For anyone who has watched the conference finals over the past week, there are plenty of story-lines that jump to the forefront. Between Paul George going head to head with LeBron James, Tim Duncan stating his case as the best player of his generation, and the Grizzlies frontcourt struggling mightily, fans have been treated to quality hoops. Observant fans may have noticed a common thread that ties the Pacers, Heat, Spurs, and Grizzlies together – each has at least one All-NBA player on their roster.
Employing the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Marc Gasol, Paul George, and Tony Parker, each of these teams has talent that others in the league pine for. Being counted as one of the 15 best players in the league is a high honor, and indicative of their individual talent level. But outside of the ability of their lead players, the remaining contenders bear little resemblance to one another stylistically.
The Miami Heat rely on a high-powered offense and swarming defense predicated on the length and athleticism of the league’s MVP, James. The San Antonio Spurs have mastered the art of the high screen-and-roll, executing teams to death with a barrage of 3′s. Though the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies share some traits as grind it out defensive juggernauts, they each have defining characteristics; the deft touch of Gasol is a stark contrast from the brute strength of Roy Hibbert, and the blinding athleticism of George differs greatly from the patient play-making of Mike Conley Jr.
As the saying goes, you can’t teach talent. Each of the aforementioned stars have helped their teams succeed by mastering specific aspects of the game. For instance, Gasol’s ascent from good player to Defensive Player of The Year has coincided with Memphis’ rise to one of the league’s best defensive units. His defensive wizardry makes him an indispensable part of one of the league’s best teams.
And therein lies the problem with the Sixers current roster, even with their best players – none of the players currently employed by the team possess an elite skill. Well, unless you count Evan Turner’s penchant for complaining about phantom foul calls. He’s among the league leaders in that category.
The Sixers have a couple of quality NBA starters. Point guard Jrue Holiday is a very good young player. Holiday made a big leap forward this season, surpassing his career averages while maintaining similar offensive efficiency. But his numbers, traditional or advanced, are merely above average. His eight assists per game, a nice number ranking fourth in the league, come with the caveat that Holiday had the second most turnovers of all NBA players. At the deepest position in the NBA, Holiday is just another face in the crowd.
Thad Young is another very good player. Through multiple coaching changes, his production and work effort has never faltered, and fans have become familiar with Thad diving for loose balls and “turning garbage into gold” as announcer Marc Zumoff likes to say. You can pencil him in for about 15 points and eight rebounds a game, but expecting much more is not encouraged. Young has made strides defensively, but his smaller, leaner frame makes him susceptible to bullying in the post.
Just 22 and 24 years old respectively, it is very possible that Holiday and Young have room to grow. But nothing that either has done to this point in their careers has indicated that fans should expect a quantum leap to super-stardom. In an ideal scenario, they would be the second and third best players on a contender. As it stands, they’re the two best players on a fringe playoff team.
Striving for More
This lack of top level talent is what makes the Andrew Bynum trade excusable from the organization’s perspective. As fans and fortune faded in the post-Iverson years, the team preferred early round playoff exits to stripping the team down completely. The Bynum trade was a far cry from standard operating procedure, a high risk move that sought to vault the team from mediocrity to contention. Philadelphians roared with approval after the Sixers acquired their first stud big man since Moses Malone, singing the praises of the franchise’s new direction.
Unfortunately for Josh Harris and Co., the move didn’t work out. Bynum’s creaky knees failed him, and fans have since pined for the services of lynchpin Andre Iguodala and budding young center Nik Vucevic. It’s easy as a bystander to stand back and say that Bynum is a bum and ownership didn’t do their due diligence before trading for him.
Miserable results aside, the fact that the trade was made at all should be considered a success for any fan of the Sixers. It would have been easy for management to keep the team in tact, selling fans on last year’s second round playoff appearance. But ownership, led by men who made their fortunes in venture capitalism, saw a risk/reward scenario in the form of a seven foot behemoth that they couldn’t pass up.
The truth is that the Sixers weren’t good enough to compete for a title prior to the Bynum trade. A team that barely got by a ravaged Bulls team is nothing more than fodder for the East’s upper echelon. But Andrew Bynum represented hope, a post presence that could give them a puncher’s chance against any team in the league. One of the league’s two best centers, Bynum’s addition was enough to cause many to predict the Sixers would win the Atlantic Division. With Bynum, the Sixers would have the flexibility and the talent to play multiple styles. Without him, fans were forced to watch the illustrious Spencer Hawes shoot 3′s.
The failings of the 2012-13 season have been well documented, attributed to a variety of reasons. Bynum’s absence, Doug Collins’ uninspired offensive system, and Evan Turner’s lack of development are all culprits for the team’s regression. But at the heart of it all is a problem that puts a limit on the team’s ceiling – they lack elite talent.
The team’s coaching vacancy has caused a lot of commotion around the city, but a great coach is nothing without talented players to execute his principles. Many fans have asked the franchise to consider Phil Jackson, forgetting that great talent was already in place when he arrived in Chicago and LA. A top notch general to lead the troops would be nice, but it is putting the cart before the horse.
Not since AI was darting through the lane in the early 2000′s have the Sixers had a player who could make them relevant on his own merit, who could build the team’s identity just by stepping on the court. The failure of the Bynum trade should not discourage management from making moves in the future, because the mentality behind the transaction is that of a winning franchise. The Sixers know they need their LeBron, their Duncan, an elite player who can have a transformative effect on the franchise. Until that problem is dealt with, nothing else matters.