One of the main reasons the 76ers got off to their hot start this season was that they were a young, high-energy team with players who were familiar with one another. Because there were not significant offseason moves, the team was able to come out of the chute with engines at full throttle.
Certainly, a favorable schedule helped, but the team's play was the major reason. On many nights there's been more energy, more contributors - and more youth.
Coming into the season, much was expected of third-year point guard Jrue Holiday and second-year swingman Evan Turner. Holiday was billed as a star for years to come, labeled by coach Doug Collins as perhaps a top-five player at his position in the not-too-distant future. After Turner struggled in his rookie season, his offseason also provided rays of hope, with his work with shooting guru Herb Magee and the budding confidence he exhibited from the moment training camp started.
Though the team entered last night's game with an impressive 20-10 record, the Sixers had lost three of five, and the play of Holiday and Turner has raised concerns among fans and perhaps even the coach.
Following Wednesday's loss in Orlando, in which Holiday was particularly woeful with five turnovers and only one field goal in eight attempts in 25 minutes, Collins was asked whether it was something Orlando did or whether Holiday was just struggling. He couldn't answer, though his look spoke volumes. Reading into it, it appears as if the coach isn't exactly happy with his point guard's play of late.
In that game, Turner saw his most extensive action in some time, logging almost 26 minutes and grabbing eight rebounds. For a handful of prior games, Turner mostly watched from the bench as Andre Iguodala gobbled up big minutes and Jodie Meeks stayed on the court for longer amounts of time.
Collins explained all was good, but again, reading into the situation, it wasn't hard to see the coach couldn't have been happy with Turner's play, either.
It is impossible to say where a young player should be in his growth at a certain point in his career. Should Holiday be a 17-point, eight-assist guard who should be running Collins' motion offense efficiently? That's what many expected. At this point of Turner's career with the Sixers, should his play have made it clear he should be the starter instead of Meeks? Again, expected by many.
But what probably hurts these two most is this crazy season. Holiday and Turner haven't had much of a chance to get better this season because there hasn't been time to correct mistakes, to be taught by their coach.
Collins was asked whether this condensed schedule, caused by the lockout, which doesn't permit not only normal practice time but hardly any practice time, is tougher mentally on the younger players than on more experienced ones.
"I think so, I think so," he said. "You know, I'll have to see as we continue to go along. The mental fatigue wears on you in a different way. Physically, you can get yourself through, but the mental fatigue is just that day-to-day preparation and getting the energy. To me, there's mental energy and physical energy. In some way, your older players are able to summon it, because they've been around longer and they know what they have to do, and they pick and choose their spots and all. When you have more experience, you can get by by using less energy and simply being in the right spot and not making the mistakes that maybe the younger guys are making until they learn how to do that.
"This has defitintely been a different year. For me, it's been tough simply because we have so many young guys and I feel like I can't teach. That's the thing that has really hurt us. On one side you have younger guys, maybe fresher legs, maybe bounce back a little sooner. But when I look out there at our team and all the guys on our team that are still 23 and younger . . . We haven't had a practice. I hate just coaching games. For me, the fun of the NBA is being on the practice floor and working with guys and watching them get better. And this is a season that, once we got out of training camp, it was almost like, 'Let's keep our guys as fresh as possible.' We've given our guys more days off this year than I've ever dreamed of as a coach. But we're just going to stay with our philosophy that at the end of the year that's going to pay dividends, that if we can keep our guys fresh, and especially mentally, we're going to win games."
This is not to say that Holiday and Turner haven't played well. It's just that the flashes they've shown were expected to be more than just flashes at this point. Perhaps that was unfair under normal circumstances, maybe even more so because of the circumstances of this season.
"They both play very well," said an NBA scout. "The Sixers, I think their success is based on the sum of their parts and those two guys have a huge role in those parts. I think Lou Williams is a talented player and his emergence as the go-to guy takes away from what the other two guys could do. Let's say he sprains an ankle or something, then you're going to expect a lot more of Holiday and Turner as far as numbers go.
"I think Holiday has had a very good year, playing over 30 minutes a game, playing defense, scoring. I know there's not a whole lot of eight-, nine- or 10-assist nights, but you have to remember this is a team with multiple secondary playmakers. Andre Iguodala's best asset is passing the ball - besides his defense - and when he's getting assists, others don't. I always come back to end results. Holiday and Turner are part of a group that is 20-10 [entering last night ]and further along than anyone expected.
"Turner would like to play more. But if you take Iguodala off the floor, you don't win that Laker game last week. You need Holiday on the floor late and [Lou] Williams and maybe Meeks and a big guy, so right now that leaves Turner off the floor sometimes. But he's good. He has the third most rebounds on that team in only 24.4 minutes. This team isn't about individuals, it's about the sum. Those two are a big part of a very good sum right now."
The news just keeps getting worse regarding starting center Spencer Hawes. At yesterday morning's shootaround, it was announced that Hawes is in a walking boot for his strained left Achilles' and that he would wear it for 2 more weeks. Hawes will visit Dr. Richard Ferkel at the Southern California Orthopedic Institute during the All-Star break to get a second opinion.
"That's where it is," coach Doug Collins said. "It's been my experience that being around it as I have that when you put a boot on, for every day you have that boot on it's 2 more [to recover] once you get out. Because your leg will atrophy and you can't do the strength stuff. So they don't want him to do too much on it right now. When you immobilize something and you can't use it, especially as a professional athlete; the atrophy and how quickly things set in are really quick. If Spencer's in this boot for a week or 10 days, I would expect him to be out a little while. In a year like this, especially with bigger guys, the healing time and the minute you go play again, I was worried that this was what was going to happen."