THEY WANTED 20 games to serve as a barometer.
They wanted 20 games to see who had improved, and which of the younger players were adequately progressing.
They wanted 20 games to see what they had, and what they need.
Game No. 20 for the least-fortified 76ers team since You Know Who was a rookie comes tomorrow night in New York.
Eighteen games have been more than enough for me. It's clear that, while winning 17 of last season's final 26 games was admirable, it has been significantly more difficult for the same group to establish the rhythm and chemistry and production since the first day of training camp.
For one thing, they haven't faced any opponents already more interested in where they might finish in the lottery than in competing. For another, they lack a post presence that might open up their perimeter game, and even if they had that, they don't have enough skilled shooters.
I more than appreciate management's plan to start fresh this summer with a cache of salary-cap money and a willingness - and ability - to sign free agents and get involved in the trade market. We can discuss what they might be able to accomplish there at a later date, because I also firmly believe they owe the paying public a little more of a product right now.
I'd like to think new president/general manager Eddie Stefanski will make some sort of in-season move to give the current players, not to mention the fans, at least a small ray of hope. And, no, I'm not advocating - at least, not yet - attempting to trade Andre Miller. That decision can wait until we get much closer to the trade deadline in February, when his value should be at its peak. (And, please, no more e-mail entreaties about Miller for Miami's Jason Williams. I know most of you believe in keeping it real, and that, according to deposed president/general manager Billy King, was never, ever real.)
But while we wait, not necessarily patiently, to hear about a 20-game evaluation, here's what I see player-by-player:
* Andre Iguodala: Whatever he might be saying publicly, doesn't he have to be questioning his decision to walk away from a $57 million contract extension? And isn't he discovering that it's much harder to be the No. 1 guy from Day 1 than it was to ascend to that role in the in-season wake of the Allen Iverson trade? We've seen only glimpses of the player he was late last season.
* Andre Miller: He sometimes appears to be struggling defensively, but that might be a function of the way the Sixers try to guard the perimeter. If this team had more weapons, he certainly has the skill and the will to use them to his advantage. Check Wednesday night's double-double of 26 points and 12 assists with just two turnovers in nearly 43 minutes against the Boston Celtics for verification.
* Willie Green: He's what we knew he is, a streak shooter who would probably be better served coming off the bench in an instant-offense role. But, despite some early talk about Rodney Carney, there wasn't a lot of competition for the starting job.
* Reggie Evans: He can rebound, but he can't score. That means opponents sometimes view the early portion of games as five-on-four when the Sixers have the ball. He also seems best suited for a limited role, especially when a physical presence is needed. Unfortunately, they don't have any other big men in that category. Maybe Jason Smith later on.
* Samuel Dalembert: Q: Why do people always want more? A: Because all they see is his $64 million contract. What was he supposed to do, reject it? He's averaging close to a double-double again, and is most effective when he's blocking shots. Could he be better? Sure. Couldn't everybody?
* Kyle Korver: Despite being 2-for-21 on threes and 15-for-51 overall in the last five games, he's still the best deep shooter on the roster and works as hard as anyone at the other facets of the game. No one would benefit more from a post presence. He would be receiving straight-on passes for open looks rather than waiting for the ball from various angles.
* Rodney Carney: Maurice Cheeks kept telling us in training camp and the preseason that he was challenging Green for a starting position. Wherever his game has gone, it's past time for it to come back.
* Jason Smith: He's been up and down, which is what you'd expect from a No. 21 pick. If Carney has been sliding, Smith has been mostly rising. Still, he played more than 11 minutes without a rebound against the Celtics.
* Lou Williams: He can score and he can pass. Now, if only he can focus on trying to do both.
* Kevin Ollie: If things are organized, he can still quarterback and offer stability. Best in short bursts.
* Louis Amundson: He's high energy, limited skills. I thought he might earn some minutes, but that hasn't happened.
* Thaddeus Young: Young. Exactly. If he is who the Sixers think he is, we might not really see who he is until sometime next season.
* Shavlik Randolph: Now we know the true severity of last season's fractured and dislocated ankle. If he were ready, he'd be out there. Couldn't hurt.
* Calvin Booth: I hope he has been a strong voice in the locker room, because he hasn't been more than a whisper on the court.
* Herbert Hill: There's a reason this late second-round pick made the roster. Give him a chance to rehab from knee surgery. I've heard various people around the league refer to him as a viable prospect. *