Unknown Unknowns

Previewing Nets-76ers: “This is a really bad basketball team.”

Photo by Flickr user keithallison

Photo by Flickr user keithallison

Andrew Bynum’s absence hangs over the Philadelphia 76ers like the ghost of Hamlet’s father—which I suppose makes Dwight Howard Claudius, but stop me before I go too far—but that doesn’t explain how or why Philly has slumped so seriously as of late. A juxtaposition that says it all: The Nets have a 3-game win streak going into tonight’s game at Wells Fargo Center, while the 76ers have one win since the All-Star break. Still, Philadelphia should be much better than they are—which means Brooklyn fans shouldn’t automatically pencil this in for a win. I talked with Hoop76′s Tom Sunnergren to get some idea of the problem with Jrue Holiday, the diminishing impact of Doug Collins, and the general bummer of starting Royal Ivey.

Brooklyn’s Finest: To put it plainly: What’s up with the 76ers? They’ve been underachieving all season, yes, but losing 13 of their last 15 is a particularly brutal stretch.

Hoop76: First, and most significantly, this is a really bad basketball team. They benefited from plus luck and an easy schedule in the season’s first month (the Sixers were, believe it, 10-6 on Nov. 30) which had the unfortunate effect of raising expectations, even minus Bynum, for a group that’s just ill-equipped to meet them. But this team is very bad. Bad players, bad scheme. Just bad. I mean, Royal Ivey will be starting at SG tonight. So the Sixers are terrible and they’re playing accordingly. On top of that, the team has now been eliminated from contention, and the franchise has no incentive whatsoever to win basketball games right now. Quite the opposite, actually.

Now, I realize that player and coach incentives don’t always line up perfectly with the organizations’ (i.e. coaches want to win so they can get a good job, assuming they get fired, while players still want to produce good tape and bankable numbers, regardless of whether their team is angling for pingpong balls), but this still seems significant. You can take a few plays off defensively when your team is coasting towards the lottery without anyone noticing. When you’re fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot, obviously, you can’t. Then there’s the matter of Doug Collins. I think the players have tuned him out.

Anyway, speaking of fighting for playoff spots with teeth and nails, what is the Nets’ ceiling this season? Second round? Conference finals? What would have to happen for them to, gasp, beat the Heat.

BF: If the playoffs started today, the Nets would play the Chicago Bulls—and despite my hometown loyalties, the Bulls are steadily treading downward in the absence of any real Derrick Rose return news and the creeping realization that Nate Robinson Is The Starting Point Guard Are We Fever Dreaming? Which makes me think the Nets could grind out an ugly series win—the over/under for combined points every night would be like 160—putting them right in line for a second round contest against… Miami. They’re not winning that, but to be fair, no one is.

The slightly more optimistic look has them getting into the 2nd or 3rd spot if the Knicks drop out of the Atlantic Division lead due to their Amare-less, Melo-less blues. Then they’d get to beat up on a crummier team—sorry, Atlanta and Milwaukee fans—and gun for an equally ugly win against what I assume would be Indiana. (Over/under for combined points: 140.) Which would walk them right into a conference finals matchup against… again, Miami, but it might be enough to say Mikhail Prokhorov, who declared that anything less than a conference finals berth would be a disappointment.

To beat the Heat they’d have to hope that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade caught the flu at the same time. Not to be pessimistic, but it’s hard for me to imagine a defending champion currently on an 18-game winning streak losing to anyone that isn’t the Thunder or the Spurs.

Royal Ivey, yeesh. That’s rough. Assuming you haven’t forgotten what it feels like, what do the 76ers typically need to do to pull out a win? The Nets can be sloppy with the ball and in transition—is that something Philly can exploit?

H76: Jrue Holiday is playing truly terrible basketball right now, so if the Sixers won tonight, it would probably be because he knocked that off. Since you and I were in a bar in Boston the Saturday before last, slurping drinks and learning about fracking from Knickerblogger’s Robert Silverman, the Sixers have lost five in a row. During this time “All-Star point guard” Jrue Holiday has shot 20-of-75 (26.7 percent) for 60 points. So, despite still serving as a capable distributor during this stretch-he’s averaging just a hair under 10 assists per game-he’s murdered our offense.

Speaking of murder, how are Nets fans feeling about the, so far, brief and wondrous marriage of  Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King? From a couple hours south, it doesn’t look great. It goes back to the classic sports management mistake: in an effort to signal commitment to winning, teams sign players to contracts that almost completely forclose that possibility. In Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Gerald Wallace, the Nets have some truly onerous deals. How will they impact the franchises’ ability to contend down the road?

BF: Granted I’m an eternal sports optimist due to my upbringing as a Cubs fan, which taught me the futility of being bummed out by your team, but I’m okay with it thus far. The lack of financial flexibility is tough, but the players with those contracts are definitely producing in different ways. Kris Humphries riding the bench while making $12 million is tough, but he’ll be gone next year. Management was in a tough spot: They had to get more impressive players to make the Brooklyn move seem bigger, because Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow weren’t going to cut it. In their first season together they’re the fourth seed thus far and could reasonably end up as high as the second. Not bad, you know? We’ll see in a few years how much Johnson and Wallace will decline, but this is the NBA: Money can almost always be moved around.

Regarding the 76ers, what’s usually the moment when you realize that they’ve started on the wrong foot? What should we be paying attention to?

H76: A neat thing about the Sixers, and one that’s proven to be tremendously psychologically helpful for guys (like me) whose mood is affected by the team’s success/lack thereof, is that you know right out the gate which 76ers you’re getting and can calibrate your expectations accordingly. When the Sixers start flat—not attacking the basket, settling for terrible midrange shots, giving opponents fast break opportunities as a result of said choices-they almost never claw their way back in. That said, when the opposite happens, when it’s their night, they tend to hold on. The Sixers were, at one point not too long ago, 12-2 when leading after the first quarter. They’re also, and this is remarkable, 21-1 when leading at the start of the fourth quarter this season. The lesson: get on them early.

What about the Nets. Any tendencies the poor Philly faithful should be keeping an eye on?

BF: Just a general balance/effort thing. Carlesimo has sort of a laissez-faire approach with playcalling and letting the players do what hey want—they’ll run one thing where everyone gets involved, and then they’ll just dump it to Gerald Wallace in the post. Like, how many coaches would auto-bench Reggie Evans for posting up more than once a game? But he does it all the time with no reprise. To paraphrase the oft-repeated message from Sloan, the Nets sometimes stop trusting the process over the outcome—which leads to Evans taking more shots than Brook Lopez. That’s never a good sign.