Sixers much improved but easily could have more wins

Iguodala
Iguodala
Posted: January 28, 2011

'WHAT IFS" and "What could have beens" have always dominated sports talk.

While the Sixers are generally happy with their 20-25 record, it certainly could be a whole lot different.

Consider the five games in which they held leads late in the game that eventually became improbable losses. Also consider that Andre Iguodala - who does make them a better team overall - missed 12 games with an Achilles' injury. Consider also that at one point this season the Sixers were 0-6 against lowly Toronto, Cleveland and Washington.

During the course of the long season, winnable games will be lost here and there, injuries will occur and, especially with this team, growing pains will lend to a few losses.

But what if?

What if Spencer Hawes didn't get hurt in the preseason and thus start the season as poorly as he did?

What if the Sixers, say, won four of those five games they absolutely fumbled away?

What if, instead of going 5-7 without Iguodala, they could have gone 7-5 with him?

What if the schedule-makers didn't burden the Sixers with an unheard of 17-day, eight-game road trip?

It's understood that "what ifs" don't bring about wins. But those aren't far-fetched thoughts. The Sixers started out 3-13, partly because they were getting used to the new schemes of Doug Collins, partly because they could get absolutely no production from the center position because of Hawes' hurt back and little help from the subs at the spot.

The point is, while the Sixers are still mired in the middle of a playoff hunt, their record could be turned around. Realistically, they could be four or five games over .500. That really is a testament to the job Collins has done with this team. The players are growing up faster than a weed in the summer. They are becoming an extension of their coach.

Before Wednesday's game in Toronto, Collins noticed on a tape of the Raptors that the San Antonio Spurs ran a certain play that worked very well against Toronto. The design was to get the ball to or near the post and have people cut to the basket off that. The Sixers ran different variations of the play to perfection pretty much all night, leading to the comfortable, 107-94 win, their third straight.

The players' eyes are fixated on their coach during games now. The players have come to the realization that the man can be a great help in winning basketball games.

What if this organization had hired him a year ago instead of Eddie Jordan? Imagine what this season perhaps could have been so far.

It certainly can't be said that Collins doesn't reach his goals. Shortly after being named the replacement for Jordan in May, Collins stated some very specific goals. Three of them were at the forefront: Win at home, get Thaddeus Young back to being the player that he can and should be, and get Elton Brand reconnected after a tumultuous year with Jordan.

So far, check, check and check.

The Sixers have played with a sense of pride at the Wells Fargo Center that they didn't show even a little bit last season (even though it was called the Wachovia Center then). Their 14 home wins already has surpassed the 12 victories accumulated a season ago. Collins still holds this city, the fans and the organization so close to his big heart that not winning home games is unacceptable to him.

As for Young and Brand, they are playing their best basketball in years, which is good on many counts. The obvious point is that both players are big factors as to why the team is improving and is thoroughly entrenched in the battle for a playoff spot.

It can't be said often enough how much Brand means to this team on and off the court. The head games that Jordan put him through last season were torture for the vet, who truly has the old-school mentality of team first, individual second.

Young is back to the form that made him one of the most exciting young players in the league a few years ago. Still only 22, Young showed how far he's come Wednesday night in the win over the Raptors when Collins relied on him to defend high-scoring center Andrea Bargnani. Young accepted the challenge without hesitation, seemed to enjoy it, in fact, and played a key role in the win.

NO ROOKIE WALL HERE

 Before Game No. 45 of his NBA career the other night, Evan Turner was asked if he had hit the proverbial rookie wall yet. That's the point of the season when first-year players suddenly realize that they've played as many games as they ever have in one season and still have just as many left.

"I don't think I hit the rookie wall," Turner said, "but it was a little tough when I was hitting the bench so much. When I got drafted, there was so much talk of me and Jrue [Holiday] being in the backcourt together and me being plugged in as a starter right away. Then, when that didn't happen and I was sitting on the bench a lot, that was tough. It was something that hadn't happened to me in a long, long time. But I quickly realized that it's part of the business and that I was the one who had to make sure that things weren't going to stay that way."

Turner seems so much more comfortable as a person and player than he did when training camp began nearly 4 months ago. Collins, who is realistic and honest when talking about his players, is very excited by the improvement Turner has shown so far and is confident the rookie's best days are ahead.

"At every level, he has gone in and sort of felt his way around," Collins said. "Once he gets comfortable with his surroundings and with what's going on on the basketball court, then he does very well. It's the same thing that happened to him at Ohio State."

If there is one aspect of the pro game that Turner would change, it is the endless travel.

"I really can't stand traveling anymore," he said.

Sure enough, later that night, the team's charter flight was canceled from Toronto and delayed the next morning into Philadelphia.

STORMY TRIP

Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski, assistant GM Tony DiLeo and director of player personnel Courtney Witte were on a scouting trip in Denver and were scheduled to fly into Philadelphia on Wednesday. Because of the snow, however, their flight into Philadelphia was canceled. They eventually got a flight to Pittsburgh, rented a four-wheel drive, and started the trek back with Witte at the wheel.

A free spirit of sort who loves to drive his motorcycle long distances during the offseason, Witte had a blast driving through the heavy snowstorm that got blizzard-like once the threesome got to about Harrisburg.

The drive into Philadelphia took about 8 hours. The game they were scouting? Kansas at Colorado.

No doubt the three were checking out local boys Markieff and Marcus Morris from Prep Charter, now tearing it up for the Jayhawks. Colorado also has an interesting prospect in Alec Burks, a 6-7 guard.

DRIBBLES

UPCOMING GAMES

Tonight: vs. Memphis Grizzlies, 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet, WIP (610-AM)

The skinny: The Sixers will be looking to win their fourth straight game for the first time this season, against the Rudy Gay-led Grizzlies. It is the first meeting of the year for the two clubs. However, the Grizzlies will be without guard O.J. Mayo, who was suspended yesterday 10 games without pay for violating the league and union's anti-drug program with a positive test. Coincidentally, he is scheduled to return Feb. 15, in Memphis, against the Sixers . . . Memphis does a terrific job of going after the ball on the boards.

Sunday: vs. Denver Nuggets, 6 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet, WIP (610-AM)

The skinny: One of the Sixers' better wins of the season was in Denver the night after Christmas when they erased a large second-half deficit. Denver was without Carmelo Anthony then, as he was tending to his family after the sudden death of his sister. Since the New Jersey Nets pulled out of trying to land Anthony in a multiteam trade, the Nuggets have gone 3-1 and are playing some of their best ball of the season.

Wednesday: at New Jersey Nets, 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet, WIP (610-AM)

The skinny: The Nets have a bunch of draft picks stockpiled and are boasting one of the worst records in the league. Sure sounds like a way to be rebuilding for the future. Right now, though, they are borderline putrid.

BY THE NUMBERS

95: Since scoring 77 points in a Jan. 3, 84-77 loss at the New Orleans Hornets, the Sixers have scored at least 95 points in each of their next 11 games.

212: That's the number of foul shots attempted by Lou Williams, tops among reserves in the NBA.

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