Inside the Sixers: Difficult decisions ahead for Sixers

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Jason Kapono averaged 4.7 minutes per game this season and made $6.6 million. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)

Because the basketball itself was so entertaining, there wasn't much time this season to dive into the flaws with the Sixers 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 being set. And because coach Doug Collins brought to life a concept that for a long time was merely rhetoric - this team will play the kind of basketball that makes Philly proud - it seemed too negative to not go along for that ride, seemed necessary to wait until the end to address the question marks.

Forty-eight hours is long enough. We've all had a day to step 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 on Wednesday night against the Miami Heat.

There were backdoor passes, high-low cuts, well-executed transition breaks, and a style that is hardly ever seen in the NBA anymore.

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 that series turns out differently.

And future playoff series will, too.

It starts at the top - with Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, chief operating officer Peter Luukko, general manager Ed Stefanski, and president Rod Thorn.

It would be easy for them to hide behind Collins' coaching. He casts a big shadow. It's through his attention to detail, flexibility, and emotion and his basketball IQ that the Sixers were able to reach .500 and compete with the Heat (at least within games, if not in the overall series result). Because there is such good will and feeling for Collins, the Sixers brass could duck behind that and not make the difficult, risky decisions that must be made this offseason.

This season looks shiny and new because it's being compared to the previous 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 this season were on the books for about $70 million, which gave them the NBA's 12th-highest payroll. On average, the Sixers paid $4.64 million per player, including Antonio Daniels' end-of-season contract, and $4.97 million 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.

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 who 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 season), Andres Nocioni ($6.85 million), and Darius Songaila ($4.8 million). In Wednesday night's Game 5 against the Heat, Kapono and Songaila were inactive and Nocioni received a DNP-CD (did not play - coach's decision). The league's best teams don't have $18 million of useless contracts sitting on the end of the bench.

In essence, Collins coached a $50 million roster 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 (about $44 million). Those numbers should give an even better appreciation for what Collins and the core of this roster accomplished.

Stefanski has indeed put together a group of young players that is impressive - Stefanski gets the credit because Thorn hasn't executed many moves. The trade to acquire guard Jodie Meeks before last season's trading deadline was shrewd. 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. The trade of center Samuel Dalembert was made out of necessity, so it's difficult to say whether it was good or bad. Getting rid of Dalembert was the main objective. But the hiring of the previous season's coach, Eddie Jordan, set this franchise back two seasons and cost millions of dollars.

Management cannot hide behind Collins' coaching job. Collins took this job with an open mind. He had no preconceived notions about which 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 anointed him a star. Yes, they have an emotional attachment to him - a blind spot, really - and want to make him into the star they promised he was destined to become when they offered him that $80 million contract.

This is not just about Iguodala, although it is time for his exit. It's an example of one potential offseason move that shouldn't be muddied by management retroactively trying to prove itself right.

Collins hid a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes are still there and they will pull this franchise down if those in charge don't release the old vision for this team and embrace the new.

 


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DeepSixer3 and read her blog, Deep Sixer, on Philly.com