The story of how the Sixers season started is well documented. But for the sake of the benignly ignorant or the previously comatose, I'll go over it again.
Doug Collins' reign began with an historically un-torrid 3-13 start, that was bereft with embarrassing losses and a general lack of basketball understanding. Despite the generally agreed upon enjoyable style of play they had adopted since the painfully painful Eddie Jordan era of the season previous, things weren't looking good for those that we call the Liberty Ballers.
But then something happened. I don't know what. Let's call it a return to normalcy. But since the 3-13 start, these Philadelphia 76ers have gone 33-21. That's good for a .611 winning percentage, or what would be the 9th best record in the NBA.
I don't know why this is. Well, I suppose I do. They're not as bad as the 3-13 record would have indicated and they're probably not as good as they've been playing since. Part of me wants to say that Doug Collins is the reason for all this success, but could it be that true? I've always thought a good coach can facilitate a championship out of a great team, and a bad coach can only knock down his team's potential. But does Doug Collins, he of the five straight seasons (stretching over three decades) without advancing to the second round of the playoffs, really make that much of a difference from Eddie Jordan? It's looking like a 15 or 16 win difference. That's absurd. It has to be more than just him.
What are the other differences between this year's team and EJ's?
Well, they did have the second overall pick, which they used on national player of the year Evan Turner, and surely he made a huge difference. Actually no. He has been worse than most had thought, and while I am fully confident he'll blossom into a beautiful Spring flower, he has not been better than Willie Green was last year statistically speaking.
Samuel Dalembert is missing from the middle, and while he wasn't always the happiest and most well-liked guy in Philly, he did a great job defending the paint and manning the glass last season. His 30.7% defensive rebounding percentage and 5.6% block rate of last year easily top the 23.5/3.1 percentages from replacement Spencer Hawes. That certainly hasn't been an upgrade in the short-term on either end of the court.
At least Jrue Holiday is now starting every game, but he hasn't been consistently spectacular and can't be the reason for 15 more wins. My loathing for Louis Williams has been well-documented but despite his career year last year, he's posting better WS/48 numbers although it is with a lower eFG% and a despicably higher usage rate. And unless you count Turner, they still don't have a real backup point guard to go to when Jrue is out. Jodie Meeks has been a delight from the starting shooting guard spot, but is a relatively empty 10 points per game the biggest factor in putting the Sixers in the position they're in? No.
Thaddeus Young has shown the most promise since he was a rookie and though his rebounding numbers aren't where we'd like them from the 4-spot, he's improved the most under Collins this season. But for all intents and purposes he is still a bench player and could not be considered primarily responsible for the gigantic uptick in wins for our Sixers.
So let us look at the two highest paid players on the team. The ones who are most universally seen as overrated and overpaid yet continue to thrive in roles that they should not have been forced into. Andre Iguodala is not a number one option. He'll tell you that while he's a terrific catch-and-shoot player, he's better finding his teammates, defending the other team's best player, and doing everything on a basketball court his insane athletic ability can handle. But when you take free throws into account, he takes the most shots per game on this team, and often the ball is in his hands when the team needs a bucket.
Elton Brand has had his first relatively injury-free season since he got to Philly and Collins rewards him by playing him at center the majority of his minutes. He's a 6'8 tank that doesn't have many physical equals in today's NBA, but he's being asked to body up guys who are almost always a few inches his senior. And he's responded with his best season in 4 years all the while doing it with his lowest career usage rate by a significant margin.
When you put all this together on paper, you have a decent team with a few young pieces but no one that jumps out at you as a guy that will lead the team into any sort of promised land. And yet, if my math is correct, they're a mere five wins away from clinching a playoff birth with 12 games remaining in the regular season. If they win at least 6 games, this will be the first season since
Larry Brown's final year with Allen Iverson Jim O'Brien's 2004-05 team that the Sixers finish with a record over .500.
But seriously, why? I do not think this team is very good. They're not particularly great at team defense, they don't rebound the ball well, they don't shoot at an efficient clip, they don't run a clean half-court offense, and they have no low post scorers to speak of. Yet they don't turn the ball over and they are every announcers favorite word: scrappy. Doug has this team playing together and when somebody gets hot, sparks start flying. They outhustle, outfight, and outwork the opponent, and despite all logical evidence to the contrary, they're on pace to be the 6th seed come playoff time.
Gun to my head, this team is a 5-game out in the first round, regardless of who they're playing. But I've been doubting them -- I mean seriously doubting them -- all season long and after the first 16 games they have not proved me right. So maybe they can keep the dunce cap on me for a week or two after the season and make some Philadelphians actual Sixers fans again.
Until then, five more wins.