Tonight, the Philadelphia 76ers face off against the New Jersey Nets in their tenth-to-last game of the regular season. The questions for the Sixers going this game are many: How will the club handle Nets star point guard Deron Williams after he expoded for 34 and 11 in the first matchup between the teams? Will there be changes to the starting lineup, which Coach Collins threatened if the team couldn't get it together on Sunday against the Celtics? Will Nik Vucevic, who saw extended game action in Boston for the first time in two weeks, continue to get minutes?
All worthwhile questions. But another, more urgent, and significantly more depressing question looms over all: Who cares?
The Sixers have now lost four straight games, and ten of their last 14, in the midst of the most critical stretch of their season. They've fallen all the way to the eighth seed, three behind the surging Boston Celtics, with their first Atlantic Division crown in a decade basically out of reach. They'll have even more difficulty catching Orlando for the sixth seed (four games up on Philly), and they're just one game up on ninth-seeded Milwaukee, so now the only real question facing the team is whether they push for the seventh seed (and face a likely quick slaughter by Miami), try to hang in the eight seed (and face a likely more extended slaughter by Chicago), or drop out of the race altogether (and likely get another middling draft prospect).
If you're not holding your breath in anticipation of which of the three paths the teams ends up taking, you will not be faulted by this blog.
When the Sixers started the 2011-12 season with a 20-9 record, including wins over the Hawks, Magic, Pacers, Lakers and Bulls, people actually did care. There was a buzz around this team like there hadn't been since the Iverson era, not just in Philadelphia, but around the league, where the Sixers were finally being talked about in columns by national publications, topping ESPN stat expert John Hollinger's early Power Rankings and getting some long-overdue games on ESPN and NBA TV. It looked like even if they couldn't push Miami or Chicago for the conference championship, they'd at least be able to contend for a bit in the post-season, maybe even get that first playoff series win since 2003. At the very least, the prospect of meaningful post-season games was exciting.
Now, all that is over. The Sixers have bottomed out, and even though their late-blooming version of bottoming out isn't as miserable as the season-long bottoming out of the Bobcats and Wizards, it's arguably even worse, since there's no light of a top-flight draft pick at the end of the tunnel for the Sixers this year. Hollinger, once the Sixers' biggest proponent, just wrote a column about how real (though once unlikely) the possibility is of them missing the playoffs. The guys over at The Basketball Jones spent much of their last podcast talking about how they hope the team misses the playoffs because they're depressing to watch now, and they even suggested that Sixers fans probably feel the same way.
They might be right. I mean, I'm not sure I want to watch this team in the post-season, are you? I definitely don't want to see them face the Heat again—I already re-watched that movie over the course of their four-game season-series this year, and I liked the ending even less the second time around. If we faced the Bulls at eight, that might be preferable, since this team has played the Bulls tough (even winning an early-season game) and might be able to push them to five or six games, but how much do we really want another moral-but-not-actual post-season victory these playoffs? Wasn't this supposed to be the year that we actually played to, you know, actually win a series or two?
Really, at this point, maybe it would be best for the team to let the Bucks have the last spot in the East. At least then, not only would our draft slot be higher, but the embarrassment of missing the playoffs just a couple months after it looked like they would cruise to the Atlantic Division title would force the team's front office to make the hard decisions that it's delayed making for the last two seasons of surprise almost-contention. That includes: Finally finding a trade partner for Andre Iguodala and/or Elton Brand, re-evaluating Lou Williams' role on a rebuilding team and possibly letting him walk if he opts out of his contract in the off-season, and assessing Jure Holiday and Evan Turner's ability to co-exist as team fixtures in the backcourt, and looking to move one of them if they are deemed incompatible.
Tall order. But as so many Sixers fans and writers have cried over the years, this team has to do something to avoid spending the next five years where (with the exception of the dismal '09-'10 season) they've spent the last five—in the middle. Cutting ties with the team's expensive veterans and handing the keys to Jrue and Evan would likely result in the team missing the playoffs next year, and it might also frustrate Coach Collins to the point where his position becomes untenable, but it's what the team has to do. They've not close enough to contending, and they probably won't ever be with this core—the last 14 games have proven that. It's time to rip it up and start again.
The thing that's really so disappointing about all this is that for a minute there, it looked like we were on our way to experiencing what all sports fans dream about—getting to watch a young, largely homegrown team take that collective leap to realized potential. Even better, we did it without a superstar, proving all sorts of basketball truisms about being unselfish, playing together as a unit and allowing the team to become something more than the sum of its parts. It felt unreal, and that's because ultimately, it was unreal—the team wasn't as good as it looked then, they were just better-prepared for the 66-game season than a lot of other teams, and they were building momentum against a lot of really messy, subpar competition. We always knew that was true to some extent, only now do we realize how true the full extent really is.
Does that mean that I'm rooting for them to tank the rest of the season? Nah. I still refuse to root against my team from game to game, and never will advocate doing so. I wish the team the best over the final ten games, and if they can get some momentum going into the playoffs and clinch the team's first winning season in seven years in the meantime...I don't think it'll end up resulting in much, but good for them. I can't really blame the team for the season ending up so disappointing—this is just how good a team they really are—and really, I can't even blame the front office for seeing the shortened season and trying to gain an advantage by returning all last year's team players, hoping their pre-established chemistry and young legs would be enough to separate from the pack while everyone else struggled with new lineups, out-of-shape veterans and a lack of practice time. Hell, it almost worked.
What matters now isn't what happens in the final ten games, or in the playoffs, or even on draft night in June. What matters is what happens the rest of this off-season, and whether the front office starts to take the difficult-but-necessary steps to get this team out of the middle class—first in one direction, then hopefully in the other. And that means not passing on trade offers for Andre Iguodala, regardless of how much of an immediate negative they are for the team, and that means probably not giving Spencer Hawes a long, cap-clogging extension (though with his awful play these last few weeks, it's doubtful our one-time MIP candidate could really get that much on the open market no
w anyway), and that means definitely NOT re-signing or extending Lou Williams if he decides he wants out.
Most importantly, it means acknowledging, in some way, shape and/or form, that this team at its core always will be what it always has been—a middle-of-the-pack, totally directionless basketball team, simultaneously too good and not good enough. I'm not saying that we have to bottom out Wizards/Bobcats-style, even—though it would hurt without Iguodala, Brand and/or Williams, the team does have enough young talent that it could theoretically stay competitive—but as people at this blog and elsewhere have been saying for years, we need to get as young and cheap as possible to either grow through the draft, or have the flexibility to acquire one of those first-option-type scorers the Sixers have lacked since AI, or a big-man anchor they haven't had since Mutombo. (Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert, possible respective examples of each, are both restricted free agents this off-season. Neither are necessarily the answer for Philly, and I doubt the club will actively pursue either, but they're the type of players the team should be looking at.)
It was a fun season, all told. And theoretically, it's possible that something will happen over the next ten games to add a little more spice to the team's playoff run—maybe Evan Turner will rip off another four-game stretch like the one he had a month ago that'll make him a player of interest in the post-season, or maybe Spencer Hawes will end his contract year by healthening up and regaining the stroke he had at season's beginning, or maybe Lou Williams will decide "F--- it, these losers have been holding me back all year" and go off for 57 points on 53 shots one game. But while I'll probably write another eulogy for this team once it's officially eliminated from the post-season, the season really died Sunday night in Boston when the team desperately needed a win to and couldn't even come close. Let's just hope the season didn't die in vain.