The 76ers and the Indiana Pacers don't resemble each other at all at this late juncture of the season, but it wasn't that long ago that they were kindred franchises.
The third seed in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers were an eighth seed in 2011, right behind the Sixers, after first-year coach (and South Jersey native) Frank Vogel took over a 17-27 team from Philly's Jim O'Brien and coached it to 20-18 the rest of the way and into the playoffs, where the Pacers were eliminated, 4-1, by Chicago. But, like the Sixers, they put the rest of the league on notice that they would be a team to be reckoned with in years to come.
While the Pacers, who missed the playoffs for three straight seasons under O'Brien, look very much like a lock to reach the second round, the Sixers have played an uneven season that has reinvigorated the debate over whether they should be a playoff or lottery participant.
But why such different arcs?
Clark Kellogg, vice president of player relations for the Pacers, an analyst for CBS Sports, and a former NBA player who had his career cut short by chronic knee problems, says that the teams are more similar than they might appear. And he urges patience in Philadelphia as the Sixers try to get back on target.
"The front office and coaches have to figure out who are the core guys that they want to build around and figure out who you want to add in terms of veterans to complement them," Kellogg said last week. "That straight-line growth doesn't always happen.
"We might be a tad ahead of pace," Kellogg said of the Pacers, who went into Saturday's game with the Sixers having won 16 of their last 20 games. "This thing doesn't always grow in progressive increments. There is no guarantee that we will get out of the first round. If it doesn't happen, it will be interesting to see. But I think the core is there and the foundation is laid that going forward over a six- to eight-year time-frame, if you continue to grow and you continue to add the right pieces, this is going to be team that is successful for a long time."
The biggest difference between the teams is that the Sixers selected Marreese Speights with the 16th pick in the draft when they should have taken Roy Hibbert, who became an all-star. However, coming out of summer camps few general managers would have disagreed with the selection of Speights before Hibbert.
But the Pacers have put together a core of young players that includes Hibbert, Darren Collison, Paul George, and Tyler Hansbrough. They added George Hill in a nice 2011 draft-day swap that shipped Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio (one of those deals that worked for both teams), and they have buttressed these younger guys with quality veterans such as David West and Danny Granger (who has stepped his game up big-time at both ends of the floor over the last six weeks).
The Pacers didn't get to this point without taking a lot of criticism, much like the Sixers front office is taking these days. As recently as a year ago Larry Bird, president of basketball operations and maybe the single biggest sports legend in Indiana, was hearing cries for his head.
But patience and shrewd salary-cap management have assuaged the once restless natives, and Kellogg thinks the Sixers have the potential to possibly do the same thing soon.
Asked to identify the core pieces of the Sixers, Kellogg rattled off Jrue Holiday, Evan Tuner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, and Nik Vucevic. All nice pieces, he says, and all 23 or younger.
"They've had a bit of a disjoined year," Kellogg says. "But if you have some core pieces that you are confident in, it might not be showing up statistically. But if it's showing up in their attitude and their commitment to the things that they need to do to win - which is what we have gotten - then they need to stick with the formula."
While some would say that the biggest difference between the 76ers and the Indiana Pacers is the play of Danny Granger, in the long run the biggest difference could very likely turn out to have been the Sixers' decision to draft Marreese Speights with the 16th pick in the 2008 draft.
Toronto drafted Roy Hibbert next and later dealt him to Indiana along with Maceo Baston, T.J. Ford, and Rasho Nesterovic for Nathan Jawai and Jermaine O'Neal.
The Sixers shipped Speights - who averaged 7.2 points and 3.7 rebounds in three seasons - to Memphis on Jan. 4 in a three-team deal that garnered them a pair of second-round draft picks and a trade exception.
At the time of the draft, Hibbert was seen by many teams as a player who couldn't shed excess body fat. Additionally, he suffered from exercise-induced asthma.
But after being named to his first all-star team this year, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert, who is averaging 13.0 points and almost nine rebounds per game, is in a position for a big raise.
He will be a restricted free agent this summer, and teams will come running his way with wheelbarrows overflowing with money. The Pacers will likely match or exceed any offer that comes his way.
- John N. Mitchell