With the weekend's All-Star festivities behind them, the Philadelphia 76ers are left with 32 games ahead to prove this season as the beginning of something new for NBA hoops in Philly, or more of the same we've seen for the past half decade or so.
The Sixers burst onto the scene when the lockout was finally lifted and games began on Christmas. They didn't merely beat teams, they buried them. Running up the score at every opportunity, stifling everyone with a league-leading defense and sharing the ball to perfection on the offensive end. They rode that wave of execution and energy to an 18-7 record in their first 25 games, with the 18th win coming over the Lakers and the Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks as notches on their belt. Andre Iguodala can thank that start for his first All-Star appearance yesterday, Evan Turner for his chance to take part in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday. The Sixers weren't merely being seen as an upstart, but as a legitimate contender by some.
Then the wheels fell off. Over the last nine games, they've dropped 7 of 9 games (including their current streak of five straight losses) and been outscored by 30 points. Their defense over the stretch has been fine, if a bit off from their still league-leading mark, but the offense has completely fallen to pieces. The schedule has certainly stiffened, of the nine games, six were on the road and seven were against teams with a record better than .500. The most disheartening thing about the stretch is their 0-7 record against those teams at or above .500. The only two wins came against the hapless Bobcats and the Cavs minus their prize rookie, Kyrie Irving.
If you're looking for a reason to write off this stretch of uninspired basketball, there are plenty of excuses. Spencer Hawes missed the entire nine-game stretch. Elton Brand missed the last two. There were two one-point losses in there, one came on a crazy shot by Chris Paul, the other on a questionable foul which sent Kevin Love to the line for the win. These are all legitimate reasons for the 2-7 record. If the Sixers came into the season with a history of being a 55-win team. If they had banked that capital with their fans, if they had earned that faith, this recent stretch wouldn't trump the 25-game start. The problem is, they haven't. They came into the season as a .500 club that got bounced in the first round by the Heat last summer. They came in with exactly the same roster they had last season, with the same holes and limitations. It took them 25 games of stellar play to convert some people to believers, and now those same bandwagoners are on the verge of jumping ship (if they haven't already).
The Sixers will enter the nominal second half of their season with more to prove than when they opened the season in Portland. They're still leading the Atlantic by 3.5 games over the media darling New York Knicks. They still have those 20 wins in the bank. They've still got the best defense in the league by whichever metric you care to judge. What they don't have is the cache of a contender. That's gone, and it's not coming back unless the Sixers prove themselves all over again.
Unfortunately, it's not going to be easy for the Sixers to regain momentum. Their first 11 games after the All-Star break feature four games against the three best teams in the league (vs. Oklahoma City, vs. Chicago, vs. Miami and at Chicago). They'll also play the Knicks (in New York), the Celtics, the Pacers (in Indiana) and the Jazz (who they lost to in Utah earlier in the season). Only the Pistons, Warriors and Bucks seem like easy games in the next 11.
They've clearly got their work cut out for them, and they'll continue to face these teams shorthanded (no timetable for Spencer Hawes' return has been made public). This is how the schedule breaks, though. The Sixers benefited from an easy schedule early in the year, now it's going to quickly balance. Over these 11 games the Sixers are going to decide their fate for this season (and perhaps beyond). If the nosedive continues, they could quickly fall from atop the Atlantic Division and be looking at a first-round matchup with the Heat or the Bulls, again. If they can rally, keep up their defense, get a little healthier and figure out a way to keep their offense afloat, they can right this ship and make that 9-game stretch simply a blip on the way to home-court advantage and bigger things to come.
If they can't turn things around, however, there's another important date to keep in mind. March 15th is the trade deadline. They will have played 43 games at that point, and if it looks like they're going to wind up being a .500 team, again, new ownership may just be motivated to make a move to shake things up, possibly even to shake things up in a major way. And perhaps they should.