Dyshae Dixon| Staff writer
After an unexpected hot start, the Philadelphia 76ers have struggled lately. They were up in the Atlantic division by several wins just a month ago. Now the Knicks and Celtics are right on their heels, and the team is in danger of losing the division. The Sixers have not been the Atlantic champions since the 2000-2001 season, and if they do not start winning some games, that streak will continue.
At the end of January, the Sixers were looking sharp with a 15-6 record and a nine-game lead in the division over every other team. Many of their wins were by a large margin, including a 35-point win over Toronto. A major factor in their fast start is that they were playing a fairly easy schedule. In January, they played Detroit twice, Washington three times, and Charlotte, all the worst teams in the NBA. In those early victories, the team was getting even distribution from the starters and the bench players. Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, and Andre Iguodala would score early, and then Lou Williams and Thad Young would be the first reserves to pile on the points. Iguodala was an early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, continually shutting down the opponent’s best scorer, and also averaging two steals per game.
The biggest difference in the team over the past month has been the inability to get easy baskets. Having an interior presence on offense is crucial in scoring easily, and the Sixers are without a big man who can post up in the paint. Elton Brand’s and Spencer Hawes’s points are usually jump shots. The rookies Nik Vucevic and Lavoy Allen are not yet polished enough offensively to be consistent scorers. The Sixers’ best interior presence has been Thad Young, who is undersized at 6’8 and 220 lbs., but uses quick moves to get around bigger guys. The majority of the Sixers’ points come from long-range shots and fast break dunks and layups. The Sixers’ best offense comes from the defense. They are among the league leaders in creating turnovers and that is where they get those fast break points.
As the trade deadline approached, it was unclear whether the team would make any moves to improve on the recent struggles. The team could use some more pieces, but at the same time they did not want to bring in any players that would conflict with the system in place. There were some big names out there that would be available, such as Golden States’ Monta Ellis, but to get that deal done Iguodala would be shipped out. Ellis is one of the best scorers in the league, but is not the all-around talent like Iguodala. Another name on the trade block was Elton Brand. Brand was the leading scorer last season, but his numbers are way down, and his $17 million salary this year is a huge dent in the cap space. His effort has been great and he is one of the few aged veterans on the team, but this is likely his final season on the team. Trading him for some expiring contracts would have been great for freeing up some cap space for next season, but finding a team to take on his contract was impossible. The Sixers acquired Sam Young from the Memphis Grizzlies. He will be another guy to come off the bench to relieve Iguodala, as he is a solid defender at small forward. The Sixers added more defense, but they could have really used another piece on offense.
The emergence of Evan Turner has been a bright spot in the Sixers’ recent woes. Turner was struggling coming off the bench and his playing time decreased each week. Jodie Meeks was the starting shooting guard only because he is a long distance shooter. Once he went cold and was not hitting shots, coach Doug Collins inserted Turner into the lineup. Turner’s first start came in a close loss to Milwaukee where he was unimpressive with just two points. After that game though, he led the team in scoring in a win over Boston, had a great game versus Utah, and capped off the win streak playing great against New York. Collins plays Turner at point guard now and slides Holiday over to the shooting guard role. His game is much improved when he is the main ball handler and is creating his own shot. Turner was looking like a bust as the second overall pick in 2010, but given the right playing time has shown he can be a future star on this team.
There are about 20 games left in the season, and the Sixers must finish strong to lock up the division. Not winning the division could be the difference in not advancing past the first round of the playoffs. Winning the Atlantic guarantees at least the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round, and if they cannot get that they could slide all the way down to 7 or 8. If the playoffs started right now, the Sixers would play the Indiana Pacers in the first round. In a recent match up, the Pacers beat the Sixers 111-94. The Pacers have a major size advantage and have Danny Granger who can score effortlessly. The series would be winnable, but given the Sixers’ fast start to the season, they would hope for an easier first round opponent. That five-game losing streak in February really hurt the team in the standings, but they must somehow get back those wins in the final 20 of the season.