Now that the lockout has been resolved, an abbreviated NBA season is set to begin on Christmas Day. In preparation for the season, I am going to take a look at the state of the Philadelphia 76ers and examine the franchise’s championship prospects going forward.
Most people considered last season to be a successful one for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Under new coach Doug Collins, the team improved to 41 wins and qualified for the playoffs. Upon reaching the playoffs, they played a surprisingly competitive series before falling to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat.
While it might have been an improvement over the atrocious 2009-2010 season, the result was almost identical to the two seasons prior to that: A mediocre record and a first round playoff exit.
While playoff appearances are nice, the eventual goal should be to win a championship. So now the question must be raised: Are the 76ers on the right path to winning a title?
There are some fans who feel that the core of the current team could indeed bring home a championship in the near future. Others feel that the team needs to undergo a major rebuilding process in order to reach that ultimate goal.
The major problem facing the Sixers is that with few exceptions, NBA champions are built around superstar players. The Sixers last appeared in the NBA Finals ten years ago, when they were led by league MVP and future Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson. This is not a coincidence.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that while the Sixers have some talented players, they do not currently have a superstar on their roster.
Unfortunately, by nature, superstars are rare and difficult to obtain.
In order to draft a great player, you typically need to have a high draft pick. But based on last season’s performance, the Sixers should be a good enough team in the near future that they won’t have an especially high pick. So unless they get very lucky with their selection, they probably won’t be obtaining a star that way.
Could the Sixers trade for a superstar? Unfortunately, due to salary cap concerns, trades can be quite difficult, especially when dealing with star caliber players.
And whether they move via trade or free agency, the top players typically want to go to situations where have a good chance to win a title (usually with other star players) or to one of the glamour teams. (aka the Lakers or Knicks)
So we shouldn’t count on a superstar coming into town any time soon. Does this then mean that the current nucleus has no hope of ever winning a title?
Not necessarily. But they will need for one of three things to happen:
1. One of their current players develops into a superstar.
The Sixers have a young roster. So while none of their players is currently at that level, there is a chance that one of them may yet develop into a star capable of leading a championship team.
I’ll take a look at the most likely candidates:
Iguodala is an immensely talented player. He is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, a good passer, and a very strong finisher near the rim.
He is also limited in his offensive game, and after seven seasons in the league, it is doubtful he will improve much. If there’s one thing his Sixers career has proven it is that he shouldn’t be the focal point of the offense.
So while he brings a lot to the table, and would be a valuable part of a championship team, I can’t see him ever being the primary star on a title winner.
Turner was a star in college. In his junior season, he was named the NCAA’s top player. As a result, the Sixers chose him with the #2 pick in the 2010 draft.
When a player is drafted #2, there is reasonable expectation that he will become a star.
Unfortunately, his rookie season did not go well. He often looked lost when he wasn’t handling the ball, and while his shooting was never a strength in college, it somehow regressed once he became a pro.
He might yet live up to his college reputation, but it is rare for a star player to have such a poor rookie season. That doesn’t provide much optimism for the future.
When the 76ers signed him after the 2008 season, fans thought they were getting a star. He was a former #1 overall draft pick who was good for 20 points and 10 rebounds a game.
The Sixers didn’t seem to realize that while Brand was a good player, he had never really been a true superstar. Worse, a variety of injuries over the past few seasons have lessened his effectiveness.
He had a strong season in 2010-2011, and looks like he could still be a solid part of a winning team. Yet it is hard to imagine him ever being the best player on a championship team.
Young showed great promise his first two seasons in the league, and then (along with the rest of the team) seemed to regress in the 09-10 season.
Thanks to Collins’ guidance, he tweaked his offensive game last season, became a deadly inside scorer, and was a candidate for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
Young’s biggest problem is that he is a classic ‘tweener forward. He doesn’t have the outside shooting ability to play small forward, and he doesn’t have the size or bulk to defend power forwards. While these limitations won’t keep him from being a valuable player, they probably will keep him from ever being a top-level star in the league.
Since he’s still relatively young, there is a chance he could continue to develop. But I think he’s destined to serve as more of a complimentary player rather than a primary star.
Despite being one of the youngest players in the league, Holiday has already developed into a solid point guard and looks like he could be a future All-Star.
The next step would be to establish himself as an offensive focal point. Last season, Iguodala served as the team’s main offensive option, especially in late game situations. This season, Holiday needs to start moving into that role. He needs to be the player with the ball in his hands at the end of the game. He needs to be the one taking the clutch shots.
Based on what we’ve seen out of him, I have some confidence that he is capable of doing it. If he can continue to develop along that path, the Sixers might actually have a star capable of leading the team to a championship.
2. The team as a whole develops to the point where they can overcome the lack of a transcendent star.
While the “build around a superstar” method is the favored approach, teams do sometimes win championships without a true superstar.
The 2008 Celtics didn’t have a top-level superstar. At one point in their careers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen all might have been top stars. But by 2008, they were no longer the type of player who could carry a team to a title.
Even though none of them were capable of leading a team to a title by themselves, by combining their talents, they were able to capture the 2008 NBA championship.
It’s very important to have the right mix of players for this to happen. The players strengths and weaknesses need to correlate. And all the players need to completely buy in for it to work.
Is it possible that a core featuring some combination of Holiday, Turner, Iguodala, Young, and Brand could eventually develop into such a fashion?
Considering the relative youth of the roster, there is a chance that this could happen. But as I said, you need to have just the right mix for this to happen, and I’m sure some changes will have to be made along the way.
For instance, there were signs last year that Turner and Iguodala were not compatible on the court. So they’d either have to adapt, or one of them would have to be moved for another player who might be more complimentary.
3. Obtain a star via trade or free agency
Due to various factors, star players do sometimes become available in the NBA. For example, Chris Paul recently switched teams, and Dwight Howard will be a free agent at the end of the season if he isn’t traded before then.
But while these top players may be available, that doesn’t mean that it is easy for teams to get them.
As mentioned earlier, stars tend to want to play either in the glamour markets or for teams where they could conceivably win a title.
Philadelphia might have a lot of basketball tradition, but it isn’t the type of place that NBA stars are going to actively seek out. And as currently constructed, the Sixers may look like a playoff team, but do not appear to be a real contender for the title. So I can’t see a star player choosing the Sixers if his goal is to win a title in the near future.
Of course, if the Sixers young players do improve and the team takes a step forward this season, that could change. A star player could see a solid core in place and think, “I could be the final piece of the puzzle.”
But even if a star wants to come here, the Sixers need to be in the proper position to obtain him. They need to either have enough salary cap space to sign a big free agent, or enough tradeable assets so that they can work a trade without depleting the roster too severely.
Taking that into consideration, the question remains: Are the Sixers are on the right path?
I think its difficult to know for sure at this point in time, but this upcoming season will give us a good indication. While Brand and Iguodala are pretty much known quantities at this point, the rest of the team is still young and developing. Turner, Young, and Holiday have the capability to improve their games as they approach the prime of their careers. By the end of the season we should have a better understanding of their ultimate destiny as NBA players.
We should be able to determine if – either individually or collectively – they can develop into the type of player who can lead a championship team. Or will they just be solid NBA players who can take a team into the playoffs, but not be a threat to win it all?
If the former is true, then I’d say the 76ers are indeed on the right path, and should give this core a few years to fully develop.
But if the latter is true, then maybe they need to start over and begin a rebuilding process in earnest. Because as I said before, playoff spots are nice, but a championship should be the ultimate goal.