We should enjoy the ups and downs, the thrills and chills. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ponder the lingering questions about what this postseason run means for the future.
When the regular season ended, it seemed to many observers, including me, that an exasperated Doug Collins had reached the end of his rope with many of his players. There appeared to be a summer of turnover ahead, with maybe half the roster changing – and possibly the coach leaving as well.
But that was then. This is now.
The Sixers have defeated the top-seeded Chicago Bulls. Yes, I know the Bulls lost Derrick Rose for the rest of the series – and possibly for all of next season – in Game 1. Yes, I know they lost Joakim Noah for the second half of the series. But let’s give the Sixers some credit for taking advantage of the situation.
The Celtics series should disabuse anyone of the notion that the Bulls series was a fluke. The Sixers have battled the Celtics tooth-and-nail. It’s back and forth, nose to nose and whatever other phrases you want to pull out of the sports cliché book.
Regardless of which team is the collective last man standing Saturday, the Sixers have earned a second look. Maybe they don’t need to tear up the roster.
There were questions about whether guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner can play together. The questions have been answered with an emphatic “yes!” There are still some rough edges. Those will be smoothed out over time. The exciting aspect of the Holiday-Turner duo is that it should only get better.
Entering the playoffs, there were huge questions at center. Spencer Hawes, who started the playoffs coming off the bench, delivered back-to-back 20-point efforts against the Bulls. The revelation, however, is that rookie Lavoy Allen may be ready to be a starting NBA center.
Allen, a second-round draft pick out of Temple, has been the Sixers’ most effective defender against Celtics center Kevin Garnett. Allen is physically strong, which enables him to establish defensive position and maintain it. He also has been an efficient component at the offensive end. He can score 10-12 points without dominating the ball.
The Sixers would probably like to keep Hawes, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. As good as Hawes was at the beginning of this season and, at times, during the postseason, the Sixers don’t have to break the bank to keep an injury-prone player. Allen’s play indicates the Sixers have a pretty good backup plan if Hawes gets offers for more money than they’d like to spend to keep him.
The Sixers may have a similar decision to make about Lou Williams. The runner-up for the Sixth Man of the Year Award – a distant second behind Oklahoma City’s James Harden – has the option to become a free agent. Williams is a terrific scorer, but he frequently takes bad shots early in the shot clock. If Williams opts out of his contract, it will be interesting to see how much the Sixers will be willing to spend to keep him.
Elton Brand is another interesting case. You know that Collins would love to keep him around, and not simply because of the Duke connection. (Brand went to Duke, where Collins’ son is an assistant coach.) The problem is Brand’s expensive contract.
Under the new labor agreement, teams can seek “amnesty” for one contract. They still have to pay the player the remainder of the money owed to him, but that contract would no longer count against the team’s salary cap.
Brand is beyond his prime. There have been playoff games in which he’s been a non-factor. Then again, Brand has played through a neck injury. Furthermore, he’s a model of professionalism, something this young team needs more of, not less. The question is whether the Sixers value Brand’s intangibles enough to continue to pay him for a contract that isn’t warranted by his on-court production. Another question would concern how the Sixers, if they choose to use the amnesty clause, would use the money freed up to make themselves better.
And that question brings us to Andre Iguodala. You knew we’d get there eventually, didn’t you?
Iguodala has reinvented himself during this postseason. He’s made big free throws in clutch situations. He’s drained 3-pointers at crucial moments. He’s played like a leader. In short, he’s done all the things he’s been accused of not doing during his eight NBA seasons.
The prevailing wisdom before the playoffs was the Sixers should make a concerted effort to trade Iguodala. The thought expressed by many, including me, was that the Sixers couldn’t get significantly better until Iguodala was gone. That might mean taking a step backward in the short term, but the move would pay off in the long term because the Sixers could get a better return on their money than they were getting from Iguodala.
Now, the answer to the Iguodala question isn’t as clear. He’s made the case that he’s more than a defensive stopper. He’s demonstrated that his statistics aren’t meaningless. He’s not simply filling up a stat sheet. He’s helping the Sixers win games.
I still think the Sixers should explore trade options for Iguodala. In fact, his value may never be any higher than it is right now. Like his team, however, Iguodala has earned a second look.
The final piece of this puzzle is Collins. Maybe he never lost the locker room, as some reports indicated, but he was clearly frustrated by this team. He openly discussed how he asks assistants if he’s being too tough on his players. He seems torn between his instincts regarding what needs to be done and offending the sensitivities of the modern-day player.
The playoffs have changed all that. If Collins’ enthusiasm was waning at all, his batteries seem recharged by the Sixers’ playoff success.
Collins has also enhanced his credibility with this playoff run. Regardless of whether the Sixers win on Saturday, the players know that Collins can make them more successful. If they win Game 7 and reach the Eastern Conference finals, Collins will have even more goodwill stashed away in his bank.
If the players believe that Collins is the coach who can lead them closer to a championship, they will be less resistant to his methods and more accepting of his criticism. Considering the Sixers won their first playoff series in nine years and are on the verge of returning to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since the peak of the Allen Iverson-Larry Brown era, it’s difficult to believe the players would do any less than embrace Collins’ methods next season.
At the end of the regular season, it was difficult to envision Collins and this same group of players returning next season and making it through the entire year. Now, it seems possible.
At the very least, the postseason has demonstrated that the Sixers deserve a second look.