By Tolulope Oladele
In my last article about the Philadelphia 76ers, I predicted the 76ers would have the same winning percentage as last year, given their limited cap-space flexibility and lack of star talent in comparison to the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, and New York Knicks. I was sorely mistaken given the Sixers’ sizzling 20-14 start to the season, which has proved they have enough talent to compete among the East Elites.
Some credit their hot start to an easier schedule thus far this season: they have beat the Golden State Warriors, Detroit Pistons, Raptors, New Orleans Hornets, and the Washington Wizards (three times!) during their hot start. In actuality, it’s the fact that the players have bought into Doug Collins and the coaching staffs’ philosophy of team-ball on offense and defense. Their improvements on both offense and defense have helped them beat the Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and the Orlando Magic and have changed the perception of them from playoff bottom dwellers to potential contenders.
Statistical improvements on offense from last year to so far this season:
Points per Game (Ranking): 99.0 (18th) to 94.2 (17th)
Assists per Game (Ranking): 22.7 (6th) to 22.3 (8th)
Field Goal Percentage (Ranking): .461 (15th) to .450 (11th)
3-Point Percentage (Ranking): .355 (15th) to .387 (8th)
Similar to last year, the 76ers on offense are one of the best teams at sharing the ball and using a balanced scoring attack to pick apart their opponents. Between Jrue Holiday, Louis Williams, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, and Thaddeus Young, the 76ers have at least five players that can go for 20 points any given night. But still, the Sixers are one of four teams without a 30 point scorer this season. The last time a Sixer scored at least 30 was when Elton Brand dropped 33 points against the Knicks (2/4/11). The 76ers improvements in terms of offensive and efficiency from the field can be chalked up to continued chemistry and trust among teammates and coaching staff.
Statistical improvements on defense from last year to so far this season:
Opponents Points per Game/Ranking: 97.5 (12th) to 87.4 (1st)
Opponents 3-PT FG %/ Ranking: .340 (Tied for 5th) to .317 (5th)
Opponent Assists per Game/Ranking: 21.5 (17th) to 18.8 (Tied for 2nd)
Points per Game Differential /Ranking: 1.5 (13th) to 6.8 (3rd)
Although the 76ers efficiency on offense has made them a better team, the real reason for the 76ers success is their extremely effective defensive philosophy, which is coordinated by assistant coach Michael Curry. Before the Sixers current losing streak, they had the 2nd best defense in the league statistically, which head coach Doug Collins credited to Curry’s coaching:
We don’t have a big shot-blocking guy at the basket, we don’t have what you would consider a great defensive rebounder. But what we do is our wings rebound well, which is important to us. We know we have to pressure the ball. Thad [Young] comes in and up the floor changes games just with his speed and quickness. And we’ve got some good individual defenders. Dre [Andre Iguodala] is arguably a first-team all-league defender. When our pressure on the ball is good and we get in passing lanes and are aggressive and rebound the ball, that really becomes our best offense. Michael has done a terrific job at that.”
Doug Collins also explains how the 76ers’ defense is designed to concede midrange shots: “We don’t feel like contested two-point field goals will beat you. At the end of the day, you’ll get beat in the paint, you’ll get beat with fast breaks and you’ll get beat behind the three-point line, but we just don’t feel like teams are going to beat you making contested two-point shots.” In other words, the 76ers have been playing the percentages on defense and seeing if teams can beat them by taking long 2-point shots and not easy points in the paint or at the free-throw line.
The 76ers are currently on a 5-game losing streak heading into the All-Star break, but they should definitely be able to turn it around after the break. The 76ers early season success is one of the feel-good stories in league because it is refreshing to see a team winning games simply because the players believe and trust one another. The Sixers didn’t make a blockbuster trade or splash in free agency—they have a specific game plan for their players’ abilities and they’re executing it. Their job now is to prove in the second half of the season that they’re a force to reckon with and not a team that is capitalizing on an easier start to the season. If the Sixers can hold off both Boston and New York for the Division crown, there’s no question that they will make the second round, and from there, anything is possible.