Sports Illustrated’s Zach Lowe, who has been in Philadelphia the last few days covering the Sixers to within an inch of their life, sat down with President Rod Thorn earlier this week to talk about how far this upstart team can go. We highly recommend you read the interview in full here, but for the time being here are a few takeaways:
SI.com: As this set of elite teams comes in — the Bulls, Heat, Spurs and Clippers — what are you looking for from the Sixers? What do you want to see?
Thorn: I’m looking for probably the same thing everybody else is. As the competition level rises, your margin for error shrinks. Most every game we’ve won has been a blowout. You have to think we’re going to be in a lot of real tough, close games. How are we going to react to that? I think we will be very competitive in this stretch, barring some kind of crazy injuries, because we were competitive the last 60 games last year, and we’ve had a top 10 record the last 80-some games. And that’s a pretty good indication. My feeling is we’ll play well against virtually anybody. I don’t care who we play.
Interesting point here by Thorn, and one that is oft overlooked by the folks who are scrambling to make sense of how this Sixers team got so good so fast: they didn’t. Like Ernest Hemmingway wrote about going broke, it happened slowly at first, then all of a sudden. As Thorn alluded to, after closing last season at 38-28, and started this season like gangbusters, the Sixers are 54-34 in their last 88 regular season games. If they’re a flash in the pan, it’s been a really long flash. And a really big pan.
Ignore that last part.
SI.com: Do you buy the conventional wisdom…
Thorn: I know what you’re going to ask: “Do we need a superstar?”
SI.com: I don’t really mean that. I love teams that challenge conventional wisdom. I’m interested in the Nuggets in the Western Conference for the same reasons.
Thorn: The Nuggets are goooood.
SI.com: And it’s not necessarily about a superstar. It’s the idea that when a game comes down the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and it’s close, the game slows down, and every team just gives the ball to its best player and gets out of the way. I don’t know that you guys are equipped to do that. When I watch you guys, your offense runs best when there’s cuts and motion on both sides of the court. Can you play that way in the last 90 seconds of a close game?
Thorn: That’s the $64,000 question: Can you do that night in and night out in close games? It’s an advantage to have someone who can get a good shot, or get fouled late in the ball game. Even the bad teams, if the games are close late, on the defensive end of the court, they play much harder and much better. And it’s harder to just run plays. Patterns you’ve run all night — it’s harder to do late. So ultra-talent certainly helps late. But with us and with Denver, you don’t know where it’s coming from.
If you’re playing the Lakers, you know what they’re going to do down the court every time late in the game.
SI.com: For better or worse.
Thorn: Yeah. For better or worse. But our coach is very good about figuring out what plays to call late in the game.
The Sixers certainly don’t look particularly formidable late in games—visions of the near-blown lead to Orlando dance in our heads—or at least that’s the point in their games that they’ve looked the least formidable this season, but Thorn and Lowe do seem to agree that, in principle, this shouldn’t matter. An offense predicated on movement and unpredictability can be just as effective late as Kobe Bryant. If your team’s fresh, maybe more so.
Anyway, here’s where Lowe cuts to the chase:
SI.com: Let me ask you as bluntly as possible: Can this team win the title as is?
Thorn: That’s a leap for us right now. We just made the playoffs as the seventh-place team. We’re definitely better this year when we have all of our pieces healthy. Spencer [Hawes] was an incredible plus for us in the first eight games. It put us on another level. We haven’t had him for a while. I think we can compete with anybody, but we have to prove we can play at that level, with those really, really elite teams.
Thorn actually seems to have the same view of the team as its average fan: pleasantly surprised, entertained, but withholding judgment.
Anyway, Thorn went on to say he’s not looking to trade Iguodala, Elton Brand is playing his way into shape, and that the Sixers are willing, for the right player, to cross the luxury tax threshold. He also outlined this past off-season’s negotiations with Spencer Hawes and suggested the team was open to a long-term deal, but Hawes didn’t think the money was right.