Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Case of the Disappearing Role Players

With the Sixers struggling to survive in a solid Eastern Confrence, the likelihood of the team putting together a true run at contention seems slimmer by the day. The team has shown in recent weeks that it can be competitive, but the inconsistency shown and the inability to close out games are certainly not traits of a championship-caliber team. With a top-heavy Eastern Confrence it is completely plausible for the squad to make a second half run and secure one of the lower seeds but at what cost? Would yet another first round playoff exit to one of the League’s superior teams validate the season? Such a “success” might be able to hide the subpar job that first-year coach Eddie Jordan has done, but it would also land the Sixers in the same spot they’ve been in far too often recently; early playoff exit, no lottery pick, moderate expectations and mild buzz for the following season based on the talent on the talent on the roster and the Confrence they play in, followed by another mediocre season, supplying little to validate the initial excitement or buzz. In fact, recent Sixer seasons are strangely beginning to parallel seasons of LOST; a lot of hype heading into the season followed by in-season highs and lows, a substantial amount of drama, and an eventual end shrouded in disappointment and uncertainty. The only difference is that one of those seasons is enjoyable to watch, and a trip to the consistently half-empty Wachovia center should demonstrate that it certainly isn’t the suffering Sixers.

As the season approaches the halfway mark, the Sixers are sitting soundly in the second-to-last seed in the Eastern Conference; a position that certainly indicates that something isn’t clicking and should signify the need for change. However, more curious than the consistent laid-back demeanor of a coach who should be sitting squarely in the hot seat, is the rotation (or lack thereof) that Coach Eddie Jordan employs. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when or how often particular players get minutes, and if I was told that Jordan picks his fourth quarter lineup out of a hat, sadly, I would not be surprised. What other factor could explain the virtual disappearance of Marreese Speights, Jason Kapono, and Jason Smith? All three of these players were touted in the offseason as ready to have breakout seasons while serving as key pieces in the Sixer puzzle.

Kapono was brought in during the offseason to help the team with one of their main flaws from a season ago; three point shooting. While Kapono has netted 30 of 74 attempts from long distance so far this season, his lack of playing time, logging only 14.3 minutes a game, has not allowed him the proper time to get comfortable with the offense or his shooting stroke, evidenced by the fact that his .405 shooting percentage from long range this season is his lowest since the 2005-2006 season. Not so coincidently, his minutes per game this season are at their lowest since that same 2005-2006 season, illustrating the fact that more time on the court allows him to be a more accurate shooter, a piece of information that Jordan clearly has missed, as he seems all too content with Jason sitting in a leather chair just a few feet from his own.

Jason Smith’s disappearance does not come as a complete shock, as the Sixers have plenty of players to fill the four spot, including two-time all-star Elton Brand, and up and comers Thaddeus Young and the aforementioned Speights. There is only so much room in the front court, but with the potential Smith has shown one has to believe that increasing his minutes could only work to benefit the team and bolster the front line.

The most curious case is certainly that of Marreese Speights. After a solid rookie year where he averaged upwards of 8 and 4 per (in only sixteen minutes a game), Speights was poised for a breakout season in which both his minutes and production were figured to see a substantial increase. However, like most things thus far in the Jordan era, that has not quite panned out, but due in no part to Marreese. Speights has become the poster boy for inconsistent minutes, playing the bulk of some games and then seeing extremely limited action in others, evidenced by last night’s loss to the Knicks. Speights did not check into the game until midway through the fourth quarter, when he suddenly became the team’s go-to-guy in the clutch, even having the final play drawn up in attempt to get him a look at the basket. In 9 minutes of play, Speights put up 10 and 6, leaving Sixer nation scratching its collective head, wondering why he had not sniffed the court prior to that fourth quarter burst. Marreese has demonstrated that he can score in a variety of ways, even possessing a nice 15-19 foot jumper, an asset noticeably missing from the rest of the Sixer bigs. Marreese has lived up to expectations, at least as much as he can given his sparse playing time, upping his averages to 10 points and 5 boards a game, while notching only three more minutes per than in his rookie campaign. It is true that he can often be overmatched against quicker, more athletic forwards, but his offensive abilities warrant more playing time, especially considering the substantial amount of potential he has displayed throughout his short career.

It is no secret that the Sixers squad has been horrendous at closing out games this year, and more minutes for Jason, Marreese, and Jason doesn’t guarantee victory. However, allotting them more playing time could allow them to provide a bigger boost off the bench, working to better balance the team. Increasing the playing time of Smith, Speights, and Kapono is probably not the magical answer the Sixers are searching for in order to save the season, but at this point, it can’t hurt.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Will the real A.I. Please Stand Up

There is something so familiar about Allen Iverson playing through injury and leading the 76ers to victory; something that just sounds, right. Since Allen returned to the starting lineup on December 28th in Portland, the Sixers have gone 3-1, which is of course no coincidence, and began to resemble something other than an Eastern Conference bottom-dweller for the first time all season. Although not putting up the same explosive numbers that once made him the most feared scorer in the League, solid statistics and smart play have allowed Allen to begin to save the sinking ship that was the Sixers before the superstar’s arrival. Despite being plagued by knee troubles, it appears as though Allen is finally beginning to hit his stride, as he becomes accustomed to playing more minutes and becomes familiar with his new/former teams revamped playbook.

Allen isn’t the one Sixer who has benefitted from his extended play and growing familiarity with the team. In fact, it appears that the team is beginning to “gel” for the first time all season, as the team has received great contributions from a number of players during the recent road stretch. Elton Brand, despite early qualms about coming off the bench, has performed extremely well since Allen’s return to the starting lineup, serving as the anchor for the second unit and proving to Sixers fans that he is not just a walking waste of $80 mill. Lou Williams, who many feared would see a dramatic cut in minutes upon Allen’s arrival, has actually thrived alongside his new running mate. The two provide the squad with a swift, quick backcourt that allows the team to play its preferred method of fast break basketball. Lou appears completely comfortable sharing the backcourt and the ball with the aging superstar, and this cohesion has been reflected both in his numbers and in the team’s success. Sammy Dalembert admittedly loves playing with Iverson, as the two became extremely familiar with each others’ playing style during Allen’s original tenure in Philadelphia. Sam feeds off Allen’s energy, evidenced by his recent tenacity on the defensive end and the seemingly nightly aley-oop between the two.

Yes, everyone seems to be thriving and content with the new lineup anchored by the future hall-of-famer; everyone except the city’s second A.I., Andre Igoudala. Igoudala who had began to grow into the team leader/borderline superstar role since Allen left town the first time (it may be worth noting that Igoudala seems to have been stuck in that phase for about five years), has not appeared so pleased to be again playing alongside the Sixers’ true A.I. it is no secret that there was no love lost between the two during Allen’s first stint in the city, and other than his explosion against the Nuggets during Allen’s first game back in Sixers uniform, Igoudala has certainly appeared a little “off,” potentially a result of an ego hit he has taken since Iverson’s return. Not only must Igoudala share the go-to-guy responsibilities with Allen, but he must share the spotlight as well. Despite still being announced last in pre-game introductions, a spot usually reserved for a team’s biggest draw, it is no secret who the city’s favorite A.I. is, and it ain’t number 9. Igoudala, who has been outscored and outplayed by Allen in each of the team’s last three victories, often looks hesitant to share the ball with Allen, rather trying to score on his own. For this team to be completely successful and live up to the true potential hidden throughout their roster everyone must be on the same page, especially both A.I.s. The original is doing his part; it’s time for Andre to do the same. If Andre is willing to scale back his role both on and off the court for the good of the team is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain; the Sixers are fun to watch again, and are slowly climbing their way up from the bottom, due in no small part to the return of number 3.