The Sixers Won’t Be Contenders in the Eastern Conference

Sure, our home team has been playing great ball this season, but that won't matter when they go up against better teams.

One of the great things about the NFL is that a team that skulks into the playoffs, as the Giants did, can win the Super Bowl championship. The league’s history is filled with stories of those who overcame the odds to capture the big prize. Division winners with 9-7 records. Wild-card teams. In a one-game showdown, just about anything can happen, right New England?

The same thing goes in baseball. The Cardinals looked ready for the glue factory last August, but a red-hot September and an epic, Mama Cass job by the Braves propelled St. Louis into the playoffs. A month later, Tony LaRussa was able to retire with another World Series title to go with his Mensa membership.

Even the NHL offers opportunity for rapid advancement. Boston was the Eastern Conference’s third seed last year and finished with eight fewer wins and 14 fewer points than Vancouver, the league’s best regular-season team. Thanks to a hot goaltender and some timely scoring, the Broons won the Cup. The year before, the seventh-seeded Flyers reached the finals. In 2009, the number-four-seeded Penguins took the title.

Enough with the history lesson.

The fact is that the NBA does not offer such opportunities for teams that barely reach the playoffs or haven’t made a long climb to the top. There are exceptions, such as when the Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen prior to the 2007-08 season, creating a “Big Three” of them and Paul Pierce. For the most part, there are few Cinderellas at the NBA’s post-season dance.

That’s why it was extremely premature for people to be considering the Sixers legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference, despite their impressive start. For all of their success against what was the league’s easiest schedule heading into last Wednesday’s game against the Bulls, the fact remains that this team is still a couple pieces short of being able to beat the league’s best in a seven-game series. It’s one thing to knock off depleted Chicago on a Wednesday night in early February and quite another to take four from the Bulls in May.

Friday’s loss to Miami amplified the differences between the league’s elite and the Sixers. When it came time for the game to be won—the fourth quarter—the Heat responded, and the Sixers flailed. Granted, few rational basketball fans or analysts truly consider coach Doug Collins’ club on a par with the Heat. But there was plenty of chatter before the game about how the Sixers would be able to measure themselves against the league’s best. By 9:30 on Friday, the Sixers were 0-2 against Miami for the season and clearly behind LeBron, Dwyane and Chris Bosh.

That, of course, is no sin. But Sixers fans must understand that teams don’t jump from first-round playoff losers one year to the precipice of the Finals the next–unless they make significant personnel additions. Though Nikola Vucevic has shown some promise, he doesn’t quite fit that description.

A more likely scenario is the Sixers win a first-round series this year and fight hard against Chicago or Miami in the Eastern semis before falling. That would be a nice step forward for the young team. Trouble is, it wouldn’t guarantee anything for future seasons. A case in point is Atlanta, which for years has been hoping for a breakthrough, only to meet disappointment every season. After an eight-year stretch of Lottery futility, the Hawks finally reached the playoffs in 2008. They lost in the first round that year and have fallen in the conference semifinals each of the last three. Though the franchise has built patiently through the draft, it has yet to acquire the star capable of lifting it to greatness.

The Sixers are in the same position. By grabbing Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams in the draft, they have built a solid nucleus. But the big free agent signing of Elton Brand did not produce a star, rather a strong complementary piece in Doug Collins’ system. Spencer Hawes is a solid role player. So is Jodie Meeks. But the NBA is about star power, and the Sixers just don’t have it. (P.S. Trading for defensively-challenged ball hog Amare Stoudemire isn’t the answer.)

What the team does have is a roster willing to play tough defense. It takes care of the ball. (Heading into the Chicago game, the Sixers were on pace to register the second-best turnover/per possession rate in NBA history.) It has many different scoring options. But it doesn’t have the one standout on whom the team can count for a basket in tight games against good teams. Friday night, Williams tried to be that guy, and it didn’t work out. He made just six of 17 attempts against the Heat.

Do not read this as a screed against the Sixers. The team has made pro basketball fun again in Philadelphia. Fans are buying tickets and filling the arena. That’s great. The Sixers could well win the Atlantic Division and have a shot at the conference’s third seed. A first-round playoff win is expected. These are all big steps and reason for optimism. But until the franchise upgrades its roster to include a couple standouts, fans can’t talk about championships. It’s just not how things work in the NBA.

The Sixers are moving ahead. Just don’t expect the final destination to be the conference finals. More work needs to be done for that to happen.

Until then, keep singing. Keep buying tickets. Keep enjoying the excitement. The Sixers deserve that.


  • If you’re looking for the main difference between the Eagles and Super Bowl Champion Giants, look under center. It doesn’t matter how much the NFL propaganda partners lionize Michael Vick’s “playmaking” abilities, he hasn’t shown the consistency and ability to deliver in big games like Eli Manning has. Say what you want about Donovan McNabb, but he at least reached five NFC title games. Vick has made it to one during his career and is 0-1 in post-season games during two seasons as an Eagle.
  • After losing two straight by a combined 11-6 score, the Flyers’ defensive problems are becoming more and more obvious. Only four other teams in the league have given up more goals, and you can’t blame that all on Ilya Brzygalov. The Flyers had better beef up their blue line, or their playoff shelf life will be extremely short.
  • Congratulations to Temple for retaining football coach Steve Addazio. Truth be told, by the time West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse leave the Big East, and Boise State, Central Florida, Sleepy, Dopey and Grumpy join up, the Rutgers job won’t be much better than the Owl position. Addazio knows one more big year on Broad Street will yield a better offer than the Scarlet Knights. Meanwhile, Temple AD Bill Bradshaw had better make sure he has a good short list of candidates.