The 20-9 start, the 15-22 finish and the 7-6 run to within one game of the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a wild ride for the Sixers, unfortunately, if they were going to change my mind about their future, they would have needed to do it in the ECF, against a healthy, talented contender. That's not to say I'm not proud of what they accomplished this season. The post season run was great, and probably more than we should've expected. But still, here we are. A step below the upper echelon, the question is whether if they can get there without starting over from scratch.
Before I break out the scalpel, let me say a couple things about how this team performed in the post season. First, if they closed games in the regular season like they did in the playoffs, they probably would've won five or six more games and had home court advantage. In fact, their resolve in close games under intense pressure was nothing short of magical. Add that in with their ability to get to the line and you almost want to rethink some things. I have no idea where those two things came from, I can only hope the guys who remain on the roster remember how to do them when the 2012-2013 season begins.
When I think about this team, it's hard to separate the feelings I have from basically watching these guys grow up in a Sixers uniform, and living/dying with each game over their entire careers, so I think it's important to simplify things. I decided to ask and answer some very important questions:
What makes them good?: The answer here is pretty simple. Perimeter defense. That's their only strength, beyond depth, which doesn't mean a whole lot when you get to a normal playoff series, unless you're talking about surviving an injury. The Sixers coaching staff figured out a way to maximize the impact of a couple of superb perimeter defenders, and somehow mask a collection of weak and/or slow interior defenders.
What holds them back?: Two answers here. First, they don't have a reliable offensive option A. They don't have a baseline they can count on, offensively, from game to game. There's a strength in spreading your scoring around when you have a couple of guys who are "on" in a given game, but when you can't write down an efficient 20 points from someone, you're prone to long offensive droughts. If two guys have a bad game, you're sunk, and you don't have anyone to bail the offense out when it's sputtering. The key word above is "efficient" before 20 points. Having a guy who uses 20 possessions to get 20 points isn't a baseline, it's a killer.
The second, and more damning weakness, is the entire big man rotation. Elton Brand can defend in the post, when he isn't run down. He can hit short jumpers, when he isn't injured. Thad Young can defend the pick-and-roll, he can apply pressure on the perimeter, run the floor, and blow by a lot of fours off the dribble. Both Brand and Young can be contributors, but neither is really a starter at this point. Brand is too slow-footed to provide any kind of help on the pick-and-roll. He has to sink back into the lane and leave the perimeter guy to deal with both the ballhandler and the big. You probably noticed this in the Boston series when Bass and Garnett shot about 100 wide-open mid-range jumpers. Thad is just to weak to deal with even an average sized power forward on the blocks, and he's hopeless when it comes to keeping them off the offensive glass. Lavoy Allen had a great run in the playoff and showed promise during the regular season, but it's extremely difficult to tell if he was genuinely good or if he merely looked good in comparison to the rest of the bigs on the roster. I'd like to see him stick around in Philly, see if he's capable of starting at PF with the new roster, whatever it may be.
Unfortunately, the four is the Sixers stronger position up front. The center position is an absolute zero. Spencer Hawes has to be gone, absolutely has to. That's all I'll say about him. Vucevic is young, and he showed a little bit in the post this season, but he's grossly unathletic and weak. He needs a ton of work before he'll even be a rotational big. For now, he's on his rookie contract and a big warm body. That's pretty much it.
If nothing changes, if they literally bring everyone back and add the #15 pick, I'd expect the Sixers to show some improvement over last season. There's room for growth in some of the young guys, and I think the lockout really hurt them late in the year, not in terms of being worn down, but because they didn't have the practice time they needed. Collins has smart systems in place, they can be frustrating on the offensive end because you feel like they can do more than they do, but they're really squeezing the last drop of production out of the current group. Obsessing about taking care of the ball helped more than it hurt, in my opinion.
I don't think the status quo is really an option, though. Something's going to change. Which brings us to the main question:
Rebuild or improve upon? My answer is both. On this journey through what worked and didn't, strengths and weaknesses, etc, led me to one conclusion. The Sixers are as good as they are pretty much on the backs of two players. Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday. They're the two best defenders on the team. They're the two best playmakers on the team. Basically, this is the equation. With Jrue and Iguodala, they're capable of playing this defensive system with a bunch of flawed parts at the other positions. The problem is the flawed parts they have at the other positions are both poor defenders and inefficient offensive players. If you're devising a system to overcome defensive limitations at multiple positions, and actually getting it to work, then why not fill those positions with guys who actually compliment the players who make the whole system possible? A big who can roll in a pick-and-roll. A shooting guard who can actually shoot. A stretch four who stretches to the three-point line, not to a mid-range jumper.
Neither Jrue nor Iguodala is a perfect player, far from it. They're stellar defenders, much better than anyone gives them credit for, and they're probably above average scorers if they're taking the right amount of shots (in terms of efficiency). Neither is a number one scoring option, if you can accept that fact (and I know a lot of people can't) then you can move forward and rebuild with pieces that fit.
It doesn't have to happen overnight, in fact it won't. But it's the direction I would move in. Starting right now, this is how I'd look at the roster. Everyone on it except Jrue and Iguodala can be moved, and should be moved, either for nothing or for a piece that fits better. Elton Brand should be amnestied, that money creates flexibility. Spencer Hawes should be allowed to walk. Lou Williams should be allowed to walk. Jodie Meeks, gone. Xavier Silas, Tony Battie, adios.
You have about $14.9M tied up In Thad Young, Evan Turner and Nikola Vucevic this coming season, with those numbers escalating over the coming seasons. I'd look to trade all three of them. In return, I want a piece that fits, regardless of age, and/or expiring contracts and picks. Turner and Thad for Kevin Martin would be ideal. Martin is a shooting guard who can actually shoot, and his $12.4M contract only has one year left on it. Turner and Vucevic for JJ Redick also works (again, a shooting guard who can actually shoot, and an expiring deal).
The one guy I'd bring back is Lavoy, because I think he's rotational guy who can fill in as a starter while you're in the process of upgrading the position.
With the cap space, there are three or four guys who would be good fits, but the price tag will probably be too high and/or they're restricted so it's unlikely you'll get them. In order of preference:
- Ryan Anderson: Restricted free agent, but the epitome of a stretch four. 58.9% TS last season. Perfect guy to put at PF, pulls a big out of the paint, opening driving lanes, and drive-and-kicks are no longer for 20-footers, they're for threes. Unfortunately, it would probably take an insane contract to pry him loose from Orlando. Maybe if you get him to sign a decent offer sheet really early, before the Dwight Howard saga is resolved, Orlando will balk. There's no harm in trying.
- Ersan Illyasova: Unrestricted free agent, played the role of a great stretch four last season in MIL (45.5% from three), also a good defensive rebounder. His breakout season came at a perfect time, but if you can get him for a contract similar to Thad's, I'd be all for it.
- Eric Gordon: Restricted free agent, if you can overlook the health issues (which you probably shouldn't) he's a perfect fit at the two. Shooting guard who can shoot with the added benefit of being a legitimate number one scoring option. It would probably take a near-max contract to get him, though, and New Orleans would probably match it.
- JaVale McGee: Restricted free agent, I really don't like this guy. He's a loon and a headcase, but what he brings to the court fits. I think he probably played his way into too big of a contract once being traded to Denver, especially in the playoffs. He's a restricted FA who I think you can probably get. There's a price Denver won't match, I just don't think he's worth that much. On the floor, though, he's an elite shotblocker and a premiere finisher.
Anyway, this is what I would do if I was calling the shots for the Sixers. I find it unlikely this is what they will do. Basically, my first goal is to obtain a legitimate superstar, and no one is off limits in that pursuit. Short of that, I'm going to put together a roster which takes advantage of the unique system in place and players to implement it, rather than filling the roster with inefficient scorers and weak bigs. The important thing is to leave the door open to obtaining a superstar if/when he forces his way out of his current situation. When I talk about superstars, I'm not talking about second tier guys like Carmelo Anthony, either. I'm talking about either dominant two-way players, or transcendent offensive talents who score a ton of points efficiently.
I'm not opposed to trading Iguodala if you can get a comparable, younger player in return, a superstar with Iguodala as part of the package, or at least one high lottery pick and cap relief, but I find those scenarios highly unlikely. The only thing I'm opposed to is making moves with the sole intent being to make the team worse. I don't want to tank for ping pong balls, I think it's a pointless exercise and really a betrayal of the fans who support the team. I realize people feel differently, but I don't think this team is in a position for that, and I don't think the city needs a decade of zero fan interest while they hope to get the right pick in the right year to land a superstar through the draft. Maybe that's the approach the should've taken when Iverson was traded, but I think there's too much in place already to take that approach.
One final decision I think needs to be made this summer, an extension for Jrue. I'll get to my thoughts on Jrue's development in the coming days, but for right now, I think they need to try to sign him to an extension similar to the one Mike Conley signed. That's a bargain.
Over the coming weeks or months I'll post my thoughts on each player on the roster, and how I think they fit in the team's future (if they fit). I kind of gave away my feelings on Turner above, so I won't keep you in suspense.
Turner was probably the player who decided the fate of this version of the Sixers. They lucked into a draft pick much higher than their talent level should've ever allowed. They took who they considered to be the best player available, instead of drafting for need, and he didn't pan out. It's as simple as that. Had they drafted Derrick Favors, things would look much, much different right now. But they didn't, they took Turner and he's been a disappointment since first setting foot on the court in Summer League two years ago.
I realize there's a large portion of the fan base who still thinks Turner is the answer, but they're wrong. If you put Evan Turner on a terrible team and let him handle the ball exclusively, his counting stats would be impressive. He'd probably average close to 20 points, maybe challenge for double-digit rebounds a year or two, and hand out a half-dozen assists per game as well. He'd stuff the stat sheet and his team would be in the lottery, every single season. Turner is an average athlete whose jump shot is a perfect inverse of his ego. He has a lot in common with a guy who was drafted a couple of slots later in the draft. Both Turner and DeMarcus Cousins are capable of fooling people with their stat lines, while simultaneously sinking their teams with their gross inefficiency.
There are a couple of cases where Turner can excel offensively. (1) When he has an extremely poor defender on him. Typically a smaller or slower player. (2) When his foul jumper is hot. or (3) When he's got a terrible defender on him and his jumper is on. Absent those conditions, he's essentially hopeless as a scorer, though he won't hesitate to dominate the ball and miss shot after shot. The straw Turner-apologists will grasp is to say he should play the point, which would give him a mismatch with smaller guys guarding him. The problem with that logic is if you make him the focal point of your offense, which he needs to be in order to be "effective," the opposing team will simply put a legitimate perimeter defender on him, effectively negating his advantage and reducing him to a D-League level contributor on the offensive end. Oh, and he won't stop shooting, either. Once you give this guy the keys to the car, he's going to drive it right off the cliff, repeatedly.
If it seems like I'm down on Turner, it's much worse than that. I think the Sixers need to spend this summer seeing if he has any remnant value around the league. If he does, they need to ship him out. He's not without strengths. He's an extraordinary rebounder and an above-average defender, but the offensive warts and the ego completely out of proportion to his talent essentially remove the possibility of him playing the role he's capable of. That role is probably something similar to Dhantay Jones' role with the Pacers, only without the three-point shot. It's time to cut ties.