(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)
The Philadelphia 76ers weren’t supposed to be in the playoff picture this year; they were supposed to go through the motions and end up in the lottery at the end of the season. For a while, they were on pace to do just that.
Led by third-year head coach Maurice Cheeks, the Sixers started off the season in a familiar way -- slowly. At the end of November, December, and January, the Sixers were 5-10, 14-17, and 18-28, respectively. Other than Andre Iguodala (19.9 points), Andre Miller (17.0 points), and Willie Green (12.5 points), the Sixers seemingly had no other reliable scorers on a very young team. Iguodala was not happy, and Miller’s name was thrown around in endless trade rumors that made it seem like he would be shipped out at any minute.
As the season rolled along, though, things began to take shape in Philadelphia. They traded away Kyle Korver, a deadly shooter but a stationary player, and went with a lineup of young, energetic, and athletic swingmen, who happen to all be less than 24 years old -- Louis Williams (21), Thaddeus Young (19), Rodney Carney (23), and Jason Smith (22). They’ve also chipped in to the scoring cause -- Williams (11.3), Young (7.9), Carney (5.9), and Smith (4.7).
Cheeks injected some new life into his team by giving more playing time to this young core and letting Iguodala (also only 24 years old) and Miller (6.8 assists) wreak havoc on opposing defenses by pushing the tempo and playing a faster-paced game. Last season the Sixers scored 94.9 points per game, and this year that average is up to 96.8.
The Sixers are also playing better defense and protecting the rim. They’re currently allowing 95.9 points per game, down from allowing 98.0 per game last season. Philadelphia ranks fourth in the NBA with almost 8.6 steals per game and 12th with 4.9 blocks per game. Center Samuel Dalembert ranks fourth in the league with almost 2.4 blocks per game, and Iguodala ranks sixth in steals with nearly 2.1 per game.
After going 4-11 in January, the revitalized Sixers rolled off five consecutive wins in February right before the All-Star break. Since the break, the Sixers went from being 23-30 and out of the playoff picture to 37-35 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, being in the weaker East has certainly helped, but the Sixers have still managed an outstanding 14-5 record since the break, with wins over solid teams like Orlando, Phoenix, Detroit, San Antonio, Denver, and Boston. So far, the Sixers are 11-2 in March, putting them only one half game behind the Washington Wizards for fifth place.
Only time will tell whether the Sixers, provided they make the playoffs, will improve enough to have a chance to win a postseason series against some of the East’s top teams. But not since the glory days in Philadelphia in 2001 when Allen Iverson was carrying the likes of Jumaine Jones, Matt Geiger, and Todd MacCulloch into the NBA Finals have Sixers fans had as much to be excited about.