Thursday December 17th, 2009

Ed Stefanski understands the expectations. He had them too.

"My expectations were to make the playoffs," said the Sixers GM. "I'm still hoping we can turn this ship around and make it. But I'm very disappointed. I feel everyone, myself included, feels accountable. We're wondering what the problem is and we're going to work every day trying to figure it out."

Perhaps no team in the league has had a more disappointing start to the season than Philadelphia, which fell to 6-19 after Wednesday night's 108-101 loss to Cleveland. Picked by several preseason publications to make the playoffs (and even more to compete for a spot) the Sixers have inexplicably spiraled to the bottom of the standings.

Injuries have certainly played a part. After watching its top eight scorers play in at least 79 games last season, Philly has seen its top six point producers already sit out a total of 28 games this season. The most damaging injuries have been to second-year power forward Marreese Speights (knee) and point guard Lou Williams (jaw), two starters who are averaging a combined 30.5 points this season.

"Every team in the league has injuries, so there are no excuses," said Stefanski. "But when we lost those two, we lost a lot of firepower."

Even factoring in their walking wounded, identifying the Sixers' problems isn't a Holmesian mystery. It boils down to a lack of understanding of coach Eddie Jordan's offense and the ongoing struggles of Elton Brand.

An offensive guru in Washington (during the 2004-05 and 2006-07 seasons, Jordan's teams ranked among the top 10 in points scored per 100 possessions) and a proven winner (he made the playoffs in his last four full seasons with the Wizards), Jordan's offensive savvy was supposed to be the yin to the prolific running game's yang.

It hasn't panned out, though. With the Sixers fumbling around in the Princeton offense -- and with the steady hand of Andre Miller not around to guide it -- Philadelphia ranks 22nd in the league (97.2 points per game) in scoring.

"When they play up-tempo they are a really good team," said an Eastern Conference scout. "But when they start trying to play the Princeton [offense], they look lost."

In an attempt to rectify the problem, Jordan has progressively moved away from the read-and-react system toward a more conventional attack. While the shift has benefitted a few players (Thaddeus Young, who looked lost at the start of the season, is averaging 18 points and 8.4 rebounds in December), the results haven't changed.

The Sixers aren't scoring.

They aren't getting to the foul line -- in the last 14 games (13 losses), opponents have made more free throws (290) than Philadelphia has attempted (287).

And they have been helpless to dig themselves out of a hole (they're 0-14 this season in games they have trailed by at least 10 points).

"I don't know what degree [the new offense] has been a factor [in the team's struggles], but we have gone to a lot more normal NBA sets," said Stefanski. "It's not like we're just pushing the offense and just being stubborn. If you come to a majority of our games, you can see us running a lot more regular sets. [Jordan's offense] has taken our players a lot longer to figure out, which he knew was going to happen. It was Eddie's call, he wants to go with whatever works."

"Our strength is running," said Willie Green. "We were used to playing a certain way, and you slow us down, there is a little bit of skepticism, a little bit of hesitation. But we have to get better in our half court. We have to get inside-outside scoring. We can't always rely on fast break points."

In a perfect world, Brand would be the solution to that problem. Philadelphia's $82-million man was a dominant low-post player in seven years with the Clippers, but he struggled to carve out a role with the Sixers last season and continues to search for his groove this year. He says his injury ravaged body -- he's been scarred by surgeries on his Achilles tendon and shoulder -- has healed, but admits his timing and explosiveness are still off. In a recent interview, Brand cited loose-ball situations, where his mind would want him to react and go after the ball and his body just wouldn't do it.

"It's funny because when I practiced in the summer, everything was fine," said Brand, who was moved into a sixth-man role by Jordan earlier this week. "But I guess I'm still adjusting."

Even with the downward spiral, Philadelphia still believes the season is salvageable. And there are some reasons to be optimistic. Speights returned to the lineup on Wednesday for the first time since Nov. 14 and scored 14 points in 22 minutes against the Cavaliers. And when Lou Williams -- who was averaging 23 points and five assists on 55 percent shooting in the five games before his injury -- returns in a few weeks, the Sixers will have a solid backcourt rotation of Williams, Allen Iverson and Jrue Holiday.

"Expectations are still high in this locker room," said Green. "We believe we are going to make the playoffs."

Stefanski agrees. "It's still early," he said. "Elton is getting better. I see him more explosive in each game he has played. I don't know the mental part of it, [but] he's rebounding the ball and his numbers per minute have been pretty good. I'm curious to see what happens when we get everybody healthy. I think we can be good."

• The return of Kevin Love has been welcomed in Minnesota. Since coming back from a broken left hand, the gritty second-year forward has scored in double figures in six of his seven games, including an 11-point, 14-rebound performance in a stunning win at Utah on Monday. Love told me last week that his wind on the court is fine; it's when the game starts to get physical is when he begins to tire. "When I'm out there banging with someone, that's when I feel it," said Love. "That's the last thing to come back. I think I'll be OK in a couple of weeks."

• "There is no doubt who the No. 1 pick will be this year," a Western Conference executive told me recently, which means the 2010 draft could be an interesting one. With Kentucky freshman point guard John Wall projected as going first, there's a good chance the team that lands No. 1 pick will have to make a tough decision. Four of the six teams which currently have the best chance at winning the lottery -- New Jersey, Minnesota, Golden State and Utah (via New York) -- have point guards in place. That means if any of those four teams elect to keep the pick and draft Wall, a quality point guard could be available in a trade.

What do the Bulls need to do to turn it around? -- @DnPauley

At this point, I think changes have to start with the coach. Some players were unhappy with Vinny Del Negro's coaching during last season's series against Boston, a fact that was masked by Ben Gordon's heroics in an epic seven-game series. But with the Bulls not just losing but getting blown out of the building on a regular basis, and with GM Gar Forman regularly making road trips, I have to believe Del Negro is on very thin ice. A change, most likely to assistant Bernie Bickerstaff, could inject new life into a talented Bulls team that is still only 1 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot.

Do you see Joe Dumars making any moves in the near future? -- @Kj1974

Dumars made his moves in the offseason when he hired John Kuester and brought in Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. I don't see him making any more moves right now, especially not when his team has been battered by injuries (Detroit's projected starting lineup of Ben Wallace, Villanueva, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey has played together just once this season) and has picked up their play recently (the current two-game skid was preceded by a five-game winning streak). I think Dumars will ride this out.

Are the Mavs going to contend this year? -- @zachjevne

It's somewhat amazing to me to see Dallas parked just behind the Lakers in the Western Conference standings, especially when you consider they have had Josh Howard for only seven games and they played 12 of their first 20 games on the road. There always seems to be some terminal flaw with the Mavericks, but Dirk Nowitzki (26.9 points) is playing like an MVP, Jason Kidd (9.1 assists) and J.J. Barea (9.2 points) have formed a dynamic point-guard duo and even Erick "Contract year" Dampier (9.3 rebounds) is performing. And here's something else to consider: Dallas has been lethal in close contests, going 8-1 in games decided by five points or less.

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