As the 2009-10 season approaches the halfway mark, the Sixers are sitting soundly in second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference. Only the white flag bearing, Lebron James scheming New Jersey Nets are worse off then the Sixers so far this year. It’s a position that to most NBA experts and fans certainly indicates something isn’t clicking and should signify the need for change. However, the only item more curious than the lack of a coaching change in Philadelphia and the consistent laid-back, often smug demeanor of a coach who should be sitting squarely on the proverbial hot seat, is the player rotations (or lack thereof) that Coach Eddie Jordan employs. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when or how often particular players get minutes, and if I was told that Jordan picks his fourth quarter lineups out of a hat, sadly, I would not be surprised.
Now these are not new insights for anyone who reads Philadunkia on a regular basis. In our game recaps throughout the 2009-10 season we’ve been pretty critical of Jordan’s lineup choices, substitution patterns and overall disregard for playing the match-up game. But the virtual disappearance of Marreese Speights, Jason Kapono, and Jason Smith from the Sixers lineup came to a pinnacle Wednesday night against the lowly, very beatable, zone-playing New York Knicks. For me Wednesday night was the final straw and served as the inspiration behind this post dedicated to three players who were touted in the off-season by the 76ers front office as ready to have breakout years while serving as key pieces in the 2009-10 Sixers team, only to see their season derailed by the whims of a basketball lunatic.
Kapono a career 44.6 % three-point shooter was brought in via trade during the off-season to help the team with one of their main flaws from a season ago; three point shooting. While Kapono has netted 30 of 74 attempts from long distance so far this season, his lack of run, logging only 14.3 minutes a game, has not allowed him the proper time to get comfortable with the offense or his shooting stroke. This is evidenced by the fact that his 40.5 shooting percentage from long range this season is his lowest since the 2005-2006 season. Not so coincidentally, his minutes per game this season are at their lowest since that same 2005-2006 season, illustrating the fact that more time on the court he receives, the easier it is for Kapono to find his groove and be a more accurate shooter. It’s a piece of basic basketball information that Jordan clearly has missed, as he seems all too content with Jason sitting in a leather chair just a few feet from his own.
There have been numerous instances this year where I felt Kapono’s presence on the court could have really helped the Sixers, but again, for one reason or another Jordan has kept Kapono on the pine. However rarely have I seen a more obscene violation of basic basketball strategy then Jordan committed Wednesday night. With the Knicks playing a mediocre version of a zone defense for most of the night, Jordan chose not to play one of the best three-point shooters in the League for a single second. You read that correctly, Kapono took the DNP-CD Wednesday night vs. the 16-22 Knicks who sat back in a zone most of the game and dared the Sixers to shoot from outside. Even the local CYO coaches were scratching their heads.
Jason Smith’s disappearance does not come as a complete shock, as the Sixers have plenty of players to fill the four spot, including two-time all-star Elton Brand, and up and comers Thaddeus Young and the aforementioned Speights. There is only so much room in the front court, but with the glimpses of potential Smith has shown one has to believe that increasing his minutes could only work to benefit the team and bolster the front line. I especially believe that Jordan could make better use of Smith as a specialist for specific in-game situations. Smith is a very solid rebounder and defender and could be used instead of Speights, Thad or even Brand on the defensive end when the Sixers absolutely need a stop. Jordan could also make better use of Smith as a substitute for Brand at the 4-spot or Dalembert at the five, when either of those Sixers bigs is in foul trouble.
A fine example of that scenario occurred on Wednesday night against the Knicks, when instead of giving Smith some minutes in relief of the foul plagued Brand and Dalembert, Jordan continued to play Sammy and EB at both ends of the floor deep into fourth quarter. The eventual result was the Brand fouled out and was not available to the Sixers on their final possession in a one possession game.
Additionally, Smith has shown the ability to hit mid-range Js and a the 3-pointer, so it would have been nice to see what his watery stroke could have done against the Knicks zone, but thanks to Coach Jordan, we’ll never know.
The most curious case of disappearing minutes is certainly that of Marreese Speights. After a solid rookie year where he averaged upwards of 8 and 4 per (in only sixteen minutes a game), Speights was poised for a breakout season in which both his minutes and production were figured to see a substantial increase. Coming out of the gates this year, things went as planned and Speights was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise horrendous start to 2009-10 for the 76ers.
However, a torn MCL in November and Eddie Jordan’s random decision making have squashed what looked to be a very promising sophomore campaign for Speights. Since his return from injury in mid-December, Mo has become the poster boy for inconsistent minutes, playing the bulk of some games and then seeing extremely limited action in others, evidenced by Wednesday night’s loss to the Knicks. Speights did not check into the game until midway through the fourth quarter, when he suddenly became the team’s go-to-guy in the clutch, even having the final play drawn up in attempt to get him a look at the basket. In 9 minutes of play, Speights put up 10 and 6, leaving Sixer nation scratching its collective head, wondering why he had not sniffed the court prior to that fourth quarter burst. Marreese has demonstrated that he can score in a variety of ways, even possessing a nice 15-19 foot jumper, an asset noticeably missing from the rest of the Sixer bigs. Marreese has lived up to expectations, at least as much as he can given his sparse playing time lately, upping his averages to 10 points and 5 boards a game, while notching only three more minutes per than in his rookie campaign. It is true that he can often be over-matched against quicker, more athletic forwards, but his offensive abilities warrant more playing time, especially considering the substantial amount of potential he has displayed throughout his short career.
It is no secret that the Sixers squad has been horrendous at closing out games this year, and more minutes for Jason, Marreese, and Jason doesn’t guarantee victory. However, allotting them more playing time could allow them to provide a bigger boost off the bench, working to better balance the team. Increasing the playing time of Smith, Speights, and Kapono is probably not the magical answer the Sixers are searching for in order to save the season, but at this point, it can’t hurt.