Sixers: Playoffs vs. ping-pong balls

Charles Barkley said the 76ers would've been better off losers.
Charles Barkley said the 76ers would've been better off losers.
Posted: April 24, 2011

A few months back, when the Sixers were playing well and it looked as if they'd secure an unexpected invitation to the NBA's annual postseason soiree, some people got excited. Charles Barkley wasn't one of them.

"Why is Doug Collins trying to win games? That's stupid," Barkley told an Inquirer reporter. "They should develop the young guys and try to get a better draft pick."

The Sixers and anyone who's watched them would likely point out that the team did "develop the young guys" this year. As for getting a better draft pick, hoop heads seem to be lukewarm about the coming class, so missing out on the lottery might not be as big a deal as Barkley made it. Still, his underlying point was about the playoffs being a time-wasting academic exercise for the Sixers - a stance he reinforced not long thereafter.

While Barkley was moonlighting as an NCAA tournament analyst, he talked to the media at a CBS/Turner gathering in New York City. I asked him if he thought the Sixers had any shot to win their first-round playoff series.

"No," he said. "No. No. No . . . " He kept saying "no." He's probably off somewhere right now muttering "no" to himself.

Barkley has taken a lot of heat about a lot of things over the years, but he was right about the Sixers. They're down, 3-0, in their series against Miami. Sunday's Game 4 could very well be the last day they play basketball for a while. Andre Iguodala - shooting just 28 percent from the field against the Heat, perhaps the worst playoff-series performance by a Sixer in more than four decades - said they could still put themselves "in a position to win," but in the unlikely event that they do, you have to wonder if anyone will notice. (For Game 3, the Sixers did a 3.3 rating on Comcast SportsNet and a 2.0 on TNT. As a reference point, last Tuesday, when all three local teams played, the Sixers got a 3.0 on TCN/TNT, while the Flyers did a 5.6 on CSN, and the Phils cleaned up with a 12.9 on PHL17.)

Doug Collins' crew had a nice, surprising regular season, but ultimately they're the NBA's version of the Saturday Night Live cast: a team of not- ready-for-prime-time players. That's what we've learned this postseason. There's a huge chasm between the teams that make the playoffs and the teams that are serious contenders. If you laid these Sixers head to toe, they wouldn't come close to bridging that gap.

Over the last 30 years, only eight organizations have won NBA titles: the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, and, way back when, the Sixers. There's a simple but good reason for that: Each of those squads had at least one superstar. Most of them had more than one. Only Larry Brown's greater-than-the-sum-of-its- meager-parts 2003-04 Pistons managed to win it all without a dominant, obvious future Hall of Famer or two on the roster.

That's the way it's always worked in the NBA. Teams with top-tier players have a shot while everyone else is essentially waiting to make travel plans for the offseason.

Which brings us back to the Sixers and why, in the end, this postseason appearance will serve as little more than a cruel tease. When you look at the roster, there are some nice players. Jrue Holiday is a nice player. Thaddeus Young is a nice player. Lou Williams is a nice player. Evan Turner may or may not be a nice player. Nice players fill roles and compete, but they don't scare opposing teams and they don't take over games and they don't often put the Larry O'Brien trophy in a Latrell Sprewell two-handed choke hold.

You hear a lot about the Sixers being a young team that needs time to develop, which is true(ish). They're the 11th youngest team in the league, with an average age of 26.22. But would you rather keep the Sixers roster or swap it out for a team that's even younger and, more important, has a superstar in place - say the Nets (25.84) with Deron Williams or the Wizards (25.14) with John Wall? The Sixers' best and most consistent player this year is also one of the oldest. Elton Brand led the team in points and rebounds, but against the Heat the 32-year-old simply wasn't enough to cancel out LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, who combined for 75 of Miami's 100 points in Game 3.

The Sixers remain convinced, at least outwardly, that they're closer to becoming a contender than Barkley or others believe. When I talked to general manager Ed Stefanski not long ago, he seemed pleased about the organization's direction but added that one thing was holding the Sixers back.

"If we had one guy in the middle, I'd play anyone," Stefanski said. "Our perimeter is damn good. And I'd argue we have the best bench in basketball. If we had that stud in the middle . . ."

Before I could laugh and tell him what he already knows - that almost every franchise is a dominant big man away from winning a championship - he cut me off.

"I know," he said, "but where do we get that guy, right? A lot of teams dream that way."

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or

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