Heading into the final month of the season the Sixers stand a game behind Boston in the Atlantic Division and in the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference with 14 games left to play. After leading the Atlantic Division for over 3 months straight, from a December 28th victory over Detroit until bad defeat to Washington last week, the Sixers playoff picture now looks vastly different. A 7th seed in the playoffs and a likely first round defeat to the Bulls or Heat would look eerily similar to what Sixers fans have experienced in the recent non-Eddie Jordan past.
But that's not the only measure of progress.
Coming into the season the development of the Sixers young guards were perhaps as important for the future outlook of the franchise as any improvement in wins and losses.
Jrue Holiday's ascension last year into full time starter was one of the brighter individual points of the season, particularly at only 20 years of age. His season has been inconsistent at best, incredibly inefficient at worst. Only three players in the league have a higher usage rating than Holiday does with a lower true shooting percentage. That, combined with a drop in assist totals, represents a disappointing season, even if his defense has been one of the teams key strengths.
After Evan Turner's disappointing rookie season, fans were hoping his positive playoff series against the Heat represented Turner turning the corner on his professional career. Turner started off the year playing well, averaging 10.7 points to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists in his the first 15 games of the season, seemingly indicating his rookie struggles were a thing of the past.
The February that followed that, however, was one to forget. Turner averaged a dismal 5.1 points on 34% from the field in over 20 minutes per game. Ironically, this was immediately followed by his insertion into the starting lineup, prompted as much by Jodie Meeks' struggles as much as anything Turner was doing. It was this change that gave the Sixers season new meaning.
Not that it would all of a sudden give the Sixers a legitimate chance of winning a championship, as they're still piece(s) away from legitimate contention. The Sixers current fate wasn't altered that much March 5th, but their long term projection became brighter when Doug Collins announced that Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Andre Iguodala would be the starters on the perimeter for the remainder of the season.
The last 28 games would provide the Sixers their best data on not only Turner's overall talent level but also on how the trio could mesh together, something that has largely been absent during the first 1.5 years of Turner's career, as prior to this he has either come off the bench or started in place of Iguodala last year when Iguodala was injured.
During a 4 game stretch of Turner starting, the outlook was positive. After a 1-12 shooting clunker in his first game, Turner responded by averaging 21.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on 64% from the field over his next 4, with the Sixers going 3-1 over that span. Since then, he's largely been unable to replicate that success. He averaged a mere 6.6 points on 31% from the field while hauling down only 5.4 rebounds in nearly 31 minutes over his next 5 games, playing more off the ball during that span, and playing poorly.
Doug Collins went from saying of Turner that "at the end of the day, he's a point guard" to "that's 10 more times [off defensive rebounds] he has [the ball] in his hands," referencing the discrepancy between Turner's output during two Knicks games, the first that saw Turner accumulate 24 points and 15 rebounds on 14 field goal attempts, the second that saw him provide a mere 2 points and 5 rebounds on 7 field goal attempts .
Collins insistence that Turner will start the remainder of the season appears to have waned. He still maintains that a change won't be made, although the nature of why seems to be more based around the fact that he doesn't want to force the team to adjust to any more drastic changes.
"I don't know what I could do, really," Collins said about any change in the lineup. "I think we're still adjusting to the change I made before."
Whether or not Turner and Holiday can succeed together is as important over these last 14 games as retaking the Atlantic Division lead. Sixers president Rod Thorn recently said he thought Jrue Holiday could succeed off the ball. I think there's some merit to that, and think Jrue Holiday has the qualities you would want in someone to start next to a ball dominant big guard (ability to shoot from the perimeter, ability to defend quick guards, ability to alleviate ball handling duties). Do I think it's Jrue Holiday's best role, or one that maximizes his talent? No. But if Turner proves his talent level is enough to warrant being a ball dominant initiator, then I think it's a role that he can fill.
Determining Turner's talent level is the key in the equation, and it's why moving him into the starting lineup, and keeping him there, is so incredibly important. It's important for the Sixers long term goals to allow him to initiate the offense and see what they have in him.
Winning the Atlantic
Winning the Atlantic is no small goal either, as the difference between getting the 4th seed and the 7th seed is drastic. Being a 7th seed and losing to the Heat in the first round would be a huge blow to a fan base that has been watching a first place team the majority of the season, and fan base that was told to accept minor offseason changes because of the benefits it would provide in the shortened season. Getting the 4th seed and winning a round over the Indiana Pacers is a much more realistic proposition.
That's why Saturday's game against the Hawks was so pivotal.
"We had to win this game at home," Elton Brand told SB Nation Philly after the game. "Our confidence, season, a lot of things could have been in jeopardy if we didn't win this one at home."
Even with the win, the Sixers will still have an uphill climb, one that was made harder by the Celtics 91-72 pummeling of the Heat on Sunday night. Ironically, the Heat next opponent will be the Sixers Tuesday in Miami. The Heat have lost 2 or more games in a row only 4 times this season, and the Sixers haven't been all that competitive against Miami, losing by an average of over 11 points per game in the previous three meetings.
On first glance, the Sixers remaining schedule appears to be rather unfavorable, finishing with 10 of their last 14 games on the road, where the Sixers are 10-13 on the year.
The Celtics, however, will face much harder opponents, with Miami (twice), San Antonio, Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Orlando still left on their schedule. The Sixers will play 8 of their final 14 games against teams with below a .500 record, the Celtics only 4 of their last 14.
The Celtics, however, are playing much better than the Sixers at this juncture, winning 7 of their last 8 games, including the beatdown of Miami last night.
Losing the division and being bounced in the first round of the playoffs (for the 5th playoff appearance in a row) would be a big blow to Sixers fans and make this season largely a disappointment, particularly when combined with the lack of progress in developing the two cornerstone guards they have invested so heavily in.