Despite run, Sixers still far from elite


No one should make too much of the 76ers first visit to the second round of the NBA playoffs in nine years. No one should be deluded into thinking they are on the verge of becoming an elite team.

If nothing else, the Sixers themselves seem to understand that for all the strides they made this season, they have miles to go before joining the leagues upper echelon.

Weve got to get better, coach Doug Collins said Sunday morning at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, about 12 hours after the season ended with an 85-75 loss at Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Its great to be an overachiever, he added. But to be a champion, you cant overachieve.

Certainly the Sixers showed a great deal of grit this year. Certainly they were a superb defensive team, despite the absence of a proven shot blocker.

As team president Rod Thorn said, I think that we played about as close to our potential as virtually anybody this year.

Translation: They maxed out a so-so roster.

I think we know that we need to get better, Thorn said.

Collins and Thorn agreed that the Sixers need to add size and athleticism to their front line, and really, really, really need to find a proven scorer. Collins also said it would be nice to get bigger on the wings. And Andre Iguodalawho may or may not be part of the mix next yearchimed in, saying that the team could definitely use a backup center or center to block shots, run the floor a little bit with us, and a better backup point guard for Jrue Holiday.

Thats a sizable to-do list for a playoff team, but it should come as no surprise, considering how the lockout-shortened season played out. The Sixers started out 20-9 against the softer, home-heavy portion of the schedule, then went 15-22 to finish 35-31 overall, barely making the playoffs as the Easts eighth seed.

They nudged Chicago in the first round largely because the Bulls Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were lost to injury, and extended the Celtics to seven games in a no-holds-barred, steel cage match of a series. But in the end, the Sixers sputtering offense did them in. They shot just 35 percent from the floor in the decisive game, 27.8 percent from the three-point arc.

And now, first-year managing owner Josh Harris said Sunday, Everythings going to be on the table to improve the team.

He backed off that stance slightly when he was asked if the new ownership group was going to do whatever it takes to bolster the roster.

"Whatever it takes are pretty strong words, he said, but I think were prepared to do what we have to do as an ownership group, financially or otherwise, to improve the team. We want to win. I think we laid out when we started that we couldnt give you a time frame. We dont want to underestimate the difficulties, but our goal is to bring a championship back to Philly. Its been a while since (83), but thats what we want to do.

"Theres 29 other teams that have the same goal, so were going to do what we have to do as an ownership group, intellectually and financially, to make that happen. Were a well-financed group.

Neither Harris nor Thorn ruled out the use of the NBAs amnesty provision, likely with veteran forward Elton Brand, who will make 18 million next season, the last of the five-year, 80 million deal he signed with the team in the summer of 2008.

And when asked if the team is bothered by the prospect of exceeding the league luxury tax thresholdroughly 70 millionHarris said, Were going to be smart about it.

As it stands the Sixers will likely be only 3.8 million under the next years salary cap, which is roughly 60 million. They can obviously clear more space if they "amnesty" Brand, enabling them to bring in a scorer or a banger. (While Thorn is not permitted under the leagues tampering rules to mention specific players, two unrestricted free agents who might help the Sixers are now with the Netsguardforward Gerald Green and power forward Kris Humphries. The question is, do the Sixers really want to raid a 22-44 team in an attempt to find solutions to their problems?)

Brand has heard all the conjecture about the amnesty business, and is at peace with it.

I want to be here, absolutelybe here with this young team, he said. But its whatevers best for the organization for me. Whatever happens, so be it.

Then there is the trade route. Iguodalas name is again being bandied about, after a season in which he made his first All-Star team despite averaging just 12.4 points, the third-lowest norm of his career. He remains a premier perimeter defender, but has some holes in his gameone of them being his foul shooting. He made just 61.9 percent of his free throws during the regular season, a career low, then saw that plummet to 58.9 percent in the playoffs. In the series against Boston, he actually shot better from the three-point range (53.8 percent) than the foul line (48.6 percent).

He nonetheless has value on the open market. And it is worth noting that the San Jose Mercury News reported last week that the Warriors might be willing to part with their lottery pick in exchange for a small forward.

Iguodala has heard things like this before. In fact, he has heard more specific rumors through the years. Wasnt he supposed to go to the Warriors for Monta Ellis? To the Lakers for Lamar Odom? To Memphis for Rudy Gay?

It doesnt really bother me, he said of the latest speculation, because I dont give it too much attention. It hasnt happened. I always prepare to come back and be here. I always keep in touch with the guys. After going through it so many times, you kind of figure out the routine, knowing that I should be back here.

The Sixers most prominent unrestricted free agent is center Spencer Hawes, who started out the season playing the best ball of his career but then missed 29 games with a strained Achilles. He was never the same when he returned, save a game or two in the Chicago series after Noah rolled an ankle, and was particularly ineffective against the Celtics (7.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 41.1 percent from the floor).

He said he hasnt thought much about free agency yet. And while he likes the idea of sticking around Weve been able to get something going out here, he saidit sounds like hes going to test the waters.

Its very rare, with the current system thats set up, as it was collectively bargained, that you get the opportunity to not have anything tying you back, so well see how it goes, he said. In the next couple weeks, Ill probably start looking at that.

Lou Williams, the teams sixth man, also said he has yet to make a decision about whether he will opt out of the last year of the five-year, 25 million contract he signed in 2008despite reports earlier this season indicating that he will cut the cord.

At this point I just think it would be crazy for me to leave, he said. This is somewhere where Ive carved out a lane. This is where my family is. This is my second home, outside of Atlanta. But this is business, and once it comes time to deal with that, then well get to the table.

Its questionable as to how much leverage he might have. He led the team in scoring during the regular season (14.9), but saw his average slip to 11.5 during the playoffs, on 35.2-percent shooting (and anemic 16.7-percent 3-point accuracy). He has his place, at the right price, but he is basically a streaky, undersized 2-guard. And he is only an average defender.

In general, Thorn said, Weve got a lot of work to do. Our work is just starting today. It just ended for the team, but its just starting for us. Weve got some good, young pieces. Weve obviously got a lot of character on this team. Our guys fought all the way, and they do that every day. But there are ways we need to improve, and hopefully well be able to do that.

Gordie Jones is an award-winning journalist who has worked in the Philadelphia market for 29 years. He also co-authored a book about the 76ers' 1982-83 championship team with former Sixers general manager Pat Williams.

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