Since I'm currently on the train down to Washington D.C., it seems appropriate to take a look at the 76ers upcoming road trip, which kicks off tonight at the Washington Wizards. And it also seems appropriate to discuss the Sixers' first 27 games, which is almost exactly 1/3 of this season.
The Sixers' 7 wins: New Jersey Nets (2), New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats, Golden State, and Boston Celtics.
Not exactly overwhelming stuff: on pace for a 21-61 season. Maybe I'm an eternal optimist, but I'd be shocked if this team finished with only 21 wins. There's just no way. But anyway, let's look at how this team, a 1/3 into the season, managed to be the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference (only team worse is the New Jersey Nets). Here's the take:
1.) The "offense": Theoretically, and on paper, you could think Eddie Jordan's offense makes perfect sense for this team. Somehow in execution, it has fallen through. I'd like to explain the offense and what options the Sixers are using, but since they signed Allen Iverson, they've been running even less of it than they were previously running. There's one recognizable play: when Lou Williams or Willie Green curls off a staggered screen and gets a handoff. That was the Sixers favorite early-season play. Lately, they're not really running Jordan's offense. From having watched one specific shootaround during the preseason (@ the New Jersey Nets in Queens), it felt like the team wasn't necessarily buying into the offense. They seemed overwhelmed by all the play calling and offensive options. Nothing kills a team like guys not buying into what's being done. None of the players have ever said anything about Jordan's offense, but you can't help but feel like -- from watching -- they are less than enthused. We'll see though, going forward. It's tough to truly tell because when Jordan coached the Washington Wizards, they were awful his first season as well.
2.) The "defense": (never a good thing when you're having issues with both your offense and defense). When talking about the hit the Sixers defensive abilities have taken, I go back to something Andre Iguodala said after maybe the 7th or 8th game of the season. Standing in the Sixers locker room, he said "We've been too concerned with learning the offense, we need to get back to focusing on defense." That's a pretty straight forward, innocent statement. It also reveals a lot. The Sixers have the same players they had last year (Andre Miller wasn't a lock-down defender, although he was good in help side), the difference seems to be the mentality and focus on defense. I don't know exactly how much time the Sixers spend each practice on defense. But if you look at all the moves they've made -- adding Iverson, talking about playing a matchup zone, talking about the offense, talking about starting a backcourt of Lou and AI -- the No. 1 concern does not seem to be defending.
So there you have it. The Sixers aren't executing the offense, an offense that has been taking a lot of energy to learn, taking away the Sixers' defensive presence. The result? Struggling to score, little ability to defend, lots of losses.
3.) The rotation. It seems like the last couple of games, Jordan has found more production off the bench -- as well as limiting his rotation. Jordan has Elton Brand and Marreese Speights coming off the bench and producing. Before that, the bench was absolutely non-existent. So at least there's some improvement in off-the-bench output, although it's been created by moving a starter (Brand) to the bench and keeping your best center (Speights) out of the starting lineup. Kind of a false way of improving the bench, but still ...
As for the Brand situation, I gather there are some folks who think Jordan is making a terrible decision by bringing Brand off the bench, while other folks realize he doesn't fit this team and this is just the first step in -- people hope -- trading him. My opinion is somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the latter. Brand doesn't fit this team, he didn't last year and he doesn't this year. My guess is he wouldn't dispute this statement, either. He does put up numbers, but at what cost? I don't think there's a clear-cut answer to the Brand issue yet. It's definitely an issue, though.
As far as the rotation, I have no idea what it was. One week, Rodney Carney was the second coming, a week later, he doesn't play at all. One game, Jason Kapono is the main man, the next, he's not checking in until the third quarter. There's no stability -- until recently -- about where minutes are coming from and why. As for Jason Smith, who knows what's going on. One game he was left on the bench as Primoz checked in. (Why Primoz would ever go in before Smith is a wonderful question). There aren't answers to the rotation, but now that Jordan has Speights and Sweet Lou back, there does seem to have been a tighter rotation. Hopefully that will help going forward.
4.) Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala. Their numbers are fine. Young is averaging 15.8 points a game, Iguodala 19.6 points a game. But Young's numbers are deceiving. If you look at his last last few weeks, he's scoring a much higher percentage of his points in the first half, and shooting much better in the first half as well. Last season, Young was impressive and seemed poised to break out. This season, Young has blended in much more, despite a few games where he looked like himself. It's nothing you can really explain, but if you watched all of the Sixers games this season, you know as well as I do that Young has not been the same player he was last year. It might be because he's no longer taking defenders by surprise. It might be because he was playing small forward for the beginning of the season after scoring at will against power forwards last season. Even when he's making shots, he's not looking like the same Thaddeus Young.
As far as Iguodala, he would be the perfect player for this team if he averaged 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists a game. The 19.6 points on 42.4 percent shooting is a stretch. If you give a few of Iguodala's shots -- preferably the off-balance leaning jumpers -- to Lou Williams and Marreese Speights, the Sixers would be more efficient on offense. Williams and Speights are the go-to scorers. Iguodala is the all-around guy. We all know this anyway.
Maybe because I was off for the Los Angeles Clippers game so my last memory of this team is the win over the Boston Celtics, or maybe because it's the holiday season and I'm hoping not to follow a 21-61 team this year, but for whatever reason the Sixers do seem better the last couple of weeks: the sub rotation is tighter, the Princeton Offense has been scrapped, Speights and Lou are back, the team seems like it's going at least in the right direction (although it was hard to go any farther in the direction they were traveling).
That brings us to this 6-game road trip and what to expect, if you can actually expect anything from such an unpredicatable team. Here's the lineup: Washington tonight, at the Utah Jazz on the 26th, at the Portland Trailblazers (what's up Andre Miller) on the 28th, at the Sacramento Kings on the 30th, at the Clippers on the 31st, at the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 3.
Tonight's game has to be a victory. Looking at all 6 games, You have to think the Sixers can win tonight, at Sacramento, and at the Clippers. 3-6. So if you don't get tonight's game ... hmmmmm. If Sixers finish the trip 3-3 (*thanks for the heads up on my mistake earlier, HB3), they'll come home 10-23. Which isn't very good, but in the Eastern Conference doesn't put you out of the playoffs, either. There's also a stretch when they get home that's Wizards, Pistons, Kings, Knicks, Raptors -- a stretch you think has some winnable games in it.
Which brings us to the final topic of this blog: Allen Iverson. Iverson is out with arthritis in his left knee until the Dec. 28th game against the Portland Trailblazers. All is fine and well for these next two games. Jordan can start a lineup of Jrue Holiday, Williams, Iguodala, Young, and Samuel Dalembert. (By the way, we all know Speights should be starting, but if Jordan expects to get anything out of Dalembert, he has to keep him in the starting lineup.) But Iverson said something interesting yesterday at practice. When asked if he expected his minutes to be limited when coming back, Iverson said he hopes they aren't. He said he's been playing 6-8 minute stretches, but when he comes back maybe he can play the entire 1st quarter, then sit some of the 2nd. His response sounded very much like he absolutely expects to start when he returns. That means, most likely, Holiday is booted from the starting lineup. Here's my take on that: Holiday.
Jordan has somewhat of a backlog now at guard: Lou, AI, Holiday, Green. Jordan has already moved Green out of the starting lineup, replacing him with Williams. So we know Green is the odd man out there. No need to further get into this topic, yet.
So, bottom line of this 7-20 start? Gut reaction is that both Eddie Jordan and the Sixers got sold a bill of goods that wasn't delivered. Looks like Jordan thought he was inheriting a team that was ready to learn this Princeton Offense and was fit for the job. He comes in and maybe people weren't as receptive as he thought or was told they would be. Looks like the Sixers thought they were getting a guy who could make this Offense put up big numbers, while still keeping the defense at its previous levels. Neither of those things happened -- so far anyway. And the result has been disastrous (if you're a Sixers fan).
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Thus concludes this epic post, which has taken an entire train ride to D.C. Tonight's game scheduled to tip off around 7:12 p.m.