Philadelphia has been a tortured city when it comes to its sports teams. The Flyers lost in the Stanley Cup final in 2010 and have not won since 1975; a loaded Phillies squad was a heavy favorite to win the 2011 World Series but got eliminated in the first round; and the “Dream Team” Eagles and all its expensive free-agent acquisitions finished a disappointing 8-8 in the NFL.
But have no fear Philly fans because the 76ers are about to embark on a very special season. The Sixers are off to their best start in 10 years, which was also the last time the team went to the NBA Finals. Winning a championship may be a bit far-fetched at this point, but the 2011-12 Sixers are at least showing signs that they are on the rise and ready to fill the huge void after Allen Iverson left town.
There are several reasons for the Sixers’ fast start, but the No. 1 reason has been their defense.
The team has bought into Doug Collins’ defense-first philosophy. Philadelphia is currently holding its opponents to under 86 points per game and 39% from the field. Defense has created more opportunities on offense as the Sixers are averaging 101 points per game and six players are averaging double figures in scoring. And the team’s leading scorer, Lou Williams, doesn’t even start.
Before Collins took over two seasons ago, the Sixers were an underachieving team that didn’t have an identity. They relied on a lot of isolations and forced shots on offense and gave up too many easy shots on defense. But 60-year-old Collins, who was the Sixers’ first overall selection in the 1973 draft, has managed to bridge the generation gap between his old-school ways and his new-school players that the foundation of a championship run starts with a solid defense and balance on offense.
“To me, it doesn’t matter if it’s Andre [Iguodala], Thad [Young] or Spencer [Hawes] stepping up, we’re a team,” said veteran forward Elton Brand, who is only averaging nine points a game but has bought into Collins’ balanced approach. Brand has benefited from the recent play of center Spencer Hawes, who could challenge for Most Improved Player of the Year in 2012. Hawes, who allows Brand a respite on defense, leads the team in rebounds (9.1) and blocks (1.8).
Another player who has bought into Collins’ concept is Andre Iguodala, arguably the Sixers’ best all-around player. Iguodala has accepted the role of defensive stopper, a position he embraced while on the 2010 U.S. national team that won the gold medal at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
With Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young, the Sixers have three players who are averaging close to two steals per game, and creating turnovers plays a big role in triggering fast-break opportunities especially for a team loaded with greyhounds who thrive in the open court.
Young is part of a very active Sixers bench, which also includes leading scorer Williams, sharp-shooter Jodie Meeks and last year’s first-round pick Evan Turner, that have given teams fits because there is not a lot of dropoff between the starters and the bench, and the reserves often are the ones building the leads.
“Their bench is their strength and gave them a huge lift,” said Sacramento Kings coach Keith Smart, whose team lost 112-85 to the Sixers on Jan. 10. Kings guard Tyreke Evans concurred: “They have a great bench. They just put a whipping on us.”
Miami remains the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, but Philadelphia is a team that could make waves in the Atlanta Division and become a huge threat in the playoffs.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastbreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.