Are the Philadelphia 76ers Legitimate Contenders in the Eastern Conference?

Roy BurtonContributor IFebruary 5, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 21: Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers talks with teammates Jrue Holiday #11 (L) and Lou Williams #23 (R)  during the closing moments of their game against the Miami Heat during game three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Wells Fargo Center on April 21, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The resume speaks for itself. The Philadelphia 76ers' impressive 17-7 record includes victories over the Atlanta Hawks (two), the Chicago Bulls, the Orlando Magic, and the Indiana Pacers.

By allowing only 86.5 points per contest, Philadelphia's stifling defense is a big reason why 15 of the team's 17 wins this season have come by double digits. And by limiting their turnovers to an NBA-best 11.0 per game, the Sixers aren't making those careless mistakes that can easily turn wins into losses.

Yet even with all of Philadelphia's success this season, a single question remains perched on the tongues of millions of basketball fans: are the 76ers legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference this season?

The answer to that question depends on how one defines the phrase "legitimate contenders." It's clear that—barring an unforeseen catastrophe—the 76ers will finish among the top six teams in the Eastern Conference standings at the end of the season. But whether or not they can compete in a seven-game series with the NBA's elite is another matter entirely.

It's hard to gauge just how good the Sixers are considering that they've been the beneficiaries of one of the easiest schedules in the league. Heading into the week, the combined winning percentage of their opponents is .450 (second-worst in the NBA), and most of their wins have come against teams that were missing key starters.

But let the record also show that the players who comprised Philadelphia's opening night starting lineup have only appeared together in 12 of the team's 24 games this season. Center Spencer Hawes missed 11 games with back and Achilles injuries, and as soon as he returned to action on Saturday, power forward Elton Brand sat out against the Hawks with a thumb injury.

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 21: Andre Iguodala #9 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on January 21, 2012 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
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The 76ers are currently in the midst of their first true test this season—a baptism by fire of sorts. Their two-week trial began back on January 30 when they squared off against the Magic—the beginning of a stretch in which Philadelphia was scheduled to face seven likely playoff teams.

Now more than halfway through the gauntlet, the Sixers are 3-1 with home games against the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers on deck for later this week. If Philadelphia is able to muster at least one win out of the next three games, it would be an impressive run by any measure.

The only defeat during the stretch so far came courtesy of the Miami Heat—a team that 76ers head coach Doug Collins still has yet to find an answer for. In their two meetings this season, Miami has beaten Philadelphia by a combined total of 41 points.

There is a clear line of demarcation between the two teams, and the debate on whether or not the 76ers need a superstar in order to compete with Miami, Chicago, et al. will continue on for the foreseeable future. But the fact remains that Philadelphia isn't getting the treatment that is usually afforded those elite-level squads. 

Heading into the week, the Sixers have averaged only 19.5 free-throw attempts per game, third-worst in the NBA. To be fair, the figure is largely influenced by the style in which teams play, but teams with better records typically get to the line more often than less talented units.

Unlike the Heat and the Bulls who force the issue on offense by attacking the rim, the 76ers are more focused on working the ball around to the open man—a strategy that typically doesn't result in a lot of foul calls. Even so, their free-throw rate (free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted) of 23.8 percent is a sharp decrease from the 27.3 percent that they averaged in 2010-11—surprising given the team's record this season.

It appears that even the league's referees don't know what to make of the 76ers' hot start, either. So count them among the rest of us who are still trying to figure out just how to classify this scrappy team from the City of Brotherly Love that has embraced the "no-superstars-required" philosophy to its fullest extent this season.

Then again, perhaps the only thing that matters is how Philadelphia measures up against the ultimate yardstick known as the Miami Heat come playoff time. Another seven-game series against South Beach's finest would serve as the definitive "heat check" for a young 76ers team eager to make its mark in the Eastern Conference.