Is This the Worst Sixers Season of the Post-Iverson Era? Comparing '12-'13 to '09-'10

Is This the Worst Sixers Season of the Post-Iverson Era? Comparing '12-'13 to '09-'10

You know this Sixers team has hit its low point when their badness is
getting national media attention. Zach Lowe of Grantland had an excellent column yesterday
calling out the hypocrisy of Coach Collins' recent throwing of his team
under the bus in his conference after the Orlando drubbing, pointing
out how unreasonable it was to complain about personnel moves and
on-court execution when, in fact, Collins has had a large (and some
would say final) say in just about all roster decisions made by the
Sixers in the last few years, and his inefficient offensive gameplan
puts his players in a very poor position to have any kind of sustained
success. (To which, just about every Sixers writer on the internet
responded: "THAT'S WHAT WE'VE BEEN SAYING FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS!!")


It's all fair, and it's pretty clear that even though the Sixers are
still only five games out of the playoffs, and tied for the ninth spot
in the Eastern Conference, their season is already good as over—minus
seeing whether or not The Funny-Looking Kid With the Big Hair makes an
on-court cameo at season's end. Without any expectation of a late surge,
it's officially OK to declare this season a tremendous
disappointment—very possibly the most disappointing Sixers season in
recent memory—and start to wonder: Is this the worst season we've had since AI left?


When considering this question, there's really only one season
to provide competition—2009-10, the Sixers' only season under the
stewardship of ex-Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. That year, the Sixers
finished with one of the worst records in the Eastern Conference, lucked
out in the lottery (though, in retrospect, perhaps not as much as we
thought at the time), and so lost their way as a franchise they needed
to bring in a hard-headed, experienced disciplinarian such as Collins
the next season to get the team back on track.


So which season was more despairing, more miserable, more impossible to see the positive in? Let's break it down.

1. Worse Overall Record.
The '09-'10 Sixers started mediocrely enough, winning five of their
first 11, before the bottom fell out and the team lost 12 in a row. They
showed a little life during a five-game winning streak in February, but
otherwise were consistently subpar for the entire season, ending with a
27-55 record.


Bad as this year's team has played recently, thanks largely to a
fools' gold 10-6 record to start the season, it'll be tough for them to
beat that record, as the team currently sits at 22-33, needing to go
5-22 for the rest of the season to match '09-'10's futility. Not
impossible, but harder than you'd think, especially with two games each
against the Bobcats and Cavaliers coming up.


Edge: 2009-10 (For Now)

2. Loftier Pre-Season Expectations.
Coming off two straight playoff appearances (and two first-round
exits), the Sixers were expected to contend for a playoff spot in the
East in '09-'10, but with point guard (and arguable team MVP for at
least one of the previous two seasons) Andre Miller departed for
Portland and sixth man Lou Williams taking over responsibility at the
point, nobody expected really big things from these Sixers. My old NBA
Preview issue of SI from 2009 (yes, I hold onto those, apparently)
pegged them to finish tenth, and in my own season preview,
I expected them to finish at around .500. They fell short of both of
those, natch, but expectations were never particularly high.


The same can not be said, sadly, for 2012-13. Most of us at least
expected the addition of Andrew Bynum to make the team nationally
relevant again, and thought that if a couple breaks went their way, they
could maybe reach up to first-round home-court advantage in the
playoffs. (Some wondered if they could even dethrone the Heat in the
East, and ridiculous as that kind of speculation always was, the fact
that it was there at all tells you something.) We expected the team to
be good enough to make people care again, and instead, they're more of
an afterthought than ever. That's pretty disappointing.


Edge: 2012-13

3. More Dispiriting Lack of Player Development.
At the end of my aforementioned '09-'10 preview, I predicted that this
would surely be the year that Andre Iguodala would become an All-Star,
and a franchise player. It made sense at the time, Iguodala coming off
his best offensive season in '08-'09, and showing flashes of being a
true big-game, give-me-the-ball player in the team's first-round playoff
series against the Orlando Magic. It didn't work out that way—'Dre's
scoring numbers sagged without Miller, and his ability in clutch
situations would consistently prove to be lacking. Thaddeus Young's
numbers also dipped considerably under Eddie Jordan, and Elton Brand
proved that '08-'09 was no fluke—he just wasn't the guy the Sixers
thought they were spending $80 million on in free agency.


If you're looking for a parallel to 'Dre on the '12-'13 season, it'd
have to be Evan Turner, who a couple ESPN pundits actually tagged as a
likely Most Improved Player candidate. They looked smart for a couple
months, but Evan slowed down in a big way in the New Year, his numbers
rebounding to earth so dramatically that you have to wonder if he's even
really evolved from last year at all. It's dispiriting, sure, but most
of our expectations were already fairly tempered with ET going into the
season—we've long since trying to predict anything with Evan—so it
doesn't really stand up to 'Dre proving that he just didn't have it.


Edge: 2009-10
 

4. Most Embarrassing Subplot.
The '09-'10 season, lest we forget, shouldn't technically even be
counted as part of the post-Iverson era, since Iverson was actually on
the team for most of that year. Ed Stefanski signed AI about a month
into the '09-'10 season, when it became quickly clear that the Sixers
didn't have the juice to be a post-season contender as previously
constituted, and he was greeted with the welcome of a returning hero,
hoping his scoring punch (and presumed newfound maturity) would be able
to redeem the Ballers' season. Instead, the slowed, aged Iverson proved
an almost entirely inconsequential presence, never scoring more than 23
in a night and going down for the season after just 25 games. The
signing was revealed to be exactly what it always was—a desperation
move.


Still, as embarrassing as that was, it's nothing compared to Bynum.
The bowling, the hair, the lawsuits...and all without so much as suiting
up for a game for the Sixers, at least not yet. The only way the
situation with TFLKWTBH could be any more humiliating is if he left the
Sixers holding the bag at the end of the year, which he very well may
do. It's some sickening shit.


Edge: 2012-13


5. Most Infuriating Individual Player.
Thank God that '09-'10 was the last season as a Liberty Baller for
center Samuel Dalembert, whose absolute refusal to play within himself
on offense and seeming inability to play smart on defense made him the
hardest-to-watch Sixer of the '07-'10 era. Sammy D did go on an
impressive rebounding tear at the beginning of 2013, but it rarely felt
like he was actually helping the team win games, and going into the '10
off-season, a lot of us were calling for moving Dalembert to be the
team's number-one priority.


Few of us could have guessed that the placer who would be brought in
to replace Dalembert—Spencer Hawes, who the Sacramento Kings
essentially swapped for Sammy D in Summer '10. After a couple years of
promising-but-inconsistent play, Hawes officially wore out his welcome
in Philly with his impossibly soft (or just insufficient, if you don't
want to make it an issue of toughness) play in the '12 post-season,
which has carried over into the '13 regular-season, where he still
refuses to rebound or play interior defense consistently and now also
holds the distinction of being grossly over-payed after signing a
two-year, $13 million contract. For me, I doubt I'll ever hate watching
any player as much as I hated watching Dalembert, but objectively
speaking, I acknowledge this one is anyone's game.


Edge: Even

6. More Demoralizing Coaching Drama.
As badly as the first and only season under Eddie Jordan went for the
Sixers, if you actually asked me to name three things that happened with
Eddie Jordan over the course of '09-'10, I doubt I could. All I have in
my memory is the uninspiring image of a well-dressed Jordan on the
sideline, looking mildly perturbed as the Sixers fumbled around with
their approximation of a Princeton offense that they probably were never
particularly well-equipped to run. Still, in terms of drama, the season
was fairly lacking, at least by 27-55 teams' standards.


You get the sense that Sixers fans will remember this season with
Coach Collins a little bit more clearly, though. The falling out between
team and coach has been an ugly one, and it's not even close to
through, with plenty of time and reason to get worse still before
season's end. Collins might even leave as his lasting legacy the Sixers
becoming the lowest free-throw-shooting team in NBA history, and poetic
as that may be, it's really not what we thought Collins would be
remembered for in this city when he was a Coach of the Year candidate a
couple seasons ago.


Edge: 2012-13

7. Less Excitement for the Future.
It wasn't until the Sixers landed the #2 pick in the lottery that it
seemed like 2009-2010 would be redeemable as a season—with regression
from Iguodala, Young, and even second-year forward Marreese Speights,
the lone real bright spot of the Sixers' long-term outlook that season
was rookie point guard Jrue Holiday, whose stat line was hardly
eye-popping—eight points and four assists on 44% shooting—but still, you
could just tell from his poise and his craftiness at 19 years old that
the kid was gonna be special. It wasn't enough to make us think the team
was gonna be just fine, but it was better than nothing.


Still, if there's one advantage the '12-'13 season really has over
'09-'10, it's the still-lingering feeling of hope. As miserable as the
season has been for the Sixers, at least they're not strapped with the
albatross-type contracts for Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala that the
'09-'10 was saddled with. Indeed, their two best players (Jrue and Thad)
are locked up with very reasonable contracts, and everybody else on the
team besides Jason Richardson sees their contract expire this summer or
the next. The team has legitimate young talent—even a 22-year-old
All-Star with the Damaja—and plenty of flexibility moving forward. As
bad as this season has been, the malaise doesn't have to extend to
future seasons, necessarily.


Edge: 2009-2010

So after evaluating seven categories,
it's 3.5 to 3.5 between '09-'10 and '12-'13. Does that mean the two
seasons are exactly equal in their misery, then? Well, not necessarily,
because there's still one huge variable still in play—The Funny-Looking
Kid With the Big Hair. If he plays at the end of the season, even if its
just in 15 games and he's not close to 100%, it could still be enough
to give this season a belated, underwhelming sense of
purpose—especially, of course, if he re-signs in the summer—that the
'09-'10 season will forever lack. However, if he never does suit up this
season, and never plays a game as a 76er, then the permanent black
cloud of that will make the season easily the most depressing of the
two.


Time will tell. And in the meantime, it's a reason—maybe the only
reason—to keep from writing off this season entirely just yet.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”