s best isolation scorer and has icy veins.  Not only did he drill the game winning 3-pointer in Game 4, he closed a lot of quarters throughout the year by making good on the front end of 2-for-1 possessions and hitting late shots, like his 30-footer that forced OT against the Kings late in March.  Collins should slide Jodie Meeks, whom Lou relented his starting spot to, to the bench.  Jodie has a great stroke, but just because Lou was willing to give up his starting spot doesn’t mean he should remain relegated to the bench again next season.

Selected out of high school in the last draft teams were permitted to do so, it’s surprising to think Lou is still only 24.  With next year being his 6th in the league, Williams is still approaching his prime.  Plus, he started the Show Ya Luv campaign (about 100 times cooler than Miami’s failed “Fan Up” slogan from earlier in the year).  Collins should return the favor by rewarding Lou with PT to go with his praise.

Elton Brand has successfully reinvented his game and was the model of consistency this season, rarely leaning too far above or below his team-leading 15 ppg and 8.3 rpg night in and night out.  Yea, the contract will sting for years to come, but credit to Brand for battling back from injury after injury to turn himself into a dead-eye shooter from 12 feet and dependable worker in the post.  It has to be tough to battle down low without being able to jump over a post-it note, let alone lead your team in points and on the boards.  If anything, though, the fact that he relies totally on practiced skills and body position rather than athleticism could mean Brand will be a dependable big man for years to come (think Antonio McDyess, who retooled his game after losing a few seasons to injury and is still producing at 36).

No. 2 selection Evan Turner caught the brunt of scorn from critics before the season even started.  Unfairly, people were screaming “bust” after a poor summer-league outing and a slow start.  I never bought into the notion, and was impressed by his ability to defend and rebound as a rookie.   The way he can pull down a defensive board in traffic, push the ball in transition, and make the right pass on the fly is reminiscent of one of his teammates; Iguodala.

Yes, his shooting was questionable at first, but once he got his confidence up, he proved a capable offensive option.  His offense isn’t where it needs to be to be a prominent scoring option quite yet, but his dedication to working on a mid-range game is encouraging.  Plus, he did a great job in the playoffs, considering he appeared to be out of the rotation as the season came to a close.  Though his minutes fluctuated through the series, he dropped 15 and 17 points in Games 2 and 4, respectively.  His hot shooting tapered off in the Game 5 loss, but he still brought down 10 rebounds.  Whether he had his offense going or not, Turner always hung his hat on attacking the defensive glass, which is something I loved to see.  He’s not Blake Griffin or John Wall, but if his NBA career resembles his college career in any way, expect big strides from one year to the next.

Back to the starting lineup.  Rounding out this year’s starting five along with EB, Iggy, and Jrue were second-year guard Jodie Meeks and third-year center Spencer Hawes.  As Charles Barkley will tell you, it takes only one NBA-level skill for a player to make solid contributions to a team.  Meeks definitely has that in his 3-point shooting.  Credit to Collins for pulling him out of obscurity at the bottom of the roster and plugging him in the starting lineup, but credit should also go to Meeks for stepping in like a pro and taking advantage of the chance to play.  He has a role clearly defined for him on the team as the sniper, and as long as he doesn’t lose his touch from the perimeter, he will be a part of the future.  Guaranteed, the team will pick Meeks’ the option from his rookie deal this summer.

Spencer Hawes’ place on the team is less clear.  He’s a good passer but all in all he is, at best, just an average offensive player.  He’s a big body, but he’s not a great rebounder (5.7 a game), and despite his size he is far from an elite defender.  The center position itself seems to be in flux, as second option Marreese Speights saw his minutes dwindle away this season.  Speights, who’s never seen a shot he didn’t like, is a better offensive player than Hawes, but an equal liability on defense.  Plus, it looked like he was going for the record for most missed wide-open layups in the postseason as he struggled through his cameos in Games 1 and 2.  His only bright spot from the year was a 17-point 2nd quarter against Toronto.  Even if Speights and Hawes come back next year ready to play, both are poor enough on defense to be supplanted by someone else brought in via free agency, trade, or even the draft.

There are still other questions left to ponder over.  Will Craig Brackins contribute next year?  His enticing size (6’11, 230 lbs) could fortify the front line, but stints in the D-League suggest he’s not NBA-ready.  Can Collins sustain the winning pace?  Stints in Chicago and Detroit both showed improvements from year 1 to year 2, so that’s encouraging.  Also unclear is what the team will be looking for in the draft, as well as who the team will choose to fill in the spots left by the expiring deal’s of Jason Kapono (definitely out), Darius Songalia (ditto), Antonio Daniels, and Tony Battie.

I know, asking all of these questions might be bordering on over-analysis.  Honestly, I’m simply excited to have a team worthy of taking the time to ask these questions about again.  Before the season, it was logical to wonder whether the team would notch 30 wins for the year.  Of ESPN’s pre-season “expert panel,” only 2 of the 10 writers had the team in the playoffs.  After the 3-13 start, visions of ping-pong balls danced in the heads of fans.  Resiliency, however, shined through.  A team so young, behind its new coach, was expected to crumble under the seemingly insurmountable mountain of losses that marred the start of the season.  However, they bounced back not only to relevance, but respectability.  They won back the fans who had long avoided the Wells Fargo Center, turning the quiet-as-a-crypt stadium that opened the season into a legit home court advantage by season’s end.

From my seat in the stands during Sunday’s Game 5, I felt an energy reverberating through the crowd that hadn’t buzzed so loud since A.I.’s heyday.  Lou’s three in Wade’s face sparked a small moment of vindication for the fans like me, who stuck with the team through the rough patches.  More importantly, it shined light on something even more encouraging; the team’s future.  Unlike the ‘08-’09 team that also finished 41-41 and made the playoffs, the current squad has much more potential to strive toward achieving in the years to come.  Collins’ insistence on playing the right way and executing the small details will instill the young players with winning instincts as they progress from this year to the next.

Next year, when the Celtics are one year older, when the Magic have to struggle with the LeBron-esque “will he leave?” drama with Dwight Howard, after the Atlanta Hawks have to retool their roster amongst salary cap conundrums, the Sixers will be back one year smarter and one year better.  In the League, your stock is either sinking or rising, and Collins’ 76ers have built a foundation poised for an upswing.  Show ya luv.

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