The 76ers will not win the NBA Championship this year.
That’s not exactly a bold prediction. But it also explains why the Sixers must finish this season with one eye on the present and one eye on the future.
The goal for this year should be to regain first place in the Atlantic Division. Otherwise, the Sixers appear doomed to a first-round series against the Bulls or Heat, which will likely extend the Sixers’ streak without winning a first-round playoff series to nine years. Even if they win the Atlantic Division, the upside is to win a series or two.
The long-range view isn’t as clear as the short-term view. In the short term, the results will be immediate. The Sixers will either accomplish their goals, or they won’t. The verdict on their success in moving toward their long-range goals will be much more subjective.
One area that deserves scrutiny is whether the perimeter trio of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala can co-exist in a starting lineup. Turner’s skills seem better-suited to having the ball in his hands. That means Holiday has to be more of an off-guard. But where does that leave Iguodala, who has been a “point forward” at times under head coach Doug Collins?
If the skills of this trio don’t mesh, one of them has to be traded. The obvious choice is Iguodala, whose salary cap hit doesn’t justify his production. If the Sixers decide that both Turner and Holiday are better playing the point, however, they may try to trade one of these two young guards.
We received a look at the Sixers sans Iguodala (patellar tendinitis) last week. They looked awful against the Spurs and good against the Cavaliers. We’ll need more evidence before making a final decision.
Complicating matters a little bit is that Lou Williams seems likely to exercise his option to opt out of his contract this summer. Figuring out how Williams and Jodie Meeks fit into the equation is part of the challenge.
One way to view the situation is to figure out whom you want to have the ball at the end of games. If the Sixers decide their best chance for success is to put the ball in Iguodala’s hands, there’s not much need for Turner, who isn’t an above-average spot shooter. If the Sixers decide their best chance for success is to have the ball in Turner’s hands, then there isn’t much need for Iguodala, whose end-of-game attempts make many fans cringe.
I find it difficult to believe the Sixers will get rid of Holiday, who could play either role. There’s no point in having high-paid players if you have to remove them at the end of games. That means either Iguodala or Turner could be on the trade block.
Or the trio can work wonderfully, they all remain Sixers and everyone’s career continues happily ever after.
BRAND OR GENERIC? Another player to watch down the stretch is Elton Brand. When he plays as he did during Saturday’s 95-90 victory over the Hawks, scoring a season-high 25 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, it seems difficult to imagine the Sixers without him. But the Sixers may be tempted to use the amnesty clause to get out from under Brand’s expensive contract this summer. Stay tuned.
LATE-GAME WOES: For those keeping track, Saturday win over Atlanta was the Sixers’ third win of the season in games decided by seven or fewer points. They are 3-14 in those games.
CRUCIAL STRETCH: These seven days (through Sunday) are critical to the Sixers’ playoff position. Three of their four opponents this week are ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers play at Miami on Tuesday, return home to host the Raptors on Wednesday and the Magic on Saturday, then travel to Boston on Sunday.
The Sixers have no shot to catch the Heat and it’s unlikely they’ll catch the Magic. The team they need to catch is the Celtics, who have a one-game lead in the Atlantic Division. As was explained at the beginning of this column, finishing in second or third place in the Eastern Conference significantly diminishes their chance for a first-round playoff victory.
If the Sixers want to retain a decent shot at first place, they can’t afford to lose very much ground this week. A win over the Celtics on Sunday is almost essential to the Sixers’ chances of finishing first.
NO FAVORS: If there had been any chance of the Heat overlooking the Sixers on Tuesday, those hopes were erased by the Celtics’ 91-72 domination on Sunday. Now the Sixers will probably encounter an angry Heat team with something to prove Tuesday night.
MEEKS MAKES GOOD: With Iguodala sidelined last week, Jodie Meeks made the most of his opportunity to start again. Meeks scored a career-high 31 points, which is also the most by any Sixer in a game this season.
WESTERN FRONT: The only team not in playoff position in the Eastern Conference that still has a shot at making the playoffs is Milwaukee, which is 2½ games behind the Knicks for the eighth and final playoff berth. By contrast, the battle for the final berth in the West is wide open.
There are six teams with 3½ games of one another. Dallas is in fifth place, followed by Memphis, Denver and Houston. Utah sits one game out of a playoff berth; Phoenix is 1½ behind the Rockets. There is still a lot of time for those standings to receive a shake-up.