Philadelphia 76ers: 5 Reasons Sixers Are Contenders in East

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIJanuary 24, 2012

Philadelphia 76ers: 5 Reasons Sixers Are Contenders in East

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    If you began watching NBA basketball this year—with no context or memory to your aide—you would no doubt conclude that the Philadelphia 76ers are one of the Eastern Conference's best teams.

    What else to surmise from their 12-5 start, a run that has them in first place by 4.5 games and atop the NBA in scoring differential?

    Of course the above scenario is utter nonsense, and we do have ample context telling us the Philadelphia 76ers were an average basketball team just a year ago.

    So have they made the jump from middling to elite in six-months time?

    They have, for the reasons detailed in the following slides.

Condensed Schedule

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    Early results suggest that every unintended consequence of the NBA's truncated schedule favors the Philadelphia 76ers.

    Their rotation is nine-men deep, features just two players over 25 and has no starters averaging greater than 36 minutes per game. In a season of back-to-back-to-backs, that combination of youth and depth gives the Sixers a decided advantage in the second half of games.

    What distinguishes the Sixers from other young, deep teams is their roster continuity, allowing them to compensate for a shortened training camp and preseason schedule.

    Every major contributor from a year ago is back in uniform for Philadelphia this season, and that familiarity is the foundation of fantastic team defense (second in points allowed) and an offense heavy on ball movement.

    Time figures to erode Philadelphia's edge in that last department as other teams grow into their roles, but it also figures to amplify the importance of depth.

    When this whirlwind schedule ends, the 76ers will be one few teams with enough legs to stand.

The Raw Numbers

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    It's fair to note that Philadelphia 76ers have played the easiest schedule among any team in the top 10 of John Hollinger's power rankings.

    But if that's the criticism of these Sixers, it must come with the caveat that Philadelphia has been abusing weaker opponents.

    Seven of the team's 12 wins have come via 20 points or more and they've held opponents to 85 points or fewer on eight occasions.

    The Sixers aren't shuffling by teams like the Wizards, Raptors and Kings; they're blowing those teams off the floor.

    The result is a stunning set of raw numbers that puts Philadelphia among the league's top teams in statistical productivity.

    They are:

    • Third in Hollinger's aforementioned power rankings;
    • Third in Hoopdata's offensive efficiency rankings;
    • First in the same's defensive efficiency rankings;
    • First in basketballreference.com's expected win-loss metric.

    Philadelphia is the only team that profiles as elite on both ends of the floor 17 games into the 2011-12 campaign.

    For those without pocket calculators, that's over a quarter of the season wherein the Sixers remain atop or near the top in some of the most telling statistical categories.

    At some point, the numbers become too impressive and well-tested to ignore.

Key Improvements at Key Positions

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    The Sixers leap forward didn't materialize out of nothing.

    Tempting as it is to buy into the reduced notion that NBA teams can only make marked improvements through trade and free agency, there is still such a thing as internal improvements.

    This year's Sixers are living proof.

    Their developing young core has changed the profile of a roster that looks identical in name to 2011's bunch.

    Start with center Spencer Hawes, he of the 22.1 PER and .588 field-goal percentage. The Washington product is off to a blistering start on the offensive end, paced by a deadly mid-range jumper that allows him to spread the floor and expose other centers in space.

    Hawes has also made a marked improvement in his defensive rebounding rate, giving Sixers opposition fewer second chances and fueling what was once an undersized defense to greater standards of efficiency.

    Due praise also goes to second-year man Evan Turner, who has become what Philadunkia's Tom Sunnergren calls a "winning proposition."

    At his best, Turner is a penetrating, rebounding efficiency machine from the guard position. When he's off, Turner contributes enough stat-sheet-stuffing production to make his presence on the floor worthwhile.

    Factor in smaller but still important improvements from Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday, the best basketball of Andre Iguodala's career and the addition of surprising rookie Nikola Vucevic, and the explanation for Philadelphia's rise looks more complete. 

Doug Collins

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    After a distinguished career on benches the league over, Doug Collins is painting his masterpiece in Philadelphia.

    In the city where he began playing his professional ball, Collins has a team once mired in mediocrity buying into a deceptively simple formula: Team defense plus ball movement equals wins.

    Collins didn't invent the formula, but he's done a brilliant job getting every player on the team committed to its tenets.

    Andre Iguodala, once a poor-man's isolation player, is passing up jump shots for the extra pass. Thaddeus Young is all in on his role as super sub. Evan Turner understands his role in the offense and looks confident with the ball in his hands.

    Bigger picture: Everyone on this Sixers team plays hard every night.

    I know that sounds simplified and exaggerated, but if you watch this team you'll find the blanket statement fits.

    And all of that is coaching—amazing, amazing coaching.

    During the season's stretch run and into the playoffs, Collins gives the Sixers a strategic and motivational edge.

The Competition

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    Without question, the top of the Eastern Conference has lost some mojo this year.

    A group that was once four to five teams deep now has just two top dogs.

    The Celtics look old. The Knicks look bad. The Magic are being held hostage by their center. The Hawks are without theirs.

    Rising from that rubble, the Sixers look like the team best positioned to challenge the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. Their youth, depth continuity and coaching give them great leverage in this shortened season and make them prime candidates to knock off one of the favorites.

    And while that's a tall order, it's considerably less tall than a slog through the Eastern Conferences of recent vintage.