The 76ers; Stable Climb or Slow Decline?

After a winning record and a playoff berth, are the 76ers developing into a winning franchise, or was the 2010-2011 season another notch on the belt of mediocrity? And where do the 76ers stand in the Eastern Conference moving forward?

Before we begin, I need to decide which I’ll use from now on, Sixers or 76ers? Obviously, the team is called the “76ers,” but typing “Sixers” is much easier. Plus, I can’t remember anyone ever asking if I watched the “76ers” game last night. I understand this really doesn’t matter but it’s been bothering me for some time, so I need some resolution before I continue. I guess, for the sake of proper etiquette, I’ll use “76ers.” At least for now.

Back to business. At quick glance, the 76ers appear to be at the – talented, young nucleus, developing into a winning team – stage. How young? Well, Jrue Holiday still can’t drink (legally), Thaddeus Young is only 22, rookie Evan Turner is also 22, Jodie Meeks is 23, and even six year veteran “Sweet” Lou Williams is only 24. Even better, each one averages 20+ minutes a night and regularly contributes to the 2010-2011 76ers. Without question, Doug Collins and the 76ers are trending up, right? Well, sort of… but not really.

You see, while the 76ers have done a nice job stock-piling young talent, they’ve also invested superstar money in two players that are, well, not superstars. Elton Brand is due $17 million in 2011 and $18 million in 2012. In case you’re wondering, that’s more than LeBron James is due to make in either season. This just in, Elton Brand is not LeBron James. Sure, Brand has bounced back this season after battling injuries, but he’s still not a dominant post player. And let’s be honest, 15 and 8 isn’t worth $35 million over two years… or anywhere close to it. At this point in his career, Brand is a solid rotation player. He’s NOT a franchise building block, despite what his contract insinuates.

Andre Iguodala’s contract isn’t any friendlier. He’s owed $13.5, $14.7 and nearly $16 million over the next three seasons, respectively. Iggy averages 14 points and is currently 3 of 85 on game winning or tying shots. I know what you’re thinking; Why does he continually take last minute shots then? Because he actually believes he’s a superstar. Sadly, Iguodala is indeed, not a superstar. He is, however, a great defender, one of the best in the league in fact. He’s a player every title contender needs. He’s a Swiss Army Knife (attacks the rim, runs the offense, rebounds, defends, can play three positions), but he’s definitely not a superstar. If Iguodala is the best player on your team, you’re not going to advance to the second round of the playoffs, much less win a title. Lamar Odom is a great player, but remove Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and the Lakers are barely a playoff contender. Iguodala is Lamar Odom, only, without Bryant and Gasol.

Between Brand and Iguodala, the 76ers have over $30 million invested annually in two players that will never take them beyond where they are now. With the current salary cap at just over $58 million, Philadelphia is severely crippled for the foreseeable future. Not only will the 76ers be unable to pursue an elite free agent, but they’ll also struggle to retain the younger talent they’ve assembled. Take Thaddeus Young for example. Young will be a restricted free agent this summer. According to basketball experts like ESPN’s Chad Ford, Young is coveted throughout the league because of his “versatility and athleticism” and his potential to be a star. With over 50% of Philadelphia’s cap space locked into Brand and Iguodala, it’s almost certain Young won’t return next year. In other words, the 76ers will lose a contributing player, a future star, and a piece of the organization’s long-term puzzle because money was/is wrapped up in the wrong players.

An alternative option like trading for an elite talent is also unlikely because any deal would need to include Brand or Iguodala. While a trade may work when Brand or Iguodala is an expiring contract, it’s doubtful either will be traded before that time because of their ridiculous contracts. This is why the 76ers dropped the ball when they failed to trade Iguodala earlier this year after the World Basketball Championships. At the time, there was a market for Iguodala’s services. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know the 76ers weren’t a title contender in September. In the NBA, unless your team is built around a young star and building to the future, making the playoffs just to make the playoffs is completely stupid. Instead of being in the lottery and free of Iguodala’s awful contract, the 76ers are a 6th or 7th seed in the playoffs with a future as bright as Libya’s.

Of course, watching the 76ers in the playoffs this spring will be fun, but what about next year, or the year after that, or the year after that? Maxing out as a 4th seed every year isn’t my idea of success. If it were, I’d be an Atlanta Hawks fan.

I’d rather the 76ers go for broke. Move Iguodala (even at pennies on the dollar) get what you can out of Brand until his contract is tradeable, continue to build through the draft, and pray one of your younger talents turns into a star. Right now, it’s the only way to turn the franchise around, because neither Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, nor Chris Paul has Philadelphia as his destination city in the summer of 2012.

Now, where does their current mess put the 76ers in the Eastern Conference over the next few years? The answer: Right where they are now, or worse. The 76ers are on the hamster wheel of mediocrity – 40ish wins per season, a low playoff seed, maybe an upset in round one, and then home for the summer. Always competing, but never getting better. What’s the prize for reaching the playoffs? Playoff experience for a group that will never put it to use in the NBA Finals or even a conference championship (at least not with the 76ers), zero lottery picks, and therefore, almost no chance of drafting the league’s next superstar.

But hey, the playoffs are great, right?!?!

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