Because the basketball itself was so entertaining, there wasn't much time this season to dive into the flaws with this roster. Because the turnaround was so compelling, and the stretch of 60 games so darned good, it didn't make sense to point at the holes when there was a foundation setting. And because Doug Collins brought to life a concept that for a very long time was merely rhetoric -- this team will play the kind of basketball that makes Philly proud -- it just seemed too negative to not go along for that ride, to wait to address the rest when it ended.
We think 24 hours is long enough. We've all had a day to stand back and absorb the very entertaining basketball season that just ended. Collins lived up to his promise. His team responded. Not even during the 2008-09 season, which ended with a tough series against the Orlando Magic, did the Sixers play the kind of crisp, fluid basketball that we watched last night. There were backdoor passes, hi-low cuts, well-executed transition breaks, and a style that we hardly ever see in the NBA anymore.
So moving forward with as much respect for that performance as possible, it's also time to address the future. It's precisely because the Sixers showed such talent and grit that they deserve at least a fighting chance when next facing a team like the Heat. Pair the Sixers' focus and execution with talent that's at least in the same ballpark and this series turns out differently. And future playoff series will turn out differently.
It starts at the top: Ed Snider, Peter Luukko, Ed Stefanski, and Rod Thorn.
It would be easy for all of these guys to hide behind Collins' coaching. He casts a big shadow. It's through his attention to detail, flexibility, emotion, and basketball IQ that the Sixers were able to reach .500 and compete with the Heat (at least within each game, if not on the overall series result). Because there is such good will and feeling around Collins, the Sixers could duck behind that and not make the difficult, risky decisions that must be made this off season.
First, with as much fairness as possible, let's point out the truth about this year's roster. This season looks shiny and new because it's being compared against last season, which was dark and gloomy. But the reality of this roster is that it was one of the NBA's most expensive, per victory. The Sixers' salary this season was on the books for approximately $70 million ($69,585,609 or thereabouts, according to salary-type websites), which makes them the NBA's 12th most expensive payroll this season. If you further breakdown that payroll, the Sixers paid $4.64 million per player (including Antonio Daniels' end-of-season contract) and $4.97 per player (excluding Daniels). The only team in the NBA with a higher per-player payroll, but with fewer victories, was the Utah Jazz, whose per-player numbers were nearly identical to the Sixers. The two teams with fewer victories than the Sixers, but higher overall payrolls (not broken down per player, but just overall) were the Milwaukee Bucks at $69.8 million ($18.3 million of that gobbled by the injured Michael Redd), and the Jazz at $74.1 million. Another team with a higher payroll than the Sixers that didn't make the playoffs was the Houston Rockets, who finished with a better overall record at 43-39. The Rockets payroll was $72.8 million ($17.7 million gobbled by the injured Yao Ming).
I'm not a stat geek by any stretch, so it's likely some of those numbers are slightly different on different websites, but the logic of the argument remains the same: this was a mighty expensive roster for a 41-41 regular-season record and first-round exit. This is no reflection on Collins or on the players that played the bulk of the minutes this season. The truth is that management, and Stefanski in particular, saddled this year's roster with about $18 million in dead wood: Jason Kapono ($6.6 million this year), Andres Nocioni ($6.85 million), and Darius Songaila ($4.8 million). In Wednesday night's Game 5, Kapono and Songaila were inactive and Nocioni received a DNP-CD. The league's best teams don't have $18 million of useless contracts sitting on the end of the bench. Imagine what kind of player(s) the Sixers could have with that extra money: a top-notch big man, a go-to perimeter scorer. In essence, Collins coached a $50 million roster (excluding the aforementioned useless $18 million in three combined players) to a .500 record and strong first-round showing. Where would that $50 million put the Sixers in the NBA's payroll hierarchy? At 29th in the league, above only the ridiculously low Sacramento Kings (whose roster is arond $44 million). Hopefully those specific numbers give you an even better appreciation for what Collins and the core of this roster did this season.
Stefanski has indeed put together a group of young players that is impressive (and we're just saying Stefanski on this because, to this point, Thorn hasn't really executed many moves). The trade to acquire Jodie Meeks before last season's trading deadline was brilliant. In essence, the Sixers got a solid shooting guard in exchange for nothing. That was an A-plus move. The free agent signing of Elton Brand, while not completely redeemed, doesn't look so bad now, and the drafting of Jrue Holiday might be the strongest of Stefanski's moves. There was pressure to take Ty Lawson, who is also producing in the NBA, but Holiday is going to be -- and already partially is -- a complete NBA player. The trade of Samuel Dalembert was made out of necessity, so it's difficult to say whether it was good or bad because Dalembert being gone was the main objective. The hiring of Eddie Jordan set this franchise back two seasons and cost the franchise millions of dollars. The hiring of Collins was the right move, and should have come one season sooner.
All of this leads to the main point of this blog: management can not hide behind Collins' coaching job. Collins took this job with an open mind. He had no pre-conceived notions about what players could do what, which players were too old, which weren't good enough, who couldn't defend, and who could. He didn't come in assuming Brand was washed up just because Jordan thought he was. He stepped back and, because he was not emotionally attached to the decisions that brought each of these players in, saw each of these players for who he was and what he might be able to do. And Collins saw what the roster was -- and could be -- as a whole.
Collins can't be the only one approaching the situation with that clarity. Yes, Stefanski signed Andre Iguodala to a monster contract. Yes, the Sixers brass drafted him and annointed him a star. Yes, they have an emotional attachment -- a blind spot, really -- about making him into the star they promised he was destined to become when they offered him that $80 million contract. This blog isn't about whether Iguodala should stay or go, it's just one singular example of one potential offseason move that can't be muddied by trying to retroactively prove yourself right.
Consider this an attempt to plant the seeds going into this offseason: Collins hid a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes are still there and they will anchor this franchise down if those in charge don't release the old vision for this team and embrace the new one.
Sixers are holding exit interviews, the final team meeting before everyone scatters home, today at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. We'll try to tackle some topics on here as they present themselves going forward. Thanks to everyone for reading this season.
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