BAUTISTA: The Philadelphia 7(Sleep)ers

Last Wednesday night, I watched my beloved New York Knicks match up against the Philadelphia 76ers. I was dreading this game. As I sat down, I turned to my fellow Knicks fan and said, “Sure, the Knicks are on a four-game winning streak. Sure, they’re being led by a defensively-minded coach. Are they going to beat the Sixers in Philly tonight? Absolutely not. The Sixers are going to give them the shaft.”

I said it, and I meant it. I’m probably one of the most die-hard Knicks fans you’ll ever come across, but I’m also one of the most die-hard NBA fans you’ll ever come across, so I wasn’t going to fool myself. I didn’t believe the Knicks had a chance. But as they held the Sixers to 11 points in the first quarter, I let myself hope. Ultimately, I wasn’t disappointed — the Knicks held the Sixers to 79 points and extended their winning streak to five. However, rather than excitement, I felt relief. Relief because I knew that we had just dodged a bullet and that in this particular season, eight times out of 10, Philly would beat us on their home court.

As someone who makes it his hobby to follow the careers of promising college basketball players’ transitions to the NBA, no other team has personally been more fascinating to follow than the Sixers — Jodie Meeks, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner were some of the brightest stars among their collegiate peers in the past four years. Jodie Meeks scored 54 points his senior year in a game against Tennesse — as a shooting guard. Evan Turner, also known as “The Villain,” played one through three in college and averaged 20–9–6 his junior year. Holiday … well, I couldn’t really find anything that popped out from his one-and-done at UCLA, but his coaches always had great things to say! Anyway, with performances such as these, I would have thought an NBA team featuring all three of these players would be unfathomable. But somehow, the stars aligned to place all of this tremendous upside (keyword being upside) on the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers have five scorers all averaging 10+ points per game. At times, this has proved to be a double-edged sword. When maintaining a sufficient lead of seven or more points in the last few minutes of a game, the Sixers tend to close out. However, in games decided by four points or less, without a “go-to-guy,” they often find themselves struggling to decide who gets the ball.

The problem isn’t that they don’t have the talent to close out games: the problem is that they have too much. To whom do you give the ball? To Evan Turner, the number two pick of last year’s draft who began to show glimpses of greatness in February? To Lou Williams, your team’s leading scorer and possible sixth man of the year candidate? To Andre Iguodala, your All-Star veteran and team leader? The average age of the Sixers is 25, so while the ceilings of most of their young talent is still unknown, it is impossible to say which player will emerge as the closer, crunch-time option. There is also the very real possibility that this player will never emerge and that the selfless play of the Sixers will dictate who gets the ball at the end of games — they certainly have enough players who can shoot the ball.

The biggest reason I’ve noticed the Sixers this season is that most basketball columns I read have unwisely overlooked them. It is easy to lack appreciation for a team that lacks any true standout superstar. This is a league loaded with teams that have multiple star-collaborations (The Heat, the Clippers, the Knicks, the Thunder, etc.). And this is exactly why I appreciate the Sixers this season — they’ve been winning games without a “Big Three” or “Batman and Robin” dynamic.

Though his presence has been pivotal on both ends of the floor, Andre Iguodala’s averages of 12–6.5–5.5 (and 1.8 steals) this season were probably the weakest statistical submissions of any of the 2012 All-Stars. Yet, he was still attributed All-Star status because his team is winning games, and he’s their most impactful player. I was similarly surprised when the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert was named an All-Star reserve while averaging a modest 13–9–1.5 (and 1.8 blocks … although he’s 7’2’’.). These are simply not All-Star statistics. However, this is what makes the Sixers’ season so impressive — they’re holding their opponents to 94.5 points per game through a combination of clever drafting and superb coaching. If you were to add up this year’s contracts of their four most important players (say Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday), the Sixers are paying no more than $27 million.

Let’s compare that to my Knicks: Melo and Amare alone are making a combined $37 million. And frankly, for the production Philly is getting out of Iggy, Williams, Turner, and Holiday every night, I would gladly swap them for Amare and Melo. Clearly, you can put a price tag on guys who play both ends of the floor.

As someone who barely misses any Knicks games, I see Philly play multiple times a year and know how good they are (and yes, despite New York’s win last week, they are currently better than the Knicks). If both of these teams were not in the same division, I would probably have no clue about how good the Sixers actually were. Yet I am still forced to endure tweets, PTI segments and more tweets about “LOB CITYYY!!” (that’s the Los Angeles Clippers for you noobs out there) almost every other day, even though the Clippers are the same seed as the Sixers, and the Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake freaking Griffin. How are the clippers not doing better than the Lakers or Spurs? Oh, that’s right, they’re coached by Vinny Del Negro. But I digress.

Seriously though, with what Doug Collins has accomplished with the Sixers this season, just imagine him coaching talents as rare and unique as Blake and CP3. Or for that matter, imagine him having just any superstar.

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