Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Philadelphia 76ers.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
The 76ers didn't pull the trigger on a massive trade centering around Andre Iguodala, the group couldn't find a way to add any significant talent to a roster in need of a full-time star and, for a big-market team, the 76ers are about as anonymous as NBA squads come. Where to now, St. Peter?
Perhaps another needed year of determining where, exactly, this roster stands. This is one of the reasons that you employ someone like Doug Collins as your head coach, because he can help keep your team in the playoff bracket even as you work around the fringes while figuring out which of your 47 talented forwards to keep. Elton Brand's resurgence in 2011 doesn't hide the fact that he was signed to be Philly's breakout star and fell way short (through no fault of his own), and Dre Iguodala is best served as a sideman to that breakout star. But this doesn't preclude Sixer fans from being cheerful at another above-.500 year and hopeful second-round appearance.
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This clearly isn't the stuff dreams are made of, but the Sixers are loaded with assets and they run 10 deep even without including the potential of NBA-ready rookie Nikola Vucevic. Few teams can boast the sort of powerhouse combination of youth and talent that the Sixers will be able to toss out, and, if the coin flips in their favor, this could lead to a massive pileup of wins. That's not me slumming or pandering to Philly fans -- this group has the potential under the right witchdoctor to do something special.
That's the regular-season take, though. In the playoffs, a time Doug Collins' 1-4 sets and isolation play is best suited for, teams have to fall back on that star. And while Jrue Holliday can get to the line and Brand can back you down, the Sixers are still lacking that go-to mug. Apologies for acting like a general columnist, NBA-skimmer, but Philly still needs That Guy.
Until That Time, though, the Sixers can chalk up a litany of Big Wins with Those Dudes. Dre and Thad Young and potentially an improved Evan Turner are quite well-suited to taking advantage of teams that are either playing out the string, working under duress or ill-prepared to compete at seven in the evening on a Wednesday.
That's not supposed to work as cold comfort, Sixers fans. If this team doesn't tune out Doug Collins, you're going to have a lot of fun between now and April.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Philadelphia 76ers
I'm so excited for you!
There were a number of reasons why Evan Turner struggled at times during his rookie season. For starters, he faced challenges adjusting to an off-ball role after excelling as a possession-controlling playmaker at Ohio State. He also had to learn how to defend professional twos and threes without prototypical quickness for the swing spot. And unlike some high-lottery selections that get long leashes from rebuilding franchises with no hope of competing right away, Turner joined a Sixers squad with postseason aspirations led by a demanding first-year head coach who wasn't about to just give away floor time based on draft position. (Constantly hearing about the electric kid picked one spot ahead of him probably didn't do wonders for Turner, either.)
Among the biggest factors when things went rough for Turner: his inability to knock down shots. He was consistently subpar from everywhere beyond the rim, according to Hoopdata, hitting just 37.1 percent of shots taken between three and nine feet of the hoop, 37.6 percent between 10 and 15 feet, 37 percent between 16 and 23 feet, and 31.8 percent from 3-point range. Not terrible marks -- within a couple of percentage points of the median in all phases -- but all below average, and with more than three-quarters of Turner's field-goal attempts coming outside the restricted area, according to StatsCube, that just won't cut it. He needs to improve his shot to become a featured contributor in the Sixers offense.
During the offseason, Turner worked with recently enshrined Hall-of-Fame coach Herb Magee, a Philly hoops icon and renowned "shot doctor," in the hopes of fixing what ailed his J and coming into the season with a sharper arsenal. The renovation was reportedly detail-driven and holistic -- as Kate Fagan, then of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote after their first meeting, "It sounds like Turner and Magee worked for over an hour and a half ... and never got past shooting the ball one-handed, not more than a foot away from the rim."
They focused on correcting mechanical issues like the placement of Turner's guide hand in his shooting form and maintaining his follow-through after release. Whether the work will pay dividends in the regular season remains to be seen -- in two preseason games, Turner shot a combined 8-of-18 (44.4 percent) from the floor and 1-of-3 (33.3 percent) from 3-point land -- but Magee recently said Turner "has improved" his mechanics and said now "needs to get consistent minutes."
If Turner shoots well enough in the early going, he could earn the minutes that come with an increased role -- one where he's used not only as the primary facilitator on a second unit featuring speedy scorer Lou Williams and just-got-paid swingman Thaddeus Young, but also takes some of Jodie Meeks' burn with the first team. That's certainly what Sixers fans are hoping for, but irrespective of the early returns, they ought to be pretty excited that a guy they're banking on to be a franchise cornerstone would so willingly submit to a breakdown-and-rebuild -- that instead of saying, "This was good enough to win National Player of the Year and get me taken second overall, so forget you," he listened and worked. You can win with guys like that.
I'm so worried for you!
The big worry is that despite last season's .500 mark being good enough for the eighth seed and the expectation of continued improvement in Collins' second year at the helm, the Sixers aren't actually going anywhere. That despite the nice collection of young talent in Philly, that roster's still short a star, and that unless Jrue Holiday becomes one or team president Rod Thorn can somehow trade for one, the Sixers seem destined for an Atlanta Hawks-esque string of mid-conference finishes and not really competing with the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and whoever else winds up joining those two teams this year in the East's upper crust.
There are smaller worries, too. Philly made major strides on the defensive end last year, giving up five fewer points per 100 possessions under Doug Collins than they did under Eddie Jordan the previous season. That's not surprising, as Collins brings defensive improvement wherever he goes, and the upgrade typically lasts through the second season -- the Chicago Bulls went from dead last in defensive efficiency the year before he arrived to the league's third-best unit in two years, the Detroit Pistons went from dead last to 11th in his second year, and the Washington Wizards went from dead last to a more respectable 18th within two years. The problem is with defensive distribution.
Iguodala, Meeks, Turner and Williams did a great job on the wings, holding opposing twos and threes to Player Efficiency Ratings of 12.4 and 12.5 last season, respectively, according to 82games.com's positional statistics. Holiday's numbers weren't great at the point -- opposing point guards put up an 18.6 PER against him -- but his effort was better, and his youth and physical tools suggest the capacity for improvement with more coaching. In the frontcourt, though, once you get past an aging Elton Brand, the Sixers don't have anybody who consistently plays interior defense. Philly allowed opposing power forwards and centers to put up well-above-average PERs of 17.7 and 17.2 last season, respectively, and don't look to have improved heading into this season.
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Spencer Hawes is young and big, but not a very good or motivated defender. Young is long, active and athletic, but he's undersized down low as a defensive four. Collins is reportedly relying on Marreese Speights to be the Sixers' fourth big -- for now, at least; the restricted-free-agent-to-be has reportedly drawn interest from the Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets -- but defense has long been seen as a problem for him (although Synergy's numbers beg to differ). Neither Nikola Vucevic nor Lavoy Allen, Philly's frontcourt rookies, profile as an especially effective defensive presence right out of the gate.
Unless one or more of those bigs takes a major step forward defensively, the Sixers will be relying on 32-year-old Brand -- who had a solid resurgence last year, playing more minutes than he had since a ruptured Achilles tendon knocked him out for the better part of the '07-'08 and '08-'09 seasons -- to again shoulder primary offensive and defensive responsibilities down low and remain healthy while doing it. If he can't or doesn't, any slippage on the wings or continued below-average performance by Holiday will take the Philly defense back a step, giving back some of last year's gains and putting more pressure on a star-less, 17th-in-the-league offense to improve.
To be fair, that is a lot of ifs, and as a believer in both Holiday and Philly's wings (defensively, at least), I expect the Sixers to continue to play soundly enough to get away with the lack of bangers. It might not be a major concern, but that's the problem with life on the .500 line -- the molehills look like mountains and objects in the rearview always seem like they're in your backseat.
I have no idea what to make of you!
If you do not select B. Franklin Dogg as your new mascot, Philadelphia fans, then I have no idea what to make of you.
He has everything -- an adorable li'l hat, an adorable li'l collar, the capacity to stand on his hind legs and dribble a basketball, a far more impressive physique than his master, and a lack of weird head appendages that make it difficult for him to progress easily through door frames. You don't want your mascot to be some boozed-up snuff-hound or glorified hat rack, Philadelphia. Do the right thing and vote for a dog so chill he needs two g's in his last name, like it's the 1990s. (You remember the '90s -- Barkley, Iverson, "Rocky IV," a couple years of Aaron McKie. Pretty great, right?)
Vote early, vote often and vote your conscience, Philadelphia. It's the right thing to do.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
PHILADELPHIA 76ers: "Ben and Me"