Are the 76ers the Best “Team” in the NBA?
The Philadelphia 76ers spent last weekend in New York City, preparing for a Sunday afternoon showdown with a division rival. During their brief stay in NYC, the Sixers couldn’t help but overhear the debates that raged throughout the Big Apple centering on why the Knicks were slumping how this collection of superstars were unable to get on the same page. It was just a few weeks ago that pundits across the country were claiming the Knicks – with PG sensation Jeremy Lin flanked by perennial all-stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire – were arguably the third best team in the East and the biggest threats to favorites Miami and Chicago. Nowadays, the Knicks, with all their talent and pedigree, are mired in controversy, and fighting to hold onto the eighth seed in the East.
Inside the Sixers organization, there is no such drama or turmoil right now. Despite a scarcity of “superstars,” the 76ers are thriving. In many respects, the 76ers are the anti-Knicks. Philly is a deep team, and although they may not have a true “superstar,” they’re a collection of efficient scorers who know their respective roles; they rarely turn the ball over and give a consistent, collective effort on defense.
The old cliché claims that the NBA is “superstar league,” – suggesting at least one First or Second-Team All-NBA player is a perquisite in order to be respected as legitimate contenders. The 76ers would be to differ.
It is obviously rare to see an NBA team nowadays not have a single player average more than 17 points per contest, yet the Sixers leading scorer this season is reserve guard Lou Williams, who averages a relatively modest 16.1 ppg. Lou Will is the only bench player in the league to lead his team in scoring. What makes this situation even more unique is that the Sixers have been able to maintain a commanding lead in the Atlantic Division. Possibly the only team in recent NBA history with a comparable scenario was the 2000-2001 New Jersey Nets, who won the Atlantic despite being led in scoring by Kenyon Martin, who averaged just 14.9 points.
Williams’ team-high tally is, by far, the lowest team-leading average in the entire league. However, the Sixers make up for it with incredible depth. Philly currently has six different players on their roster averaging double-figures.
Prior to the noon tip-off last Sunday, Head Coach Doug Collins (who has to be considered a leading candidate for NBA Coach of the Year at this point), was asked about the importance of a well-balanced offensive attack, without a one player being the focal point.
“Well, we think we have a lot of good players and we think we have strength in numbers,” said Collins. “Our bench is so important to us. We have two guys who we think are two of our five best players who come off our bench – Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams – which I think is a real credit to how unselfish they are.
Coach Collins also addressed a couple other ingredients in their winning ways. “We’re a team that shares the ball and we try to keep our turnovers down. We’re under eleven a game, which is I think first in the league. Also, something that has quietly gone unsaid is that (assistant coach) Michael Curry has crafted the number one defensive team in the NBA.”
When discussing the keys to Sixers success, talking about their depth and stellar defense is a great place to start.
Statically speaking, Philadelphia boasts the top defense in the Association this season. The stingy Sixers allow the fewest points per game (87.2). They also hold their opponents to just 41.4% shooting from the floor, which also ranks atop the league.
When handing out individual accolades, the first name Collins mentions is Andre Iguodala. “Well if you look at it, we think we have the best wing defender in NBA in Andre Iguodala.” Collins would also claim that he believed Iguodala was the “greatest conditioned athlete in the entire league.”
Collins also discussed the other collective tenets of their successful defensive philosophy.
“One of the things is we don’t do is turn the ball over, so we don’t give other teams easy points off fast breaks. We try and defend the paint. We don’t do a lot of scrambling on defense so we don’t shake lose at the three point line leading to missed assignments, where all the sudden guys are running around and they make the extra pass. I’ve always felt that offensive efficiency leads to defense. If you play good offense, you don’t turn the ball over, you get good shots, and you get good floor balance. Our schemes are good. They’re sound.”
Collins continued: “So we just count on our schemes and guys trust each other and I think that you put all of those things that I talked about together and that’s sort of where are right now. But it has to come with competitive toughness and that everybody trusts each other on the floor to do their jobs.”
Toughness and trust was a common theme amongst various conversations with multiple members of the Sixers.
Point guard Jrue Holliday touched on this topic before the game as well.
“This is one of the most, probably THE most unselfish team I’ve ever played on. We want to see everyone succeed and when everybody succeeds, we all do. It’s pretty evident, we’re first in the Atlantic, so again, everybody here is positive and we look out for each other.”
Veteran Elton Brand, who has seen it all during his 13 seasons in the NBA, also raved about the cohesiveness and chemistry of his team.
“We play together hard, for 48 minutes. There may be other teams with individual stars, but we are a team and we play together.”
Another underappreciated factor contributing to the Sixers success this season has been continuity.
The Sixers currently have 13 players on their roster. Eleven of those 13 players were on the team last season and, per the 76ers PR staff, these 11 have accounted for 95.3% of the team’s scoring. And, while many pundits have suggested the Sixers have come out of nowhere this season, Philly actually went 38-28 over the final 66 games in 2010-11. “Last year we turned it and I think there was a belief in what we were doing,” explained Collins. Now, more than halfway through this truncated 66-game regular season, the Sixers have won 25 on their first 42 contests.
Their most recent victory came Sunday. And after badly beating the Knicks in the matinee at MSG, a decisive 106-94 victory, the good vibes continued to flow from the Sixers locker room. In many respects, it was typical of many other Philly victories this season. They held New York to just 41.2% shooting from the floor, forced 16 turnovers, and had five different players score in double-figures.
Two players shined particularly bright on that sunny NYC afternoon were Lou Williams and Evan Turner.
Williams finished with 28 points on just 19 FG attempts in less than 28 total minutes. Another stellar stat line in what has been a remarkably unique and impressive season. Consider this: It’s been nearly 20 years since a player led his team in total points, yet didn’t start a single game. The last player to accomplish this feat was Dell Curry back in 1993-1994. In addition, Williams is on pace to become just second player in NBA history (Andrew Toney in 1981-82) to average 16+ points and 3+ assists in under 27 mpg. Williams’ per-36 minute averages are phenomenal: 21.9 ppg and 5 apg. He is currently 10th in the NBA in minutes per 48 minutes (29.1). He also ranks 4th in the league with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.08.
It also must be noted that Williams has also delivered when it matters most – the only two players that have scored more 4th quarter points this season are Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
After the victory over New York, Coach Collins had effusive praise for both Williams and fellow bench contributor Thaddeus Young.
“I can’t say enough about Lou Williams and Thad Young. They gave me a chance to coach the way I like to coach because of the responsibility they’ve accepted coming off the bench. If they weren’t happy in those situations, then it wouldn’t work because I’d be trying to figure out who I’m starting and all this other kind of stuff…”
Elton Brand offered this: “They might say we don’t have superstars, but you look at Lou Williams tonight, that was a superstar performance. We have a good team with good solid players.”
The other player who really tuned heads on Sunday was Evan Turner. Evan poured in 24 points (9-of-14 from the floor and 6-7 from the free-throw stripe) and grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, only one other Sixers player in the last six seasons matched or exceeded Turner’s totals in those two categories in one game. (That was Elton Brand, who had 33 points and 16 boards on February 4, 2011 in Philadelphia, coincidentally against the Knicks.)
Turner has started each of the Sixers last three contests, and over this recent stretch, is averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting 60% from the floor. The Sixers have won all three games. When Philadelphia is getting that type of production from Turner, they are extremely tough to beat. In many respects, he is an x-factor for Philly.
According to Collins, the thing that jumped out in the victory over New York was Turner’s work on the glass.
“He had 14 defensive rebounds. When you rebound the ball like that, you’re in the open court. Plus, when he’s out there with Lou, Jrue, or Dre (Iguodala), we can throw the ball ahead and get plenty of early offense. We have three guys who can play pick-and-roll and transition, which all helps… Yeah, 14 defensive rebounds is amazing, it really is.”
But looking at the big picture, it’s obviously not about singling out one or two players. Unselfishness and hard work were once again the dominant, overarching themes in all post-game discussion.
“That’s our recipe,” said Coach Collins. “I told guys after the game, I said that’s what we do. There’s going to be teams that we play against that will have more talent that we got to hope at the end of the day that our numbers makes us a better team. That’s been our whole emphasis.”
Collins was quick to emphasize that the success the Sixers are enjoying is a direct result of the players selflessly buying in to the program. “As a coach, you can preach all you want, but it doesn’t do you any good if your players don’t believe it.”
Although they may lack “superstars,” this Sixers squad finds itself flush with confidence. They also find themselves in first place.
A grinning Elton Brand summed it all up succinctly from inside the visitor’s locker room at MSG, after another Philadelphia victory over the New York Knicks. “The teams with the so-called superstars, right now they’re behind us,” said Brand.