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After the Heat took both games in Miami, the Sixers are a mere two losses away from finishing the 2011 season. Though the next two games are at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers boast a 26-15 record, the Heat will be favored to take each of them and polish off a first round sweep. As much hope as there was after the Game One loss, all of it evaporated with the bomb that was dropped Monday at the AAA. Collins and the gang are confident in a bounce back, but kids, it doesn't look good.
So we have to address the possibility of losing four in a row to the Heat and being bounced from the first round rather quickly. Would the front office be confident going into next season with essentially same team? Is this season still considered a success? What exactly is the long-term plan for them?
By all accounts, it was a good season. A 14-game improvement was unexpected and enjoyable to watch. The average age of the top 8 rotation players is a sprightly 24 years old. The team has rallied around the leadership and coaching of Doug Collins. To the masses, the future appears bright for this nucleus.
But look at the Sixers teams since they lost the 2001 NBA Finals. Doug Collins is the 7th coach since Larry Brown skipped town and the team has gone 389-431 since then. Even if you take out last year's Eddie Jordan massacre, they sit at a hysterically mediocre 49% win percentage. As you probably know, they've made the playoffs in three of the past four years despite having not had a winning record since 2004-05. They've been the scrappy, overachieving young guys again and again, but always lacking the star power and the shooters to get to the next level. This team, as assembled, is not much different.
If the Sixers lose out, everyone attached to the organization will say the same thing. "We've made great strides as a team this year and look forward to improve even more next season" or "This core is so young and talented and we have full confidence this team moving forward" or some slight variation. The potential lockout could throw an elephant wrench into this whole ordeal, but because I have no other choice, I'll be operating under the assumption that there will be a season next year.
Andre Iguodala has been crucial to the success of this team. Because Ed Stefanski, Rod Thorn, and Doug Collins are so thrilled to have an (almost) winning team, they wouldn't dream of taking its best player and removing him from the equation. He's still in his prime, and though the argument has been made by our resident physician that Andre's body is beginning to show signs of breaking down, the brain trust won't worry about that just yet. He's got two years and a player option left on his deal, and as contracts go up, Andre's seems less inflated (although the four writers here would argue that his deal is fair as pie). His value remains high after placing in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and this past summer's national team success. But they'll hold onto him.
Elton Brand has played his best, and most importantly, healthiest season in years, but the team is hopeless inside without Brand anchoring both ends of the court. So it's unnatural to suggest the win-now collection of decision makers for this organization would move his contract to free up cap space and keep the core as young as possible. They're confident he'll have just as good of a 2011-12 season because his body is now perfect and wouldn't dare get injured again. So he'll stay.
And then there's last year's Most Outstanding Player Evan Turner. He hasn't had a terrific start to his NBA career but there have been times when we've seen what he's capable of. With help from shooting coach Herb Magee, he could come out of the gate ready to win a starting spot. But he'd have to take it from Jodie Meeks, who has earned the trust of everyone for his great shooting and solid all-around game. His ability to stretch the floor adds a new dimension to this team, but his unspectacular play limits them from ever really contending. And we've already seen that Turner and Iguodala don't compliment each other well, so Jodie's pretty much a lock to win the job. If Turner's just a bench player, they'll decide to trade him for an older veteran big man that can help sure up the paint.
This is the mindset of this team. Getting into the playoffs was good enough, and naturally portends more improvement. But that's not the case. As has been true for the last ten years, just making the postseason kept people happy. Look at Utah -- they were on their way to a playoff bid but traded All-World point guard Deron Williams to improve their team in the future. Look at Denver -- trading their best players Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups not only kept them in the playoffs, it helps their prospects of being a legitimate contender in the next few years. Houston had a better record than the Sixers this year but fired Rick Adelman because they're going to rebuild. Other teams have chosen to get worse and get younger to ultimately get better. But there's some stigma in this organization that makes everyone terrified of moving any good players until they're retired or dead.
Regardless of whether or not the Sixers steal one game in this series, management will go into next year with the same plan. Win games, and be just good enough. There are a bunch of really good players on this team. And maybe they're just a piece or two away from really contending. But they're going to pick the wrong pieces, forget about the right ones, and we'll be in the same place in five years wondering if they should trade Jrue Holiday so he has a chance to win somewhere else before his prime years are gone.
This series ultimately tells little to nothing about this team or the future. It'll be the front office decisions that determine where the franchise goes from here. Plateauing seems about right.