A Welcome Back to Relevancy
Let's not whollup on a good thing.
The 76ers are fun. Plucky. Inspiring. Emblematic of the thorn in mainstream America's side that is Philadelphia.
Best of all? They don't seem themselves.
Andre Iguodala's no longer the player he wants to be, me-first and last to touch the ball. He's who Doug Collins needs, the on-the-perimeter anchor to the NBA's No. 1 efficiency defense (89.1). Fueling this marginally impressive Sixers improvement is largely Iguodala's better, more efficient basketball, worth a 19.3 PER, compared to last year's 17.3, and 45.5 shooting percentage on 3s.
Dealing Iggy proved a pain last season. (Remember those Monta Ellis and Los Angeles Lakers rumors? Me neither.) But if he keeps up this productive passiveness - shots per game down from 11.3 to 10.5 this season - the Sixers might keep him past the deadline.
Spencer Hawes, who hurled spot-ups on 19.2 percent of 2010 shots (and hit only 40 percent on them), recalibrated his focus on manageable, under-the-basket shots. Seems he even consulted the consumate flat-top himself.
Now? Just 17 percent of his shots come from the outside, 56 percent of them good. And 62.5 percent overall fall, good for second-best in the sport.
Couple those with old reliables in Lou Williams and Jrue Holliday (scoring team bests 16.6 and 14.5 points per game), and new faces in Nikola Vujevic (averaging 17.5 points and and 14.2 rebounds per 36 minutes), and the Sixers are finally fodder for conversation.
But let's not fall all over ourselves here. Not over wins against softies like New Orleans, Phoenix, Indiana and, last night, Sacramento. Not over a simply 7-2 mark. Not even over six in a row.
Don't trip where ESPN NBA guru John Hollinger stumbled.
A No. 1 Power Ranking, ahead of the Heat (8-2), Bulls and Thunder (both 9-2)?
Let's not forget the facts. The Sixers’ strength of schedule is No. 18 in the sport. Their expected win/loss record so far is 8-1.
They're beating the teams they're supposed to, Step One on the trek to greatness.
Credit where it's due: En route, they've racked the third-best offensive efficiency (106.1) and fifth-best RPI (.575) by playing smart, playing together and staying within themselves. Gone seem the selfishness, the recklessness, the knuckleheadedness, replaced by cohesion, savvy, edge.
Again: Stones on that cobbled path to glory.
But they're not driving the wagon. What does? Wins against elite individual talent, like the Knicks, due up Wednesday. Wins against imposing brand names, like the Bulls, Heat and (don't laugh) Hawks, eventual opponents. Those are the teachable moments, the 48-minute growth spurs, the instant-maturation of a budding bunch like these 76ers.
Can they win the Atlantic Division? Sure.
To paraphrase Sean Parker in The Social Network (with some swap-outs): "A(n Atlantic Division) isn't cool.
You know what's cool? (An NBA Championship)?"
You really love these Sixers? Then pay them the greatest compliment in circulation: Higher standards.
Make them earn your admiration. Wait to see how they grind through these 15 games in 22 days. How they hold up beyond a cozy 18-of-22 games at the Wells Fargo Center. How they endure the Magic, Bulls, Heat, Hawks, Lakers, Spurs and Clippers between Jan. 30 and Feb. 10.
Those are crucibles.
Buttoning the shirt. Tightening the tie. Business as it should be.
Just a good thing.