It's the All-Star break of this very interesting season. A few days to step back and evaluate what has happened and consider what might happen going forward.
The 76ers are 20-32, 5.5 games out of the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot. Considering the 12-game losing streak and the 7-22 record, this is not an awful place for the Sixers. Considering they were 41-41 last season and were thought to be on the improve, it's a pretty awful place.
Since this is the first real break in the schedule, it's the first time we can look back on the good and the bad (okay, perhaps there's more bad), and break down post-break possibilities. First, I'm currently looking at the results from the first 52 games. It really is surprising how many games the Sixers should have won. And we're not talking about that game against the Celtics and Cavaliers when they were ahead a few buckets going into the fourth quarter. We're talking games against bad teams with double-digit leads. Or games against decent teams that, looking back, should have been won. Here they are, in chronological order:
1.) Loss at Washington Wizards, 108-107, on Nov. 24: This is an important game for a couple of reasons. It's the first of three losses to the Wizards, all of which marked some pretty significant struggles for the Sixers. This was the one the Sixers led by about 10 points, it was the third loss of the 12-game losing streak. But, perhaps more importantly, it was the game in which LouWill broke his jaw, thus setting in motion the re-signing of Allen Iverson, which you can either consider the highlight of this season, or a setback to the growth of Williams and Jrue Holiday. You can't argue the blow this injury was to Williams' season and development. Record now if they'd won this game: 21-31.
2.) Loss at Charlotte Bobcats, 106-105, on Dec. 5: This was the last game of a road trip, after which was Iverson's return against the Denver Nuggets. Charlotte has turned out to be a decent team, but this was at the beginning, soon after their trade to get Jackson, and the Sixers were ahead 10 or 12 late in the fourth quarter. This was the 9th loss of the 12-game losing streak. Record now if they'd won: 22-30.
3.) Loss vs. Los Angeles Clippers, 112-107 (OT), on Dec. 19: I didn't cover this game, but I followed it on gameday. This loss was particulary troubling because the Sixers had had their first big victory of the season the game before, over the Boston Celtics at the Garden. I can't get into what happened at the end of the game, what I remember is that my gameday coverage said the Sixers had won at the end of regulation. Record now if they'd won: 23-29.
4.) Loss at Wizards, 105-98, on Dec. 22: In this one the Sixers were ahead 7 going into the fourth quarter and then gave up 33 points in the fourth, getting outscored 33-19. Losing this one gave the Sixers back-to-back losses to bad teams after beating the Celtics. This was also the game where you first started to hear some frustration about Eddie Jordan's rotations, with Elton Brand saying some guys had longer leashes than others. Record now if they'd won: 24-28.
5.) Loss vs. Wizards, 105-97, on Jan. 5: The third of three bad losses to Washington, the Sixers were ahead 58-44 at halftime. They gave up 60 points in the second half, including a 26-17 fourth quarter. This loss was also right after the Gilbert Arenas fiasco, so Washington had some distractions. Also of note, the Sixers had just returned from a West Coast trip that included wins over the Trail Blazers, Kings, and Nuggets, so there was some thought that maybe they'd make an earlier bid to get themselves back into "contention". This loss set them back a few pegs. Record if they'd won: 25-27.
6.) Loss at the Minnesota Timberwolves, 108-103 (OT), on Jan. 18: This is the granddaddy of all the losses. The Sixers were ahead 57-40 at halftime and led by as many as 23 points in the first half. Allowed a third quarter of 33-18 against Minnesota. Before this loss, they'd won 3 of 4 games. Record if they'd won: 26-26.
7.) Loss at Milwaukee Bucks, 91-88, on Jan. 27: Sixers seemed ready to cruise in the first half, building a 37-28 lead before shutting down for the next two quarters until a late-game run to get back in it. Watching this game, you could see this was a game the Sixers could have won in their sleep. Record if they'd won: 27-25.
Okay, so those are the 7 games I picked as really should-have-won games. If you go back and look through the schedule, there are other games that might qualify (the loss to the Toronto Raptors at home, when Bosh had that 3-point play at the end and the Sixers were ahead 60-49 at the half; the loss to the New York Knicks where David Lee hit a shot and then Rodney Carney missed a three). But those games weren't games you left thinking the Sixers had absolutely tanked, they were just games in which the other team made plays when needed.
Sixers record: 20-32. What, quite easily, could have been the Sixers record: 27-25.
For many of you that follow the team daily, a lot of this coverage is repetitive, but considering there's a 4-day lull in games or practices or new news, we're just going to have to repeat some of it. Looking at the first 52 games, and the below-average performance, here's the three reasons you could choose for this season's struggles.
1.) Coaching: This is an all-encompassing declaration, not just in-game moves and substitutions. When this season started, there was some skepticism about how Jordan's systems would fit this team, but there was time given to prove it could work. I think general consensus was there was a small chance the team would embrace it (say, 20 percent) and they'd really click: think Jason Kapono hitting threes, Andre Iguodala dunking on a backdoor cut, Lou coming off a handoff and slicing to the hoop. And there was a larger chance it was just too much of a stretch for the players on this roster and that we'd see something like a 7-22 start (okay, never thought it would be that bad), because there would be no direction or order. So, from the beginning, the team was behind the 8 ball. As the season progressed, it appeared to take 30-35 games to find a set rotation, which, from an outside perspective, cost the Sixers a number of games. Guys were playing, then not playing, playing well in the first half, then not seeing a minute of time in the second, and for that chunk of time, the rotation was 11 players.
Soon after that famous day at practice when Jordan used his quirky and quacky line, the rotation -- for whatever reason -- shortened. Jason Kapono and Jason Smith were out. This worked, not because those guys aren't good players, but beause there was definition of roles. In the recent winning streak of five games, there was nothing you could be upset about when it came to Jordan. Everything was smooth and the team was playing as well as it had this season. The pre-break scheduled ended on a rough note, for Jordan, when he pulled Brand at the start of the third quarter against the Raptors on Wednesday night. Jordan went instead with Royal Ivey (who was inactive for pretty much all of January). The move backfired. But more than just a loss, it sent the Sixers into the break with some frustration it probably needed to avoid. Brand said it perfectly after the game: We weren't down enough to change what we'd done during a five-game winning streak.
2.) End of game/Iguodala/point guard: Too many times, the Sixers settled for jumpers in end-of-game situations. Not just the final play of a game, but the important ones with around 90 seconds left and under. I couldn't even remember all the games/shots, just know there was a different vibe than at the end of games last season. For this, you can't look past Andre Iguodala. Last season, he seemed to have more confidence. He made more of these important shots. No, he didn't make all, but he came through at least a half a dozen times in the clutch. This season, he's still their go-to guy, and yet he's missed almost all of these shots and more free throws than fans care to remember. There even felt to be a certain stubbornness about the whole thing. The fans in the arena could feel it, those watching at home could as well: Despite it being a low-percentage shot, the Sixers kept taking them, kept going to Iguodala for a fadeaway. You can't blame this totally on Eddie Jordan. He sets up the play in the timeout, with many options, and he has to rely on his guys to execute the best option. That hasn't been happening much in those possessions. And that's cost the Sixers a handful of games.
We haven't talked that much about Andre Miller, but letting him walk seems like a mistake, especially considering Stefanski didn't sign a reliable, veteran backup, and then brought back Iverson (a year older than Miller). Miller is a professional point guard, with professional point guard skills. He controlled possessions when the Sixers held a lead. He controlled the last 2 minutes of a game. The Sixers have no one capable of doing that now.
3.) Ownership: We don't mean Ed Snider, although I get the vibe a lot of folks want to go there. This is just an actual sense of ownership from all 12 guys in uniform. Last season and the season before, there was a sense of building and responsibility: Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams, Marreese Speights, Iguodala, even Jason Smith, while injured. The responsibility was theirs and the goal was to make the playoffs and keep taking the franchise a notch higher each season. You could point towards a number of factors that cracked that foundation. Maybe hiring Jordan, because you knew he was coming in with a different philosophy, which might have, between the lines, been saying the team needed the "Princeton Offense" to make them better. Maybe the shuffling that's gone on this season: You'd be hard pressed to prove Young and Williams don't feel less involved now, not starting and sometimes playing less than 15 minutes. And, maybe, and we know this isn't popular, but bringing back Iverson and starting him all 22 games was an announcement that these players couldn't do it on their own. And maybe they couldn't.
This is a long blog post; let's make it longer.
Okay, looking forward. Thirty two games left. At this point, the Sixers will likely need to finish 21-9 to make the playoffs. Not impossible, but here's their schedule coming out of the break: vs. Miami Heat, vs. San Antonio Spurs, at Chicago Bulls, at Golden State Warriors, at Phoenix Suns, at Los Angeles Lakers, vs. Orlando Magic, at Atlanta Hawks, vs. Boston Celtics, at Toronto Raptors. Maybe we should talk after that little stretch and see what record the Sixers would need to finish with to make the playoffs. Best guess is that after those 10 games the Sixers will be 24-38 and would need to finish around 17-3 to make the playoffs.
That stretch is brutal, but the Sixers have a habit of playing well after the break. So maybe they'll finish that stretch 6-4 instead of 4-6, which would make them 26-36 and in need of finishing around 15-5 to make the playoffs.
Assuming no trade is made (that's another blog post entirely), and Iverson returns on Feb. 16 against the Miami Heat, what's this second half mean for the Sixers? Well, it should reveal a lot. Will Jrue Holiday get 30-plus minutes a game? Will Jason Smith (if his ankle is fine after the break) start to get some legit minutes? How will Brand's relationship with Jordan play out? What will the Sixers do with Iverson? Will he start? Whose minutes will he take?
Finishing one spot out of the playoffs is like being a top recruit's No. 2 school: it's the worst place to be. You get a couple of ping pong balls, likely end up with a middle-round pick, and get ready to do it all again next year. Therefore, it really feels like this second half of the season, beginning with the trade deadline, will be a crucial time for the franchise. Which way are they going? What changes -- if any -- will be made, ensuring next season is more successful? And success could take many forms.