The Sixers started this season with such optimism. A solid, young supporting cast joined by the superstar the team had lacked since Ed Snider had his Lindros moment with Allen Iverson and had him sent to Denver. One quarter away from the conference finals.
What a difference six months make.
All in all, the Sixers aren't doing half bad. They finished eighth in the conference last year, traded their best player and a decent backup big for, so far, half a season of a broken-down Jason Richardson, are intent on running an offense that is so inefficient as to be a slap in the face of mathematics and...are in more or less the same position they were in last year.
Of course, "more or less" doesn't exactly communicate that the one spot further down the food chain takes the Sixers out of the playoffs altogether, and that's why we're all getting a little hey sailor up in here right now. So with the playoffs still possible, but unlikely, what's going to happen?
Here's my worst-case scenario: The Sixers make up that four-game gap on Milwaukee. The Knicks somehow make up their own four-game gap on Miami, and the Sixers pull another once-in-a decade rabbit out of their hat this year. I could spin you some yarn about Thad Young and Bynum not coming back and the rest of the year turning into last Monday's Clippers game in stereo. But honestly, that's not what I'm most afraid of.
I wrote a post a few months back defending...well, not defending Doug Collins per se, but explaining why he shouldn't be on the hot seat. Essentially, I said, he was the same coach in December, making the same tactical decisions, that he was in May, when we were all laying palm branches and our coats in front of him as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, and if the Sixers were okay with him then, they should be okay with him now.
I was wrong then, because intellectual consistency doesn't do the Sixers any good when they have an offense so conservative it makes the United Russia party look like SDS. They've built a team whose tactics don't match its players' strengths. And I don't want to see anything happen that makes them think they're on the right track, because they're not. Even if, for the sake of the long-term health of the franchise, they lose more games in the interim and let Andrew Bynum walk come summertime.
Building a winning NBA team might have more to do with luck than is the case in any other sport. The salary cap, the disproportionate impact of superstars and the size of the rosters means you have to bottom out in the right draft, nail your first-round picks (which has more to do with luck than we like to admit) and pull a couple more winning lottery tickets along the way.
This isn't easy even when you get the breaks, and the Sixers, between getting the No. 2 pick in a one-player draft and trading for a superstar center whose legs are coming apart. But you can't stumble into a title with a hastily-constructed team and a hot goalie in the NBA. The playoffs aren't as random as they are in baseball or football, and just getting in doesn't mean you're a contender.
I don't think there's one move to make that will put the Sixers in title contention, and if there were, I don't think I'd be able to figure it out. But as things stand, the Sixers are betting the farm on the health of a center who's never been able to stay healthy, and I'm not sure Bynum is enough even if he can average 20 and 10 for 75 games.
I don't really care if the Sixers make the playoffs. They're not winning the title this season unless about 10 other teams all come down with mono a couple months from now. But merely sneaking into the playoffs and getting trounced in the first round isn't progress--it's treading water, and I don't know that this front office is willing or able to make the distinction.