The Philadelphia 76ers got off to a great start this season and surged to a big lead in the Atlantic Division. For a while, it seemed that the team would continue to play at a high level all season and cruise to a division title as well as a playoff birth. However, in the past few weeks, the team has sputtered and holds only a two game division lead over the second place Boston Celtics (with the New York Knicks also in the hunt). A combination of injuries, long road trips, and lack of execution in close games has left head coach Doug Collins searching for a way to get his team back on track.
The key injury for the 76ers this season has been Spencer Hawes. The 7′ 1″ center has only played in 14 games all season due to a combination of injuries related to his back and Achilles. The most recent injury, to his Achilles, will keep Hawes out at least until March 12. Before being injured, Hawes had been a key reason for the team’s success early in the season. Hawes averaged close to a double-double, contributing just over ten points per game and close to eight rebounds. While Lavoy Allen and Nikola Vucevic have played well in the absence of Hawes, the team would benefit from Hawes’ presence in the lineup on a nightly basis.
During the first half of the season, the Philadelphia 76ers played a majority of its games at home. Furthermore, many of the games against top teams in the league, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Miami Heat, were played at home. Prior to a road trip that began on February 11th, the 76ers played 18 of its first 27 games at home. Since that date, the 76ers have had eight road games and have gone 3-5.
The reality is that the 76ers will be playing more and more games on the road for the rest of the season. The challenge of a shortened season becomes even tougher when a team has to travel from city to city. The 76ers must get used to playing away from the Wells Fargo Center and need to take advantage of the limited home games remaining.
The lack of execution in close games has been the most daunting problem facing the 76ers this season. This was clearly evident in the team’s recent loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Even though Lou Williams led the team back to tie the game at one point, he was still unable to deliver in the final seconds and could not complete the comeback. In addition, during the fourth quarter, many players were unable to hit key shots that could have pulled the Sixers back into the game. The team does not have a player that can be trusted to go to in the fourth quarter consistently. Doug Collins has allowed various players to take the last shot, including Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, and even Elton Brand, but no one has emerged as a clutch performer.
The closest to a clutch performer would be Lou Williams. In the game against the Bucks, he did take over for a few-minute stretch and put the team on his back. Earlier in the season, in the home win against the Lakers, it was Lou Williams who stepped up with big buckets in the fourth quarter and led the Sixers to the win. However, he has not been given the ball every time in the fourth quarter of close games and has fallen short on multiple occasions (i.e. the most recent game against the Bucks). With all that being said, I think Lou Williams can be the guy who takes the final shot for the Sixers and he needs to continue to demand the ball.
Another player that needs to step up is Jrue Holiday. With his speed and quickness, Holiday has a great deal of potential to contribute by driving the ball on offense and creating turnovers on defense. Furthermore, he needs to control the tempo of the offense and distribute the ball to his teammates when they are in a position to score. Most importantly, Holiday needs to contain the opponent’s point guard. Multiple players have had big games against Holiday this season and it needs to stop in order for Doug Collins to trust him to be on the court late in a game.
Finally, the two most disappointing players for the 76ers in the minds of many are Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner. For Andre Iguodala, I think fans need to accept him as the player that he is and not expect him to take shots at the end of the game. Since he is still a member of this team, and an All-Star, fans should expect Iguodala to focus on shutting down the opponent’s best scorer while contributing on the offensive end at certain times throughout the game. In the fourth quarter, he should not be the go-to guy and the ball should be taken out of his hands.
Unfortunately, for Evan Turner, his role on the team remains unclear. The former second-round pick is under-performing, averaging 7.7 points per game to go along with 2.6 assists per game. Evan Turner needs to prove that he deserves more playing time or be pushed to the bench. The 76ers could use another scoring threat, but to this point, Turner has not delivered. Doug Collins will have to continue to work with Turner the rest of the season in hopes of finding a way to help him finally break-out in this league.
Turner had what could prove to be a breakout game last night against the Boston Celtics. Turner scored 26 points in a rout of the Atlantic Division rival, and time will tell as to whether that performance was a sign of development or an anomaly.
With all that being said, the 76ers are a good team that have the potential to make noise in the playoffs, but the team still has to make adjustments throughout the rest of the season. The team needs to get healthy and needs to continue to grow collectively. Players need to identify their role on the team and one player needs to rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter. In order for the team to be successful during the rest of the season, it must figure out a way to win close games. Once the team gets that first close win, the team may be able to get out of neutral and begin to move forward again.