The NBA Corner: Plummeting Sixers
To say that my Philadelphia 76ers are struggling would be a severe understatement. Rather, I think it would be much more accurate to categorize the team’s current situation as a nosedive. They are freefalling without a net, a parachute, or a prayer. The All-Star break was about six weeks ago and, even though it came within the midst of a five-game losing streak, the Sixers entered the break at 20 – 14, which had them sitting atop the Atlantic Division and eyeing a 3-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The second-half of the season has not been so enjoyable and now a spot at the bottom of the Draft Lottery is a real possibility. It wasn’t always like this: “The Sixers were an inspiring 20-9 not so long ago, and two times in March they were able to clobber the visiting Celtics. But Sunday's loss was Philadelphia's fourth straight. Since the All-Star break, the Sixers have gone 9-18 while succumbing to a lopsided schedule that inflated their confidence while they were winning consistently at home early in the season. Now their goal is framed in the negative -- all they can hope for at this late stage is to stave off the No. 9 Bucks, who trail them by a game with 10 remaining.”
As if that weren’t enough, the team’s lone star (and I use that term very loosely) decided to question a teammate’s defensive commitment in a national publication: “‘It makes no sense to me why so many good scorers can't defend,’ [Andre] Iguodala says. ‘Like Lou Williams. He's one of the toughest guys to guard in the league, but he can't guard anybody. I don't get that.’” Was that necessary? I hate Lou Williams more than most Philly fans, but I realize that he is there for one reason: to score points in bunches off the bench. I don’t remember Isiah Thomas or Joe Dumars complaining about Vinny “Microwave” Johnson’s defensive liabilities.
That’s always been the problem with Iguodala: he thinks he’s a better player than he is and he thinks he’s a leader when he’s not. His passive-aggressive nature has led some to equate him to a guy that used to play across the street from him. The profile in Sports Illustrated showed how he is trying to distance himself and the team from the Allen Iverson-era (“For one thing, I try to show up early…And stay late.”), but Iguodala wants it both ways. He wants to make star money ($80 million over six years), but he can’t create his own shot late in games and is more than happy to let Williams or someone else make or miss the game winner. The NBA doesn’t work that way – if you’re the star/leader, you act like the star/leader. In short, “Andre Iguodala is an $8 million player in this league who just happens to be making about $14 mil.”
The team’s slide into mediocrity is not Iguodala’s fault – he’s continued to do everything he’s been doing his whole career – but it is indicative of the larger problem. The Sixers play unselfishly on offense and tenaciously on defense, but they still don’t have a star scorer to put away close games. This is something we’ve known all season, but their other components often made up for it. Now, multiple things are not working and the lack of a scorer results in scoring only 79 points in a 24-point loss as it did against Boston on Sunday. The team is hitting a wall and this is the point in the season when either a strong leader (like Kevin Garnett) or a great scorer (like Carmelo Anthony) – or both (like Kobe Bryant) – would put the team on his back and carry them the rest of the way. Iguodala can defend and he can jump out of the gym, but that’s not enough. The unfortunate reality is that the Sixers’ star is not a real star. Iguodala isn’t built that way. So he probably shouldn’t talk like he’s Bryant.
At this point, a playoff spot is no longer a guarantee and even if they do hold on to the 8-seed, they’ll face either the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat in the first round. This team, as it is currently playing, will be lucky to just remain competitive with either of those teams. Neither an early playoff exit nor a late lottery pick is a very appealing end to a season that was full of hope and optimism less than two months ago.
The New York Knicks are on the opposite end of their Atlantic Division rivals, with a star that believes that scoring is the only thing he needs to do to ensure that his team wins. Carmelo Anthony scored 43 points to snatch victory away from defeat after his team had squandered a 21-point lead at home. Carmelo is a scorer and anything else you get from him (7 rebounds, 5 fouls and very little effort on defense in 47 minutes) is either a bonus or a drawback. For all of his flaws, Anthony still has the scorer’s mentality that a player needs in the Association. He could miss his first 99 shots, but he’ll still take the 100th one and will still believe that it’s going in. (Iguodala has this mentality too, but he doesn’t have the skills to back it up. That’s part of what makes it so frustrating to root for him.) This is what is known as “hero ball” and no one plays it as well – and as poorly – as Carmelo: “This, I think, is what makes Carmelo Anthony a unique player—he honestly couldn't give a shit if you think he's selfish. There's something special about a guy who can tune out boos and newspaper coverage and keep chucking. It's swagger to the point of megalomania.” The Knicks aren’t winning anything this year. – I’ll be stunned if they make it to the second round of the playoffs – and I truly believe that ‘Melo brings more harm than good to a team overall, but his ability to take and make the final shot is inspiring. The fact that he could miss it and have no hesitation about taking it again is even more inspiring. He may have killed Linsanity and run his coach out of town, but no one cares about that when you’re bombing 3’s to win nationally televised games.
After beating the Utah Jazz 114 – 104 on Sunday night (and before losing to Utah on Monday night), the San Antonio Spurs upped their record to 40 – 14, keeping them in first place in the Western Conference. It was their 11th straight win, their second such streak of the season, and they seem to be peaking at the right time. Gregg Popovich is probably the best coach in the NBA and his commitment to resting his aging squad has prevented them for running on fumes during this condensed season. The best part is that they’re not even trying to hide it. Recently, when Tim Duncan sat out a game, the official explanation was “Old.”
Popovich has them playing inspired, yet smart, ball and they look very dangerous heading into May. I remember last season when the Spurs were the top seed and were upset by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, but that team was decimated by injuries and limped into the playoffs. After Duncan sprained his ankle in late March, San Antonio finished the season losing 12 of their final 18 games and, to make matters worse, Manu Ginobili injured his right elbow in the final regular season game. They tried to play through the pain, but Duncan looked like a statue and Ginobili wasn’t close to being the same player. I wrote them off last year, but they have already proved me wrong, and that was before reacquiring Stephen Jackson. If the squad stays healthy, it’s plausible that the geriatric unit down in San Antonio can knock off Oklahoma City and make one final run at the chip.
Well, that didn’t go as planned. Lamar Odom and the Dallas Mavericks have decided to go their separate ways, a decision that is effective immediately. Since the decision came after the March 23rd deadline, Odom is prohibited from playing with another team in the playoffs this season, so he’ll simply be deactivated until Dallas decides what do with him in the offseason. This sequence of events is pretty stunning. Odom won the Sixth Man of the Year Award last season and while he never really wanted to leave Los Angeles, he did demand a trade after finding out that the Lakers tried to ship him to Houston in the voided Chris Paul deal. He probably wishes he could do that over again. Last season, Odom averaged 14.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in 32.2 minutes per game for the Lakers, appearing in all 82 contests. This season, those numbers sank to 6.6, 4.1, and 1.7 in 20.5 minutes in 50 games. He has been almost literally half the player he was a year ago (a trending topic of Twitter was #ScoresMoreThanLamarOdom). Unlike former teammate Kobe Bryant, who could have his house burned down like Andre Rison and still go out and score 40, Odom is not an emotionless machine and he let personal issues interfere with his professional life, as many of us do. “Twice last summer, Odom endured personal tragedy. He lost a 24-year-old cousin, and later was a passenger in a car that collided with a motorcycle which struck a 15-year-old pedestrian who later died.” When he heard of the news of his being traded, he continued to spiral downward. Where does this leave the Mavericks? They currently occupy the 7-seed in the packed Western Conference playoff picture and, at this point, it’s hard to imagine another title run like last year. As for Odom, I can’t imagine he’ll want to return to the team or that they’ll want him back. I fully expect him to try to join up with the Lakers or Clippers or, failing that, maybe the Sacramento Kings or Golden State Warriors? We all expect our athletes to be superhuman and view their careers as strictly business like Michael Corleone did, but at some point life takes over and you can’t just will yourself to be the same person or player you were before. If this is the end for Lamar Odom, it’s a sad conclusion to a productive, yet often confounding and ultimately underachieving, career. He had the tools to be the next Scottie Pippen, but he didn’t have the mindset. After all, like Yogi Berra said, “90% of the game is half-mental.”
Blake Griffin continues to treat NBA players as if he’s Deebo and they’re Red. Pau Gasol was the latest victim…
Finally, I’m starting to kinda hate Dwight Howard. He can be a great player, as he proved in Orlando’s win over the Sixers the other night. Howard had 20 points and 22 rebounds, marking it the 41st time in his career to do so. Here is the list of most 20-Point, 20-Rebound Games since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 – ’77 (if the pre-merger numbers were included, the list would look much different):
* Source: Elias Sports Bureau
Howard’s play on the court isn’t the issue. It’s his behavior off the court that is so bothersome to his teammates, coaches, front office executives, and fans of basketball. In his desire to be adored by everyone and not make the same mistake(s) as LeBron James, Howard says all the right things. All the time. To everyone. The problem with this strategy is that he often contradicts himself and no one can ever truly believe what he says.
Howard isn’t the only one to blame. Stan Van Gundy obviously believed that Howard would be a New Jersey Net after the trading deadline and when Howard decided to stay, Van Gundy decided he’d had enough. Look at this. The fact that Van Gundy told the media that Howard wanted him gone, and then allowed Howard to put his arm around him, and then left without warning to let Howard try to defend himself is a pretty terrible way to behave. Stan Van has never been known for his maturity and this just reinforces it a little bit more.
As terrific writer (and co-founder of Free Darko) Bethlehem Shoals notes, Howard may be even more immature than his coach: “The whole thing feels very much like an overgrown toddler throwing periodic tantrums, seeking forgiveness, and then hating himself for both in a way that serves only to get the cycle going again.” The fact that Howard has done this to himself seems lost on him and when he flashes that smile, he can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t love him. He wants us to think his indecisiveness is proof that he really wants to stay in Orlando, but all it does is reinforce the fact that he can’t make an adult decision. Shoals goes on: “Dwight Howard is a problem, not just for the Magic, but for any team considering his future. And for any player trying to go about gaming the system in an orderly fashion.” With his talent and abilities in a league that is so short on centers, Howard should be throwing up numbers like the 21st Century version of Wilt Chamberlain, but he just doesn’t seem to have that extra push to get him there. He’s the same way off the court. Orlando should cut their losses before Howard’s smile and constant appeasement alienates everyone in the city.
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 a variety of other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.