DENVER - There was a time when the 76ers were a superstar away from contending for an NBA title.

But that was all the way back to last season.

What has happened since last season?

Coach Eddie Jordan.

The 76ers can't dream of contending this season, but they shouldn't be a 9-23 team, either; they shouldn't be the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference. They should be better, a second-tier playoff team at worst, a squad that competes nightly and wins half the time.

So where has this city's mediocre basketball team gone? And what happened?

Jordan.

Consider Thursday night's disturbing 16-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers - those beacons of basketball glory.

This loss, coming on the heels of two decent road victories, seemed the season's most confusing:

Only three minutes of playing time for Rodney Carney, the guy who had sparked a win the day before.

Not enough minutes for center Samuel Dalembert, whose defense delivered an early lead to the Sixers.

Then afterward, a general sense of confusion about what had happened and why.

It's not about Carney, per se; he's just the player who demonstrates the point. And it's not about Dalembert, not really. He's just the guy whose minutes make you wonder.

Sometimes, Jordan says things, and you're left piecing together the logic, which rarely presents itself as easily as it should.

Carney, who scored 14 points in 15 minutes during Wednesday night's win over the Sacramento Kings, received three minutes and three seconds of meaningless playing time against the Clippers. Carney played the last 25 seconds of the second quarter and the last 2:38 of the game, checking in with the Clippers ahead, 99-81.

After Thursday's game, this is how Jordan explained Carney's relative lack of playing time, verbatim: "I thought the last time we played them that the matchup with Rodney was a little bit smaller against [Al] Thornton. And they came off the bench with Thornton and I thought the matchup with [Andre Iguodala] and Thornton was a little bit better. Dre had it going a little bit as far as defensive-minded, and I wanted to stay with him. I just thought coming off the bench with Jrue [Holiday] and coming off the bench with Elton [Brand] was a seven-man rotation that I wanted to have for a little bit, and I didn't want to go deeper because I liked what Dre was doing on the floor."

There are several contradictions in Jordan's explanation. First, it seems unusual to build a game plan around the 6-foot-8 Al Thornton, a Clippers substitute who played less than half the game and finished 2 for 3 from the floor with four points and one rebound. Second, Carney is listed as a 6-foot-7 forward, Iguodala as a 6-foot-6 guard-forward. Third, by the end of the first half, Jordan's rotation already included eight players; by game's end, nine players had played 14:48 or more.

After the loss, Carney was speed-walking from the Staples Center locker room. Was he given any indication he might not play?

"No," said Carney. And then, walking away, he turned and said, "I don't mean that to sound like I'm mad about it. I'm not. I'm just used to it."

And then there's Dalembert, who is hardly a fan favorite but whose interior defense occasionally wins games for the Sixers. Thursday night started as one such game. When Dalembert checked out of the game with 2:04 remaining in the first quarter, the Sixers were ahead, 29-18. Dalembert had six points, five blocked shots and two rebounds and had forced Clippers center Chris Kaman - the focal point of his team's offense - into 3-for-12 shooting.

When Dalembert checked back into the game with 5:50 remaining in the half, the Clippers trailed by only a point, 39-38.

On Thursday night, one of the first guys out of the locker room was Iguodala, who usually says all the right things but every so often delivers a keen observation as easily as he dishes out an assist.

His team is 9-23. His team is bad.

"Am I surprised? I'd be lying if I said I was surprised," Iguodala said. "I think coming into this year we had a few question marks, and I wondered how we'd start out with the new offense. It's kind of a situation where you want to hope for the best that you don't get off to that start. But, no, I'm not surprised."

It's bordering on pathetic, pining for last season, a season in which the Sixers were, at 41-41, the definition of mediocrity.

To climb their way to mediocre this season, the Sixers must finish 32-18. There's a better chance we'll see a windmill jam from forward Jason Kapono than see the Sixers finish 32-18.

And that's the problem: The Sixers have already made nonbelievers out of their fan base. It would take more than a two-game losing streak to get you thinking the Los Angeles Lakers were bad, and it's going to take more than a two-game winning streak - which the Sixers accomplished on this road trip - to get you thinking the Sixers are good.

Inside the Sixers:

Read Kate Fagan's 76ers blog, Deep Sixer, at http://go.philly.com/sports.

Blog response of the week

Subject: Building the Sixers

Posted by: Rick Wise Guy, 10:19 p.m., Wednesday

Despite my baseball moniker and my short stature I've always counted basketball as one of my favorite sports. Swish is one of the greatest sounds in the sports world. What I want to see the Sixers do is try to build the best starting five they possibly can, then add to the team's depth with a combination of draft choices and low-level free agents. Out of Williams, Young, Speights, Iggy, Holiday, Brand, and Dalembert two of them must be traded. Dalembert, Iggy, and Brand have outrageous contracts so they will be the hardest to move. One of them will have to be packaged with a smaller contract (probably Young, maybe Speights) to acquire the outside threat they desperately need. I'm OK with either Williams or Holiday at the point coupled with a new acquisition at the two and a frontcourt of whoever remains from my top seven (Brand, Speights, and Iggy are my preferences) In today's NBA you need a solid top 5 (at least 2 all-star level players) with 2 or 3 capable reserves and prayers for good health to be successful. A second-round appearance in the playoffs would be my expectation for next year.EndText

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