Whether you think the Philadelphia 76ers overachieved or underachieved last season, you've got room and evidence with which to make an argument. A glass-half-full type might look at the Sixers' 2011-12 campaign and marvel at the team's stingy defense (No. 3 in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions), balanced offensive attack (eight players averaged at least eight points per game) and run to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they pushed the Boston Celtics to a deciding seventh game. A more pessimistic sort might get hung up on the 15-17 post-All-Star-break record that sent Philly crawling into the postseason as the East's eighth seed, the relatively punchless offense that finished 20th of 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency and the lack of a go-to scoring option that could deliver buckets when the Sixers' sets bogged down.
Head coach Doug Collins sounded like a half-empty guy, telling Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News during a recent sitdown at the Sixers' practice facility that he "felt [last year's] team had reached its peak" and "we knew we were going to have to make changes." Philly certainly did that, letting sixth man Lou Williams and long-range shooting threat Jodie Meeks walk, amnestying starter Elton Brand, bringing in embattled center Kwame Brown to pair with the re-signed Spencer Hawes and, in the biggest move of all, trading cornerstone Andre Iguodala, second-year center Nikola Vucevic and rookie Moe Harkless in a monster four-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to L.A. and brought Andrew Bynum to the Sixers, who immediately welcomed him with open arms. Ch-ch-changes.
Assistant coach Aaron McKie would like to see something else change, too. The 13-year NBA veteran, who spent parts of eight seasons in Philly, told Cooney that he's somewhat troubled by "a sense that our guys don't want to step on each other's toes." The 2000-01 NBA Sixth Man of the Year wants to see Philly's players be a bit more willing to bare their fangs, so to speak:
We have nice guys, but I always say we need someone to turn into a dog, to get teeth into their belly. That's when we're going to take that next step. We enjoy these guys and there's nothing that they wouldn't do for you, but they have to get that mentality, that killer instinct inside of them.
First off, as a blogger who lived through the infamous Dirk Nowitzki/Carl Landry Tooth-Based Unpleasantness of 2009 and the David Lee/Wilson Chandler Tooth-Based Unpleasantness of 2010, I'd like to go on the record as saying I am 100 percent opposed to anyone getting "teeth into their belly." It seems excessive, dangerous, unsanitary and completely against the rules of basketball. So, please, no teeth in bellies.
That said, McKie's point is a valid one, and an extension of something Collins pointed at during the Celtics series when he implored point guard Jrue Holiday to shoot more and attack, if only just to get the ball on the glass for offensive rebounding opportunities — the Sixers really didn't have much they could hang their hat on offensively last season, and that often put them in precarious positions late in games.
While the Sixers' stout defense and many-hands-make-light-work scoring approach led them to a 35-31 record, they were not a good team in close games, going 5-10 in contests decided by five points or less and just 8-20 in games decided by 10 points or less. (Weirdly, 38 of Philly's 66 games were decided by 11 points or more, and they thrived in those wide-margin games, winning 27 and losing 11.) And while some look skeptically at so-called "clutch" statistics, they indicate that Collins' team performed poorly in close and late situations, going 7-20 in games in which they were up or down by five points in the final three minutes, according to NBA.com's statistical database.
The seven Sixers who played most frequently in crunch time — point guard Jrue Holiday (on the floor for 94 percent of Philly's "clutch" situations), Iguodala (94 percent), Brand (70 percent), Williams (69 percent), combo forward Thaddeus Young (65 percent), former No. 2 overall draft pick Evan Turner (35 percent) and Meeks (24 percent) — all posted net negative efficiency numbers (meaning the team fared worse with them on the floor) during the fourth quarter or overtime of games in which there were less than five minutes left on the clock and neither team was ahead by more than five points, according to 82games.com's statistics. Only four players on the roster who played any "clutch" minutes had a positive rating in those situations; of them, only Hawes (who was a +9 in net points while playing in less than one-fifth of Philly's close-and-late situations) returns to this year's team.
This, in and of itself, doesn't necessarily prove that Sixers players lacked some ineffable ability to be great under pressure. It does, however, indicate that nobody on last year's team was especially excellent in late-game situations. Making matters worse, the only 76er who ranked among the league's top scorers in "clutch" spots was Williams, who scored an average of 34 points per 48 minutes in crunch time (14th best in the NBA, according to 82games.com) and will ply his trade with the Atlanta Hawks this season. Philly's second-most potent option, Holiday, averaged just 23.1 points per 48 "clutch" minutes, good for 48th in the league.
Now, this is where you say, "Yes, well, that's why they traded for arguably the best low-post scoring center in the league — late in close games, now they can dump it into Bynum and let him go to work." And you'd be right — he played just over three-quarters of the Los Angeles Lakers' "clutch" minutes last season (in which the team was a sterling +74 with him on the floor), he averaged 28.1 points per 48 minutes of "clutch" time, hit 76.1 percent of his field goals, drew fouls on just under 18 percent of the late-game possessions he used and hit 81 percent of his free throws. He walks into the team as, without a doubt, its best late-game option.
But the burden of being The Man for the first time is a funny thing — we don't yet know for sure if Bynum's wired to "turn into a dog." If he is, and if he can reliably answer the call when games' outcomes are in doubt, then Philly could be a beast of a team come playoff time. If he can't, though, a season for which Sixers fans have high hopes could end with a whimper.