76ers: On the hunt for .500

Elton Brand and the Sixers are 22-15 since starting the season 3-13. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)

After Friday night’s 77-71 win over the San Antonio Spurs, we asked Andre Iguodala when the last time this team had such a good feeling about it. Iguodala considered the question and said that he feels the year before last, when Tony DiLeo was head coach and the team reeled off a nice stretch after the all-star break, was comparable. Solely comparing wins and solid victories (those Sixers also snagged a great home win over the Spurs), the 2008-09 season did produce some exciting stretches for the Sixers. Only difference was: it was done on the backs of some veteran, older players, while this year’s resurgence has at its core some very, very young players.

As Elton Brand pointed out when asked about the 2008-09 team, that team was “built to make the playoffs.” The top four players were either veterans (Andre Miller and Elton Brand, pre-injury) or experienced guys (Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert) and included – like this year’s team with Tony Battie – a backup center who’d been through plenty of successful seasons. That year’s guy was Theo Ratliff.

What we’re specifically trying to say is that while it hasn’t been years and years since the Sixers played good basketball, it’s been quite some time since it’s been done with such promise and hope for the future. The Sixers are 25-28 heading into tonight’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It would take a monumental effort, but the Sixers have three games before the all-star break (Minnesota, at the Memphis Grizzlies, and at the Houston Rockets) and have a chance to pull even at 28-28. Right now they’re 22-15 since starting the season 3-13, and have a chance to go 25-15.  

We don’t want to shortchange Friday’s victory, so leading into tonight’s game, here are three observations from the past week or so, including the big win over the Spurs.

*The Sixers’ defensive rotations work very hard. You could say that the Spurs were just off of their game on Friday night, and that wouldn’t be completely inaccurate, but the Sixers’ defensive pressure and hustle on rotations absolutely played a part in that disruption. Last season, the Sixers had very little interest in closing the space on a rotation and an outside shooter. If, for example, Lou Williams were rotating out of help side to a corner shooter, he’d probably wait until the ball was on its way to the shooter before noticing the rotation. Half the time, the rotation didn’t even seem worthy of the effort and the close-out defender would just hang out in help side and allow a wide-open shot. The other times, it would be a late rotation and a half-hearted fly by. Neither disrupted the other team’s rhythm.

This year? The Sixers seem absolutely paranoid about closing out on shooters. And the intent of the rotation doesn’t seem only about challenging the shot, but actually making the shooter bring the ball down and take a dribble or make another pass. If you watch Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Jodie Meeks, Jrue Holiday, and Lou Williams, they’re so incredibly active when closing out, like they’re one small part of a whole and terrified of disappointing the collective. Beginning with training camp, Doug Collins has been using this analogy of keeping a team inside the fence (the three-point line), but outside the house (the lane), and making them shoot from the yard (approximately 14-19 feet away). You can actually see the Sixers processing this information on each defensive possession. You’ll often notice a defender assessing a player’s location and from where the shooter might be shooting. A game filled with 16-foot jumpers is a game the Sixers are going to win. On Friday night, the Spurs shot 3 for 17 from three. Not all of those misses were caused by the Sixers’ rotation. But more than you might think.

*Iguodala and Meeks. There was a play last week on the road against the Atlanta Hawks where Iguodala pushed the ball in transition and saw that Meeks was flying up the right side. Meeks wasn’t quite in perfect position yet, but you could see the angles were setting up so that he would be flowing perfectly into a defender’s blind spot if Iguodala could take one more dribble and draw another defender. Iguodala was watching Meeks out of the corner of his eye the entire play and he took the perfect dribble toward the right elbow on the break, drew the defender, and fired the pass to Meeks in the right corner. Meeks made the three. On Friday night, Iguodala drove the left baseline and, somehow, noticed that Meeks was drifting along the three-point line way out on the right wing. Pretty sure no one in the arena saw Meeks except Iguodala. Meeks made the three. Moral of the story? Iguodala loves playing with Meeks. Think back on the last few years: to whom would Iguodala kick the ball out after driving? Usually, to someone who would either miss the shot or not even find the open space to begin with. Meeks is the first solid perimeter option who can also defend, rebound a little bit, and create his shot in transition. For the past few weeks, Iguodala and Meeks have made a nice duo in the penetrate-and-spread-the-floor category.

*Interior play. The trading deadline is now 12 days away and the Sixers need to decide if they’re content with their interior presence. It’s pretty amazing that the Sixers defeated the Spurs despite being outrebounded 57-46 and giving up 15 offensive rebounds. If center Spencer Hawes (13 points and 8 rebounds) played every game like he did Friday night’s, then the Sixers would probably be OK to play out this year with these interior options. Hawes came up with a number of important rebounds and looked engaged the entire night. The only problem is, as anyone who regularly watches this team knows, this isn’t the way Hawes plays every game. And the Sixers can’t count on 31 good minutes a night from Hawes, which is the amount they received Friday. 

Let’s admit it, reserve Marreese Speights can’t be counted on in important games/moments. We saw on Friday night that Collins went with Daruis Songaila (who will play incredibly tough defense whenever called upon) despite Speights having more talent in his pinkie than Songaila does in his entire body. The Sixers’ interior options are: Brand (35 minutes a game), Hawes (inconsistent from night to night, anywhere from 15 minutes to 35), Tony Battie (spot minutes at important times), Speights (a wild card that makes you nervous), and Songaila (who will likely see spot minutes in the next 25 games).

If you operate under the assumption that the franchise is too intrigued by its core (Iguodala, Brand, Meeks, Holiday, Young, Turner, and Williams) to trade one of those pieces at this time, then the main trade assets are Jason Kapono’s expiring contract, Andres Nocioni, and (perhaps, but not certainly) Spencer Hawes. Or will the Sixers point toward the 22-15 record in their last 37 games and say, “Let’s let this thing keep rolling and see where we are in April.”


Each week, Kate will check in from the road and answer fan questions about the Sixers. Click here to ask Kate a question or e-mail her at kfagan@phillynews.com.

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