Sixers Season Preview: Ten Relatively Attainable Goals for the 2011-12 Season

Sixers Season Preview: Ten Relatively Attainable Goals for the 2011-12 Season

This post originally went live on Friday, December 23rd, but with the Sixers kicking off their season tonight in Portland, we thought it worth revisiting.

Hey, basketball is starting! Really, free agency and the pre-season have
already happened and everything, and as of Christmas, teams are finally
going to start playing games of meaning. (Yeah, yeah, spare us the
"regular season is meaningless" crap—after over a half-year of no
basketball at all, it's good enough for now, anyway.) Your Philadelphia
76ers can enjoy a Christmas off—the NBA doesn't care enough about the
Sixers just yet to schedule them on their biggest marquee day/night of
hoops—but they get to work the following day, on the road against the
Portland Trail Blazers. From there, the team will play another 65 games
in a condensed regular-season schedule, and hopefully at least a handful
more from there in the post-season.

You don't need me to tell you that the 11th anniversary (the steel
anniversary!!) of the Sixers' last trip to the finals is not likely to
be commemorated with a return trip—the East is too top-heavy, and even
if everything goes right with the Sixers this season, the gap in talent
between them and the best teams is probably too great for the Ballers to
overcome. (If it's any consolation, it's not looking good for the
Lakers showing up in the last round either.) However, there are some
slightly more practical, attainable goals that we'd like to see the team
achieve—hopefully putting them in a position to get closer to playing
for the Larry O'Brien trophy next year. Here we go:

1. Get Above .500 and Stay There. Not since the halcyon days
of 2004-2005 have the Sixers finished with a winning—as in, not losing,
and not even—regular-season record. Last year a crushing home loss to
the Pistons in the final game of the season officially made it a
six-year streak of subpar and exactly par play from the Sixers, and
obviously we'd like it if this year we secured that plus-.500 record
before Game 82. (Err, Game 66. Whatever. Win more games than you lose,
guys.)

Not only do I believe this team to be well capable of getting
there—the consistency between this and last year's lineup, not to
mention the team's ten-man depth, should give them a huge advantage over
more slapdash-assembled, thin-rostered teams over the shortened
schedule—but the Mad Professor of ESPN Hoops, John Hollinger, agrees
with me. In fact, Holly believes the team to be headed for a 37-29 season—which
over 82 games would equate to something like 46-36—and the 5th seed in
the East. I'm not positive they'll get quite that far, but I think it's
possible, and 34 wins (the over-even benchmark) seems well in reach to
me. It's time to embrace winning at the Wells Fargo Center.

2. Stick with Dougie. Traditionally, things don't get really
bad for Doug Collins-coached teams until the third year, and while we'd
love to see Doug stick around even longer than that, for now, we're just
hoping that the team stays the course with him in year two. The rapport
he seemed to have with the team—and the rapport they built amongst
themselves while under his tutelage—was a joy to watch last year, and no
Sixers fan could deny that his influence on the team's on-court play
was a positive one as well. But no young team's patience lasts forever,
and the compressed season will not come without some real tests of
allegiance and character.

The locker room is one of the best things this team has going for
it, and that only lasts as long as the boys are unified under their
coach. If they can continue to improve with Dougie, and he hasn't shown
signs of outwearing his welcome at the end of the season, he just may be
the long-term answer at coach that we never thought he would be upon
his hiring two summers ago. (Until next year, anyway.)

3. Get Evan Turner Into the Starting Lineup By Year's End. I
like Jodie Meeks, and he'll undoubtedly play a part in whatever success
the team has this year, but you gotta believe that the team is still
better suited long term with Evan Turner getting the starting role. The
Extraterrestrial has looked poised and comfortable in the team's
pre-season games—not setting the court ablaze, exactly, but looking
light years ahead of where he was at this time last year. He appears to
have figured what not to do on the court—which may sound like damning with faint praise, but again, do you remember this guy's '10 pre-season?—now he has to actually figure out how to implement his considerable skill to the team's benefit.

Evan's not gonna be a star this year, and he won't shed the
draft-bust tag completely, but we do expect him to be a player in this
league, and more importantly, a real contributor to this team. He needs
to show Coach Collins that he can play 35 minutes a game, hit open
jumpers, create for teammates in the half-court, rebound and push the
ball in transition, and play tough team defense without missing
assignments getting into foul trouble. And once he does, Collins needs
to respond by trusting him in the starting lineup. Hopefully, this will
go hand in hand with goal #4:

4. Listen Carefully to Trade Deadline Deals for Andre Iguodala.
We've been saying it for years, and it never gets less true: Andre
Iguodala is not in this team's long-term plans, and he needs to be moved
sooner rather than later. You've seen it already this year, and though
you hate to read too much into two pre-season games, it's nothing we
didn't already know—despite being the best all-around player on the
Sixers, 'Dre's talents are largely superfluous on this team. Between
Thaddeus Young's scoring touch and Evan's playmaking and versatility,
the only thing we'd really miss of Iguodala's would be his lockdown
defense—and while that's certainly nothing to be sneezed at, it's also
something that can be found elsewhere for less than the nearly $45
million that 'Dre is still owed over the next three years.

Don't get me wrong, losing Iguodala would be a setback to the team
short-term, and might in fact be a direct contradiction to goal #1
should it happen well before season's end. But 'Dre's value will still
be high for certain contenders by the deadline, and hopefully we could
get back some other helpful pieces—draft picks? a young big man?—to make
it one step back, two steps forward in the long-term. And at the very
least, it would almost certainly help us with goal #5:

5. Maintain As Much Cap Flexibility as Possible. It's been a
while since anyone talked about about Philly as a hot free-agent landing
zone, and that probably won't change with the two big free agents next
summer (Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, though damn would the
latter be a nice acquisition), nor would the team be likely to have the
cap space to sign them anyway. But the team is still too far away from
title contention to just add role players and mid-level guys in the
hopes of them putting Philly over the top. So if no real
difference-makers are available, then screw it—keep growing the young
guys, sell off any of the higher-priced old guys you can, and wait until
the room and opportunity is there for the team to make a big splash.
Don't trade for Andray Blatche or Kevin Martin at the deadline just
because we can.

And for those of you who say that no way will Philly ever be a
player again for the big-name free agents—don't forget it was only three
years ago that we basically caught the biggest fish in the pond, even
if he did turn out to be kind of a bust. If the team continues to
improve, if they have the cap space, if they seem young and fun to play
with and the city finally starts to respond to 'em a little—why couldn't
it happen again? Speaking of which

6. Get the City to Show Its Love, For Real this Time. I have
no doubt that this team is going to be fun to watch this year. They're a
good group of guys with great on-court and off-court chemistry, and
they have hilariously dorky Twitter accounts where they talk about girls
and quote Drake and J. Cole lyrics to each other and such. In all
likelihood, this should be the best season the Sixers have had since
Iverson in his prime. Yeah, it might not be Chris Paul throwing
alley-oops to Blake Griffin-level excitement at the WFC, but if you ask
me, this city is running out of excuses not to support this Sixers team.
Though if you guys would rather just spend the next five months
debating What Went Wrong with the Eagles, I suppose that's your
prerogative.

7. Make a Case for Someone's All-Star Candidacy. Back to
Iverson—you know the Sixers haven't had a non-AI rep in the All-Star
Game since Dikembe Mutombo in '02? That's getting a little embarrassing,
and even if this isn't the year the streak is broken, I'd like for
someone to at least be in the discussion for once. The most likely
candidates seem to be Elton Brand, who got the slightest smattering of
honorable mentions last year, and might be discussed further this year
if the team starts out well and he remains their most consistent player,
or Jrue Holiday, who has the most breakout potential on the team. If
the Ballers are something like 22-15 and fighting for the fifth seed in
the East at the time of the break, while Jrue is averaging a 17 and 8 on
47% shooting, why wouldn't he be considered?

A lot would have to go right, but dammit, one of these years a lot has to go right. Right?

8. Find Out What, If Anything, We Have with Spencer Hawes.
There are really only two key players on the roster right now that the
Sixers will have to make decisions about next off-season—Jodie Meeks and
Spencer Hawes. With Jodie, it seems like we know what we've got—an
athletic, slightly undersized two guard who can hit open threes with the
best of them but doesn't have the best offensive instincts otherwise.
Whatever money we do or don't give him, we'll know what we're getting
for it. With Spencer, though, the promise remains tantalizing but
distant. In a perfect world, he could be an inside-out offensive threat
with a deft passing touch and an imposing (well, tall) defensive
center. In reality, he remains an inconsistent shooter, an erratic paint
presence, and a sloppy defender, both in team and one-on-one
capacities.

This year, his fifth in the league, is put up or shut up time for
Spencer Hawes. Either he starts to show some consistency on both ends of
the court, proving he can be trusted as a core rotation guy, or he's
just not worth the team's time and money. And while we hope it's the
former, we'd rather find out that it's the latter now than five years
and $30 million down the line.

9. Give 'Em Hell in the First Round. I'd love to say "Win a
first-round series," but I'm trying to stay practical here, and unless
we scrap our way to the fifth seed and catch the Celtics or Knicks at a
vulnerable moment, the second round still seems a year or two away for
me. But getting to the playoffs should be well within the team's
capabilities, and I think that once there, they can expand on last
year's good-show series against the Heat with one that actually pushes
the other team to six or seven games and forces the league to take the
Sixers seriously as a team on the rise in the East. If we did somehow
pull off an upset, hey, so much the better, but an improvement from last
year's elimination, however slight, is all that I'm asking for now, as
the team (hopefully) tries to clear the books a little and takes a stab
at the next big deal to take them to the next level.

10. Edge Our Way Into Next Year's Christmas Schedule. The
Sixers actually have six games on ESPN this year—though apparently none
until Mar. 2nd against the Warriors, for whatever reason. But it would
be nice if the league's newfound respect for Philly would extend to them
playing on Christmas next year, for the first time in who knows how
long. It's the only non-electronics-or-novelty-TV-shirt gift I'll ask for next December.

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Shayne Gostisbehere’s fist pump was so vicious and mighty, the celebration was probably felt back in Philadelphia.

This was an exultation the entire Flyers felt, too.

When it started to look like the bye week wasn’t the break they needed, the Flyers reached down deep and got one Sunday night at the Barclays Center in the form of a 3-2 overtime victory over the Islanders (see Instant Replay).

“It allows you to take a breath,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s one thing for sure.”

A sigh of relief for a team beaten and bruised — losers of three straight by a combined score of 15-4, not to mention 3-9-3 in its past 15 games. The Flyers had lost the day prior on home ice to the Devils, 4-1, with a performance not exactly inspiring confidence following five days off.

On Sunday, they trailed 2-0 in the second period.

“We've got to get better at dealing with adversity when something goes wrong,” general manager Ron Hextall said bluntly before the game. “We need to get back on the horse and get back going. Big deal, a team scored a goal. We need to react better to it.”

Finally, the Flyers reacted the way their GM had been hoping.

They flipped the deficit into a victory when Gostisbehere skated behind the net and put the puck on Claude Giroux’s stick for the game-winner with 1:40 left in the extra session. Gostisbehere whipped his arm through the air and embraced Giroux, along with Jakub Voracek, who started the play by stripping Islanders captain John Tavares.

“On a lot of different levels, it’s an important win,” Hakstol said. “It’s huge. And more importantly for us, a great effort. Thought we deserved the two points. Sometimes maybe that’s what it takes to get over the hump — a tremendous effort for 60-plus minutes. I thought we got that out of everyone tonight.”

For Giroux, it was his first goal since Dec. 21.

For Steve Mason, his first win since Dec. 21.

And for the Flyers, their first road victory since Dec. 14, as they went 0-6-3 in the previous nine games away from home.

Yeah, “it was needed,” as Wayne Simmonds said of the win.

“We’ve been fighting it lately and I thought that was a good game from start to finish,” he said. “I thought everyone played well. I think we made bounces go our way tonight instead of hoping and waiting.”

Simmonds scored what might have been the biggest goal of the game. The Flyers, down 1-0 in the second period, came up empty for 33 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play and the proceeding 5-on-4 advantage. The Islanders then padded the lead to 2-0 moments later, putting the Flyers’ backs against the wall.

But Simmonds kept his team from uncoiling with a goal at 14:10 of the period, giving the Flyers life at second intermission. If not for that score, who knows how the Flyers come out in the third period, trailing by multiple goals yet again.

"I think we were plying well,” Giroux said. “We had a lot of chances and [the puck] wasn't going in. Everybody on the bench was frustrated. When Wayne got that first goal, I think [there was] a little relief on the bench. I haven't seen a team celebrate so much just for a first goal. It was kind of a relief and we had a little boost out of that.”

Ivan Provorov scored the equalizer 1:47 into the final period when he maintained possession from the blue line to the circle, adeptly skating around two Islanders to put the puck on net. Provorov’s pass to Travis Konecny hit off the skate of New York’s Adam Pelech and into the net.

“I came off the bench and I saw [Brayden Schenn] was going into the zone, so I took a few hard strides, got the puck from him and I saw it was kind of an odd-man situation,” Provorov said. “I held on to the puck a little bit, saw T.K. going backdoor, passed it there and it went off their D skate.”

Just as important as the timely goals was the Flyers’ discipline. Against the Devils, the Flyers compiled 19 penalty minutes, forcing them on seven penalty kills. This time, the Flyers sharpened up, not allowing the Islanders a power play until midway through the third period. In total, they had just four penalty minutes and killed off both power plays faced.

That gave them a chance.

“We just kept saying it the whole time, ‘Keep going, keep going, guys,’” Simmonds said. “We just need one [goal] and from one comes two, and Mase held the fort.”

Mason made 17 of his 36 saves in the third period and overtime combined.

Now, the Flyers at least go into another important back-to-back — starting Wednesday at the Rangers before welcoming the Maple Leafs Thursday — with some confidence instead of a lost weekend.

“I thought the focus was purely on going out and playing well,” Hakstol said. “And you know, that’s harder to do than you might know — when you start to feel some of the pressure without a win in a little bit. I really liked that side of it. Even in that situation, all the guys played well. Hopefully that puts our entire team in the right direction.’’

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored two goals, Sidney Crosby added his league-leading 28th and the Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth straight game, 5-1 over the Boston Bruins 5-1 on Sunday.

Pittsburgh led 2-1 through two periods before breaking out in the third with three goals in a span of 2 minutes, 57 seconds.

Sheary scored his 17th and has nine goals in nine games. Bryan Rust added his 12th and Patric Hornqvist his 11th for the Penguins, who won a season-high seventh straight at home. Pittsburgh the NHL's best home team, is 13-0-1 in its last 14 home games.

Evgeni Malkin had two assists for a season-best seven-game point streak. Crosby added two assists for a three-point game. Matt Murray made 44 saves to win his fourth straight game.

David Krejci scored his 11th for the Bruins, who have lost four straight and five of their last six (see full recap).

Rangers shut out Red Wings in 1-0 OT win
DETROIT -- J.T. Miller scored at 1:56 of overtime to lift the New York Rangers to a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves for his second shutout of the season and 61st of his career. The Rangers managed only 19 shots in a game that featured few memorable chances by either team.

The winner came when Mats Zuccarello and Miller swooped in alone on Detroit goalie Jared Coreau. Zuccarello made a simple pass to Miller, who lifted the puck over Coreau for his 16th goal of the season.

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall played for the first time since Jan. 4, returning from a lower-body injury. The Red Wings put forward Drew Miller on waivers (see full recap).

Atikinson lifts Jackets over Senators in wild OT win
OTTAWA, Ontario -- Cam Atkinson's second goal of the game at 1:09 of overtime lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets a 7-6 win over the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.

Atkinson had a breakaway after a shot by Senators captain Erik Karlsson missed the Columbus net and went around the boards out to Atkinson, who was at center-ice.

The Blue Jackets trailed 5-3 after two periods before Lukas Sedlak and Matt Calvert scored 31 seconds apart to tie it less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third. Atklnson then gave Columbus a 6-5 lead with 9:10 remaining, before Kyle Turries tied it for Ottawa on the power play less than 2 minutes later.

Nick Foligno, Scott Harrington and Zach Werenski also scored for the Blue Jackets, and Joonas Korpisalo finished with 28 saves.

Zach Smith and Mike Hoffman each had two goals and Mark Stone also scored for the Senators. Mike Condon had 22 saves (see full recap).