It’s so tempting, isn’t it? The team’s top 12 players are returning from last season; Doug Collins has produced a small measure of continuity; the talented youngsters have gained some maturity; the pre-season games, especially that first one, looked promising; and point guard Jrue Holiday is a rising star. Each small pieces rolls into the next, the whole thing gains momentum, and before you know it the 76ers are a lock to win 36 games — at a minimum, right? No, 38 … I mean 39! Make it 40! A record of 40-26 is doable, likely even, isn’t it? A top three seed in the Eastern Conference, an easy first-round playoff win.
Wait a second.
I hate to be the one tossing cold water onto the sizzle — especially when I’ll readily admit the stove is as hot as it’s been in years for this team — but, as the title of this blog post reads, 34 wins is much more likely than 40. Here are the 2011-12 projections for the Sixers:
Exact Prediction: 34-32.
Ambitious Prediction: 39-27.
Uh-oh Prediction: 31-35.
Until today, I had been leaning toward a prediction of 36-30. I thought that was a solid win projection, bordering on ambitious, but 36 wins was still planted firmly in the sphere of reality. I knocked it back two games after some research, some conversations, and some schedule assessing.
And I’ll explain exactly why.
First, the reasons for dropping from 36-30 to 34-32:
1. The front line is still a question mark. 2. The schedule, although soft in the middle, includes a number of unknowns (five games on the West Coast to begin the season, a stretch during which last season the team finished 1-4) and 24 games total against the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and Miami Heat.
When the Sixers open their season on Monday against the Portland Trail Blazers, Collins will (likely) play a four-man rotation in the front court: power forward Elton Brand, center Spencer Hawes, rookie big man Nikola Vucevic, and forward Thaddeus Young. Forget about Marreese Speights; he’s checked out. The team trusts Vucevic much more than it trusts Speights; and it should. The rookie’s minutes will be steady starting Monday night. Veteran backup center Tony Battie isn’t game ready yet, so don’t count on seeing him for a while. So these are the four guys in the front court — Brand, Hawes, Vucevic, Young — trying to rebound and defend against guys like, among others, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, and Tyson Chandler.
-Elton Brand: this could come as a surprise, because it certainly surprises me, but Brand could be the linchpin between a 32-win season and a 39-win season. Not Evan Turner, not Jrue Holiday, and not Andre Iguodala. Brand doesn’t yet have his basketball legs; he doesn’t yet seem ready to play 32 to 35 minutes a night. If Collins is forced to downgrade Brand’s minutes, he’s plugging that gap with Young and Vucevic. That lineup might sound youthful and promising on one level, but it also sounds overwhelming (as in, the Sixers would be overwhelmed on the defensive glass) on another. Watch Brand closely on Monday night. If the Sixers are going to be a 39-27 team, Brand will need to play 35 minutes a night and average around 16 points and 10 rebounds. If he slips to 28 minutes a night, with averages of 12 points and 7 rebounds, that’s going to cost the Sixers — over the course of what will be a grueling 66-game schedule — a handful of wins.
-Spencer Hawes: through two weeks of preseason, he’s doing precisely what this team needs from him: rebounding, high-percentage shooting, and facilitating. Last year at this time, Hawes had missed 16 pre-season practices due to injury and then spent much of the season trying to cover ground that the rest of the team had already covered. As one player pointed out, an element of the team’s success will be “guys playing within their roles.” Hawes is the prime example of that player: he can’t force his post-up game on offense. The Sixers don’t need Hawes with the ball, back to the hoop, twice a quarter. I’d go so far as to say they never need that. They need Hawes grabbing rebounds, on both ends of the floor. They need him fanning out for that in-between jumper when Holiday, Iguodala, or Turner drive. They need him catching the ball at the elbow and dropping a bounce pass to a cutter, or handing off to Lou Williams for a pull-up jumper. He’s a rebounder, a facilitator, and — the Sixers desperately hope — an improving post and rotational defender.
For the record, though, Hawes’ play — he’s in shape, reported ready, and stayed healthy during pre-season — bumped the team’s projected record up a game or two from last season.
The front court, that’s where the success or failure of this season resides. Will Brand play his way back into pinpoint shape? Will Hawes pass and rebound and rise to the defensive challenge? Will Vucevic produce in the steady minutes he’s about to receive? Can Young’s explosiveness shift the game’s momentum, and cover up his lack of size on the boards and defense?
We’ll start to see the answers to these questions on Monday night.
There are too many unknowns in the Eastern Conference to legitimately predict a 40-26 season for the Sixers. The opening road trip is a bummer, because coming away from those five games with a 3-2 record would obviously be a success, but is also unlikely. The Sixers will likely be 2-3, if all goes well. There are friendly stretches at home (especially from Jan. 6 to Jan. 16), but there are also a slew of talented opponents who’ve added pieces to their rosters. It’s difficult to think the Sixers could finish better than 12-12 against the aforementioned group of teams: the Knicks, Celtics, Heat, Bulls, Magic, and Pacers. This isn’t pessimism — I’m anticipating a successful season — it’s reality.
There’s plenty of that. The Sixers have eight players who could, legitimately, start in the NBA. Turner, Williams, and Young could easily start for a number of teams. If you’re wondering why Turner doesn’t start, (and, please, I urge you to not concern yourself with whether he does or doesn’t start), you can read this blog from last week: Why Jodie Meeks Will (Almost Certainly) Start at Shooting Guard.
Holiday and Turner are both poised for breakout seasons. Collins has played Holiday, Iguodala, and Turner together at the end of games and it’s likely he’ll continue doing so. The focus for Turner will be just that: focus. When Collins puts him in at game’s end, he does so because he’s a strong free throw shooter and defensive rebounder. What Collins is concerned with is Turner’s focus on defensive rotations and scouting-report assignments. When the team rewinds the game film, it’s often Turner who’s in the wrong place or who’s forgotten an assignment or instruction. That’s fine right now — on Dec. 23 — but it won’t be fine on March 23. Watch closely at the end of the game; watch Turner on defense and watch how Collins interacts with him after dead balls and on the way to a timeout or huddle. You’ll see what you need to know in those moments. Is Collins clapping him on the back? Or is he pulling him aside, pointing back toward the court, gesturing about what he wished he’d seen Turner do?
I can’t let this blog post reach 1,500 words. Even Sixers fans can only take so much.
If you allow yourself to get wrapped up in the momentum of the good feeling, it’s easy to predict a 40-win season and mean it with all of your (optimistic) heart. But peel back some of the shiny new wrapping paper in which this team is being presented. They’re talented. They’re young. They’re good. They have a focused, disciplined coach. But, for 66 nights a year, they’ll have to rebound and battle with 7-footers and high-leapers and bruising power forwards.
The Sixers are absolutely knocking at the door of relevancy; its their interior play that will either push them through the threshold, or leave them on the outside looking in.