The Sixers, Treading Water

Why there’s only so much Doug Collins can do

Sixers coach Doug Collins enjoyed a busman’s holiday Sunday, attending the Catholic League showdown between Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Carroll, which is coached by Collins’ son-in-law, Paul Romanczuk. Collins, who sat in the first row of the bleachers at midcourt, had grandchildren all over him, a Duke cap perched atop his head and looked no different than the other hoopheads who had come to watch the big game. Collins is a big Carroll supporter, and it is not unusual to see him at games, provided his day job allows such attendance.

The homestanding Patriots surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and lost, leaving Collins no doubt unhappy for Romanczuk. But the couple hours spent watching high school basketball were a mere distraction for Collins. After all, he’s in a playoff race, and he has to keep his Sixers charging ahead toward that first-round meeting with the Celtics. Or maybe the Heat. When you’re in the post-season, you can’t worry about the opponent -– unless said rival happens to be capable of closing out a best-of-seven series in three games.

Thanks to the awful nature of the Eastern Conference, in which only five of 15 teams boast winning records, the Sixers occupy the seventh spot in the hierarchy, and number six is just a win or two away. Given the fetid play to date of teams like Jersey, Toronto, Washington and Cleveland, not to mention the rank mediocrity of Charlotte, Milwaukee and Detroit, the Sixers are in great playoff shape, and you can make plans for two home games this April. Considering the relatively intimate nature of the “crowds” at the Center this season -– the Sixers rank 28th out of 30 in the NBA in attendance –- tickets shouldn’t be tough to get, unless fans from Boston decide to descend on the city, as they do when the Red Sox visit the Phillies.

With so much attention given to the Eagles’ “retooling,” the Sixers have gone largely unnoticed, and not just because even their home arena’s lower bowl appears desolate at times. To attract attention in the NBA, you need one of two things, either a highly successful club (Boston, Miami, San Antonio, etc.) or an exciting player capable of drawing fans, despite largely futile team pursuits (Blake Griffin). The Sixers have neither, so their attempt to climb the Eastern charts has been done without much fanfare.

When Collins was hired, I spoke with people around the NBA and came away convinced his arrival would be worth 15 more wins than the 26 the Sixers’ ’09-10 aggregation managed. I cited his commitment to defense and his ability to instill discipline as the key reasons for the optimism. In a conference bloated with shaky teams, reaching the .500 mark appeared a reasonable expectation. Nearly halfway through this campaign, it is necessary for an adjustment. The ceiling now appears to be 35 wins, a nine-game improvement over last year’s debacle but hardly reason for celebration.

Several reasons –- none of which include Collins –- exist for the reality check. First off, the team cannot close out tight games with any regularity, a nod to its youth. Second, its defense is spotty. But the biggest problems the Sixers have are their glaring weaknesses at two of the five spots on the court. Start with center. The acquisition of Spencer Hawes was viewed less as a move designed to bolster the roster and more as an opportunity to find a rube (hello, Sacramento) willing to take on Samuel Dalembert, the world’s most miserable millionaire. Dalembert is averaging 4.8 ppg and 6.4 rpg in relative anonymity in Sacto, and it was good that Philadelphia found a way to jettison him. Hawes, however, is not a center. In the spirit of Ralph Sampson and other tall players who wish they were guards, Hawes is most comfortable away from the basket. That leaves the Sixers without a presence inside, which hurts them on defense and the backboards.

The second hole is at shooting guard, where rookie Evan Turner has floundered, and Jodie Meeks has struggled with consistency. It’s early still, but Turner appears ill suited for NBA life, thanks to an inability to shoot from long range and a skill set made for the collegiate game but not polished enough for pro work. Perhaps the most telling indication of the team’s dissatisfaction with Turner came after Friday’s win over Milwaukee. Collins was asked why Turner played so sparingly (10:10 of burn). “Evan is a great kid, but he didn’t play well the other night. We were trying to win that game.” Ouch. Meanwhile, Meeks has dazzled at times with his long-range skill, and Lord knows the Sixers needed someone who could make a three-pointer, but he’s not a starting two man on a successful team.

The Sixers’ playoff push is very real, even if it’s being accomplished against a field that hardly inspires. They will win more games than last year’s team. All of that is good news. But this team is no closer to the league’s heavyweights than it was last year or the year before. And with a shaky draft ahead and the strong possibility of a work stoppage looming, the opportunities for improvement are not plentiful.

Collins would be well advised to take in as many Carroll games as possible. He’s going to need the distraction.

SUCKER PUNCHES
* Can we believe anything Andy Reid says from now on? If he was going to fire defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, why didn’t he just say he was evaluating the coach’s future, instead of telling the media last Monday that McDermott would be back? Poor form from someone who obviously doesn’t care about his public credibility.

* If Villanova is going to survive a week that features road trips to Connecticut (today) and Syracuse (Saturday), it can’t fall asleep, as it did for part of the second half against Maryland. And big men Mouphtaou Yarou and Antonio Pena had better be ready for 40 minutes, too.

* Kudos to the Flyers for winning seven of their last 10, nine of which were on the road. They remain the best of the East and appear to have the kind of balanced scoring that will serve them well in the post-season.