5 Things We Learned During the Philadelphia 76ers' 5-Game Road Trip
Finishing a five-game road trip with a 3-2 record is impressive under any circumstances, much less the strange (and sometimes, wonderful) circumstances that have defined the NBA season so far.
Thanks to their hot start, the 76ers return home in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division—a far cry from last season, when they began the campaign 3-13.
The Jan. 6 home opener against the Detroit Pistons marks the beginning of a stretch where Philadelphia will play 18 of its next 22 games at the Wells Fargo Center. But while the 76ers will undoubtedly enjoy the comforts of sleeping in their own beds over the next few weeks, quite a few things were revealed during Philadelphia's 10-day, season-opening road swing.
Here's a look at five things that the 76ers—and the rest of us—learned over the first five games of the 2011-12 season.
1. Working out During the Lockout Has Paid Dividends
In late August, 76ers co-captains Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala hosted a number of their teammates for a week's worth of workouts on the campus of UCLA. In all, eight Sixers were in attendance, and the players used the time to develop some much-needed chemistry both on and off of the court.
Those lockout-inspired workouts appear to have paid off.
Thanks to those informal sessions, the 76ers have hit the ground running this season. Currently, Philadelphia is third in the NBA in points scored per game (102.6) and eighth in the NBA in points allowed (92.8 per game).
Through five games, opponents have shot a staggeringly low 41.7 percent from the floor, while the 76ers have the third-best field-goal percentage in the NBA at 48.2 percent.
Even more astonishing is the fact that all five of those games were on the road. With a healthy dose of home contests during the month of January, Philadelphia is in prime position to begin its run at the Atlantic Division crown.
2. Doug Collins Already Is Locked in on a Rotation
Only nine players have seen significant action for the 76ers this season, and that appears to be the core group that Doug Collins plans to run with, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
The only likely change on the horizon is Evan Turner's eventual ascension into the starting lineup in place of shooting guard Jodie Meeks. Collins hasn't even hinted that change is being considered, but the move appears to be inevitable.
Ideally, Meeks' shooting abilities would spread the floor so that Holiday and Iguodala would have more space to attack the basket. But with Meeks only shooting 33.3 percent from the field so far this season—and 21.4 percent from beyond the arc—he currently isn't the long-range threat that he was last season.
Turner is already logging more minutes per game than Meeks (26.6 vs. 21.8) and seems to be much more comfortable playing alongside Andre Iguodala this season.
But as it stands now, Turner, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young are the team's primary reserve wing players, while rookie Nikola Vucevic is Philadelphia's No. 1 interior player off of the bench. The top nine players in the 76ers rotation have accounted for all but 11 of the team's total minutes this season.
3. Spencer Hawes Is the Surprise of Early Season
Very few people predicted that Spencer Hawes would be one of the most improved players in the NBA at the start of this season. But the 76ers' fifth-year center has turned the doubters into believers so far—an easy feat when you average 13.0 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.
For what it's worth, Hawes' per-36 minute averages weren't all that bad last season (12.2 points, 9.7 rebounds), but his inability to effectively defend opposing big men resulted in him averaging less than 22 minutes per game in 2010-11.
Make no mistake, Hawes is by no means an All-NBA defender. But his scoring and rebounding has been so good this year that he more than makes up for any inadequacies he has on the other end of the court.
Logic dictates that Hawes won't be able to keep up this torrid pace for another 60-plus games. But if he can average close to a double-double for the remainder of the season, Doug Collins will be more than pleased with the production from his young center.
4. Evan Turner's Jump Shot Is Still a Work in Progress
To paraphase a familiar saying, Evan Turner's jump shot will not be re-built in a day.
After shooting 42.5 percent in his rookie season, the 76ers second-year swingman spent a portion of the offseason working on his jumper with legendary shooting coach Herb Magee of Philadelphia University. Turner met frequently with Magee in attempt to iron out the flaws in his form (most noticeably, an oddly-placed guide hand).
So what's the grade on Turner's "new" jump shot so far? Incomplete. In an extremely small sample size (45 field goal attempts), Turner's field-goal percentage this season (46.7 percent) is a definite improvement over last year. Even so, it's far too early to tell if the lessons he learned during the past summer will have any lasting impact.
It should be noted that Turner is shooting the ball at a higher frequency so far this year. If nothing else, he definitely appears to be more assertive on offense than he was during his rookie season.
5. Jrue Holiday Is Only 21 Years Old
Granted, most 76ers fans are keenly aware that their starting point guard is barely old enough to drink. However, the fact that Jrue Holiday could very well be a senior at UCLA right now is a statement that bears repeating.
At the dawn of his third season, Holiday is already considered by many as one of the top 10 point guards in the entire NBA. There's no question that Holiday is an immensely talented player, even at his young age. There's also no question that it will take him a while to fully realize his potential.
So while there will often be games like the one he had on Wednesday against the New Orleans Hornets (23 points, eight assists, zero turnovers), there will also be nights like the season-opening loss in Portland on Dec. 26 (13 points, two assists, six turnovers).
It's safe to say that Holiday's per-game averages this season will be more in line with the former game than the latter. And if that's the case, then the development of the 76ers' young star is right on schedule, even if he still does have to pay for extra insurance when he rents a car.
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