Before we get into exactly what’s going on with the 76ers — blowout losses to the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors? Poor play after the all-star break — let me quickly make excuses for my radio silence on the Sixers. Those excuses come in the form of links. Once you’re done reading about why the Sixers are playing poorly, please check these out — it’s why I’ve had trouble covering my ex-NBA beat the last couple of months: The Glass Wall (E-Ticket/Outside the Lines) and Hoops in the Heartland (ESPN’s Title IX project).
This post is not going to be an on-court breakdown of the team’s X’s and O’s. Why not? Because what I keep hearing from fans, on Twitter and on e-mail, is one question, phrased a number of ways: What’s going on with the Sixers? A playoff team doesn’t just lose to the Toronto Raptors, at home, by 20 points, does it? No, of course not. And the answer has nothing to do with Evan Turner’s playing time or Spencer Hawes’ injury (although that certainly did not help). It has to do with what’s happening inside the locker room, what’s happening behind the scenes.
Realistically, this team was never as good as its hot start. Anyone who thought the team would keep pace with its impressive early-season record was kidding himself (or herself). The Sixers might pick up a few more wins than predicted here (Why 34 Wins Is Much More Likely Than 40), but some of the same issues remain with this team: there is no superstar and Elton Brand isn’t playing up to the level of his contract. As it says in that post, if Brand finishes with averages around 12 points and 7 rebounds and 28 minutes a night, the Sixers will slip in the standings (and they have). But this is all just clearing my throat for the more important issues. Like …
1. History is, as they say, repeating itself. Since around early March, guys on the team have struggled with Doug Collins’ coaching style. Look, we all knew at the beginning of last year, when Collins took over this young team, that he had a history of turning around young squads. And we also knew that he had (sometimes as early as the second season) a history of over-coaching, at which point his players tend to become frustrated and tune him out. The Sixers have been struggling with this for at least a month, if not longer. This has led to heated interactions, sometimes even in the middle of games. On more than one occasion, players have let Collins know — during a game — that they’re sick of the relentless nitpicking. This incessant nagging (or even the perception of it) leads to fractured relationships. The Sixers have reached the point where, at least some of them, have addressed this issue with Collins. Has it reached the point of tuning him out? At times. Collins has made an effort to try to step back, but he’s only occasionally successful. It’s been day to day. One day, Collins will release control and give his guys the reins; the next day, he’s all over every play, every cut, every missed screen. Frustration exists on both sides. Collins wants to figure out an answer, fix every problem. Many of the guys wish he would stop being so anxious and nervous — because it’s not helping.
The lockout-shortened season is contributing to the problem, because it’s game after game after game. There is no time to get in the gym and practice. By all accounts from within the Sixers, this season has not been fun — it’s been a struggle. A long, frustrating struggle. You’re seeing poor play because of this behind-the-scenes struggle. Obviously, Collins’ coaching style is a huge issue within the locker room. As players become frustrated and annoyed with the micromanaging, it becomes more difficult to make the necessary in-game changes. It’s the basketball version of crying wolf. If you’re always correcting something out of nervousness and habit, players are less likely to respond when the correction is important.
Is the relationship broken beyond repair? That’s an impossible question to answer. Collins has actively tried to give his guys some space, but old habits die hard. Some of this can be chalked up to a brutal schedule, but not all of it. We won’t know how truly frayed certain relationships are until the off-season. Nobody is going to say it’s broken with the playoffs right around the corner.
2. Saying that the Sixers lack a go-to scorer doesn’t acknowledge the nuance of the struggle within the team. Because it’s not just about who is going to have the ball at the end of games; it’s about the culture of the franchise. As in, what is the culture? And, more importantly, which guys are determining the culture? There is an issue with roles on this team. Not everyone knows their role. Who is the go-to guy? Who is the face of the franchise? The Sixers have five or six players (Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Elton Brand) who hold a certain amount of claim to the title of “go-to guy.” You could look at this as an asset — yes, the Sixers have depth! — but the reality is there is way to much traffic at the top. (But even with all of that traffic, there still isn’t a superstar.)
If we dive in even deeper, you’ll see that a culture clash exists.
To overlook what happened in the off season would be a mistake. When the new ownership took over, they made it clear that Jrue Holiday (and to some extent Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young) was the new face of the franchise. Where did that leave Iguodala and Brand? It left them knowing the franchise was heading in the other direction, but still they remained the two highest-paid players on the team. That’s a tough spot in which to be. Other NBA franchises have made the decision to trade expensive veteran players, turning the team over to the young guys (looking at the Cleveland Cavaliers here), but the Sixers made the decision to keep those veterans around. The franchise hoped these guys could lead the younger players and provide wisdom and experience during the transition. You can agree with that decision or you can disagree, but you can’t ignore the issues that it creates within the locker room. The big-money veterans know the franchise is going in a different direction, so they’re in a bad spot. And the young guys need to be patient and listen, qualities not abundant in young guys (or in NBA players). So that leaves the Sixers often pulling in opposite directions.
And a difficult stretch in the schedule exacerbates everything. The Sixers took some losses, things became strained, and now you’re seeing the effects of all of that behind-the-scenes turmoil. It’s manifesting itself in 20 point losses to bad teams. So that’s the “why” of this last month. The “what comes next” is still up in the air.