The NBA Corner: The Impact of New Ownership
The Allen Iverson years brought many great moments like this to the 76ers and the city of Philadelphia, but it also came with baggage like this, and when Iverson was traded on December 20, 2006, it signaled a new direction for the franchise.
Unfortunately, that direction was not necessarily up.
Since winning the Eastern Conference Championship in 2001, the Philadelphia 76ers have not finished the regular season higher than fourth place in the east and have only advanced to the second round of the playoffs once, and that was nine years ago. It was clear to everyone that ownership, led by Comcast Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, cared far more about the Philadelphia Flyers (whom he and his group also owned) than they did for the Sixers, and the results were evident.
Then, this summer, Snider and his crew finally sold their stepchild of a franchise to an investment group that included Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and was led by a 46 year-old Wharton graduate and founding partner of private equity firm Apollo Global Management named Joshua Harris.
A new day had dawned in Sixerland. But the team was still the same.
So, the question quickly became, how much difference can an energized and engaged ownership group make?
The answer? Plenty.
Last season, the Sixers finished 41 – 41, third in the Atlantic Division, and seventh in the Eastern Conference, which gave them the pleasure of losing the Miami Heat in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Making the postseason in the NBA isn’t any real accomplishment and having a perfectly mediocre team that could neither win a playoff series nor secure a high draft pick led to a feeling of apathy among casual fans. They were an average team with no stars and no excitement that was eschewed by ownership in favor of the hockey team that played in the same building, so why would anyone want to go to the games?
This year could not be more different. For the first time in the post-Iverson era, there is real excitement surrounding the team even though the roster is virtually the same as last season. First of all, the new owners, including Twitter-savvy CEO Adam Aron actually listen to fans, like when they demanded that Hip-Hop, the ridiculous rabbit from the ‘hood that made real basketball fans do a facepalm, was finally nixed or when they decided to revere the team’s legacy (third-most wins in NBA history), rather than ignore it, with videos of some of the franchise's all-time greats or even doing something unheard of in pro sports: slashing ticket prices.
In short, as Mike Bertha explained, the new owners have made all the right moves: “In a sports world—where owners are typically scene [sic] as ominous overseers leering down from their boxes as the peasants cheer for gladiators toiling in the fields—the Sixers are pulling pages from a new book.”
The energy and optimism has found its way onto the court. Doug Collins is emerging as an early Coach of the Year candidate with the way he has this superstar-less team playing unselfishly on one end and lockdown defense on the other. The Sixers have started the season 10 – 3 (6 – 0 at home) and are currently on top of the Atlantic Divison, four games up on the New York Knicks and five-and-a-half games ahead of the Boston Celtics. They are 3rd in points per game (100.8) and 2nd in points allowed (85.9), giving them a point differential of 14.9, which is the best in the league by far (Chicago is second at 9.3). Right now, they are first in John Hollinger's power rankings and third in Marc Stein's. That is a huge jump for a team that was the definition of average a year ago, and while they haven’t hit the rough part of the schedule yet, every win counts and starting 10 – 3 is never a bad thing.
Only time will tell if Philly can sustain it over the course of a season or if they’ll eventually cool off, but Joshua Harris, Adam Aron and the rest of the owners have brought something the franchise hasn’t had since before Iverson had cornrows:
Other scattered shots:
-- On Tuesday’s Pardon the Interruption, Michael Wilbon said that this compressed season will be about “injury management,” and it’s hard to argue the point considering the rash of maladies affecting some of the league’s most high-profile players thus far.
-- Dwyane Wade is afflicted with a variety of leg injuries that has caused him to miss games, but nothing could stop him from missing his lavish 30th birthday party. #Priorities
The list could go on and on. Even more so than other years, the 2011 – ’12 NBA champions will be the team that is not only hot going into the playoffs, but healthy as well. The 66-game schedule does not allow for as much leeway as other seasons so health will be the major factor in the playoffs this year.
-- The Los Angeles Clippers – apparently we can’t call them "Lob City" anymore – beat the villainous Miami Heat and then their roommates, the L.A. Lakers, in back-to-back games recently. It’s been a nice start and having bragging rights in the Staples Center is nice, but the Clips aren’t a serious contender just yet. They’re 6th in the league in both points and assists (thanks, in part, to lobs), but they’re 22nd in points allowed. That’s not going to get it done in the playoffs. Just like we see in the NFL, offense wins regular season games, but it doesn’t win titles. Just ask the "Seven Seconds Or Less" Phoenix Suns.
-- That Suns team was coached by a man named Mike D’Antoni, who is now the coach of the New York Knicks. While he has tried to bring his offense to Madison Square Garden even without an elite player at the point like Steve Nash, D’Antoni evidently did not come across any defense on the way from Phoenix to N.Y. The Knicks aren’t awful (17th in points allowed), but they can never seem to get a stop when they need one and that is the major reason they’re currently 6 – 7 and four games back in the standings. I know it’s still early, but if Carmelo & company want to make any sort of noise in the playoffs, they’re going to have to learn how to D up.
-- Kobe Bryant’s streak of 40+ points ended at four when he when scored only 14 points on 7-for-22 shooting in that dreadful 73 – 70 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Kobe has dropped at least 40 in four straight games six times in his career. By comparison, Michael Jordan, who believes that Bryant is the only player that should even be compared to him, only did it twice.
-- Unfortunately for Kobe, his coach is Mike Brown. Much like D’Antoni, Brown has brought his offensive philosophy from Cleveland with him to L.A. That philosophy, in short, went something like this: “Hey, guys, give it to LeBron and get out of the way!” If you take that sentence, do a Control+F and replace ‘LeBron’ with ‘Kobe,’ you’ll have a copy of the entire Lakers playbook. [photo via motifake.com]
-- Speaking of LeBron, Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko fame, has a terrific piece on The Classical regarding the burden placed upon James to not only be great, but to be perfect: “That’s why LeBron provokes such broad, and nasty, emotions, longing and desperation cloaked in hate. James isn’t the guy who comes up short. He’s the guy who has no right to come up short and does anyway.” That’s so true. People that don’t follow or even like basketball take great joy in watching James fail. They can’t get enough. LeBron’s detractors – of which he has many and always seems to make create more by doing clueless things like The Decision – take the concept of schadenfreude to an entirely new level. Even if he wins 10 championships in a row (he won't), the criticism hurled at him will either be (a) that’s what was expected of him all along, (b) what took him so long?, (c) he needed other stars to help him, or (d) all of the above. I have a feeling that James could cure AIDS and cancer in the middle of a fast break while also handing out hundred dollar bills to poor children and the public will still hate him.
-- Not since Ricky Davis have I seen a player as clueless as JaVale McGee. I mean, what is this? Not only is it during a regular season game, but it’s during a regular season game in which his team is losing. It seems to me that every instinct that McGee has is wrong, so he only has one choice – he needs to channel his inner Costanza and do the opposite. The Washington Wizards will probably still blow, but it’s not like his own reputation can get any worse.
-- It’s time to start over in Boston. The Celtics have lost in five in a row and, at 4 – 8, are in third place in the Atlantic and sinking fast. They still play defense (currently 9th in points allowed), but they can’t score at all, averaging under 90 points per game, which is 26th in the Association. Only the Hornets, Wizards, Raptors, and Pistons are averaging fewer points per game. That’s not a group in which you want to find yourself. Since in-season rebuilding is virtually impossible, the C’s need a philosophical shift. After watching them fall to the Knicks on Christmas day, I said that Rajon Rondo and not Paul Pierce is the Celtics' best player. So far this season, Rondo is averaging a career-high 14.5 points per game on 49.6% from the field along with 10 dimes and five boards. Contrast that with Pierce, who is averaging more with 15.7 ppg, but on 39.4% shooting, and who doesn’t have nearly the all-around game that Rondo does, and it’s clear who Boston’s go-to guy is now. Doc Rivers better convince Pierce and the rest of the team of that fact soon or the Celtics will find themselves in the lottery for the first time since 2006 – ’07, the year before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived.
-- One final non-NBA note: my favorite college professor, a man that has taught me so much in and out of the classroom, will be honored on Saturday when a Brother Ed Sheehy bobblehead will be given away this Saturday. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports referenced the honor in his popular “Forde Minutes” column this week: “La Salle is honoring Brother Ed Sheehy, a 20-year staple on the Explorers’ sideline, with a bobblehead giveaway at their game Saturday against Rhode Island. As the school’s release drolly states, “Sheehy is believed to be the first Christian Brother to be honored with a bobblehead.” The school says Sheehy leads the squad in prayer before and after every game, accompanying the team on road trips as well. He also is available to talk with the student-athletes and coaches about any issues that may arise in their lives. Coach John Giannini even spends 15 minutes with Sheehy right before every game. La Salle will give away 750 Sheehy bobbleheads to students before the game against the Rams.”
I am honored to say that I had the opportunity to learn from Brother Ed, a man that is just as impressive outside of the classroom as he is inside it, and there are thousands of La Salle students and alumni that feel the exact same way as I do. If more people were like him, the world would be a far better – and smarter – place.
[UPDATE: ESPN also has a piece about the #BobbleEd honor.]
Congratulations, Brother Ed, it is well-deserved. Salute!
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and many other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.