Why The Philadelphia 76ers Are Struggling

When the Philadelphia 76ers took the court back on February 8 they were sitting on an 18-7 record. The Sixers had a commanding lead in the Atlantic Division, where third in the Eastern Conference overall and there seemed little doubt they would fill one of the conference’s second-round playoff spots opposite Chicago or Miami. It’s been downhill since then, as the record is now 20-13. Thanks to even worse play of late by the Celtics, the lead in the Atlantic Division is still at four games, but New York is coming in the rearview mirror, the Sixers have slipped behind Orlando in the overall Eastern standings and their status as a clear top-four team is in doubt. TheSportsNotebook looks to examine what went wrong.

Let’s start by taking an overall look at Philadelphia as a team and then going into the specifics of the losing streak. The Sixers’ strengths are defense, taking care of the basketball and controlling tempo. They’re the best in the NBA in points allowed, and that number one ranking holds even when you adjust for tempo. On the flip side, even though they are only 17th in raw offensive production, the efficiency rankings shooting them up into the top eight. What this tells us is that while the Philly offense might not pile up big point totals due to a more deliberate tempo, they excel at getting a basket when they need to get it. Doug Collins’ team is also the best in the league in turnover ratio. The only real statistical weakness is rebounding, when they are 22nd.

Personnel-wise, the strength is in the backcourt with Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday and at small forward with Andre Iguodala. Collins can also turn to guard Jodie Meeks off the bench for some three-point shooting. Evan Turner, the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, hasn’t really come into his own. Up front, Iguodala is assisted by Thaddeus Young and a strong post presence in Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand. Right here, we’ll note that Hawes has missed the last few games, which can provide part of the explanation for the struggles, but he didn’t miss the entire bad stretch, nor should he be seen as an indispensable piece, at least if the Sixers are truly a division champ and top four team in the East.

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A look at the schedule shows that Philadelphia has drawn some tough teams. They lost home games to San Antonio, the LA Clippers and Dallas, while dumping road dates with Orlando and last night in Memphis. Even a loss in Minnesota on Sunday was hardly a terrible defeat. Taken individually, none of these defeats are all that alarming. Taken collectively, they suggest a team being exposed as a pretender.

Philadelphia lost to San Antonio on February 8 because they couldn’t stop guard Tony Parker, and they were beaten in free-throw scoring 21-7. Two nights later the Clips nipped them by a point, thanks to a little bit of a rebounding edge. Of note in both games is that the Sixers lost the turnover battle. It wasn’t a huge disparity (10-6 & 10-7, respectively). But perhaps it showed how much Collins’ team relies on winning this phase of the game, and the inability to stop an opposing guard is certainly a concern for a defensive-oriented team that relies on its backcourt.

The Sixers played a bad game in Orlando, and the Magic shot the lights out in a 103-87 win. Every team is going to have lousy nights and this is one we’ll just chuck in the trash. Philly came home to host Dallas for an ESPN audience last Friday night and lost 82-75 because they couldn’t hit a three-point shot to save their live, going 1-for-14 from behind the arc. So far we’ve covered four losses and the Sixers have yet to have a player step up and deliver a 20-point game.

Holiday answered the latter problem the next two games, the road trips to Minnesota and Memphis, but the Wolves consistently got to the line, while the Grizzlies hammered the Sixers on the boards.

If there’s something Philadelphia can take out of this as a positive it’s that except for last night in Memphis, teams have generally not exploited their rebounding deficiencies. This at least can reassure Collins that it’s not a case of fundamental flaws coming home to roost. What strikes me is the inability of individual players to really step up and take the reins. These games are there to be won—the losses to the Clippers and Wolves were by one point, and the Maverick game was there to be taken. I look at a lack of production from Iguodala as the most glaring flaw. And beyond that, if you go into the box scores of these games you see at least two, and often three starters, having literally no impact on the game.

The caliber of opponents on the schedule meant that Philadelphia wasn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s not as though Chicago, Miami or Oklahoma City are anywhere to be found. If the Sixers just went to scrape into the playoffs and make another quick first-round exit, then there’s nothing to fear. But if you think this team is capable of making the next step—to first winning the Atlantic, then winning a first-round playoff series and then at least winning a couple games in a second-round series with Chicago or Miami, then something needs to change. And that something starts with Iguodala picking up his game and playing like a true emerging force.

A tough road game tonight in Houston awaits, so things might get worse before they get better. But the All-Star break means the 76ers have time to regroup mentally before coming back. A stretch of home games coming includes Oklahoma City and Chicago, and Boston is in Wells Fargo Arena on March 7. Time for Philly to start defending their home floor.