It is only four games and the season is barely a week old, but statistically speaking, the Sixers are in prime position to make a run at the Atlantic Division crown. The stats completely back up my claim. Trust me. I tried all day to prove myself wrong.
According to hoopdata.com, the Sixers are second in offensive efficiency (106.5 points scored per 100 possessions) and seventh in defensive efficiency (96.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). Their +10.1 point differential is good for second in the NBA, as of this writing. Point differential is a key stat in the NBA, a known predictable indicator of playoff-caliber teams. Look at the top five teams in point differential as of tonight.
1. Atlanta (4-1)
2. Philly (2-2)
3. Chicago (4-1)
4. Miami (5-1)
5. Portland (3-1).
Combined records: 18-6.
Philly is the only two-loss team in the bunch, but they are also the only team to play all four of their games on the road. When you delve into the stats, you find that the Sixers turnaround is a combination of player development, clearly defined roles, and marksmanship.
Let’s start at the end. The Sixers are second in eFG% (weighted efficiency, adjusted for three pointers), shooting 52.9% from the field according to hoopdata.com. What does this mean? This means the Sixers, who have a history of struggling from the outside, are knocking down their shots, especially three pointers, at an astonishing clip compared to last season. This year, (only four games, I know) the Sixers rank third in eFG% from three, shooting 65.2%. Last year, the Sixers were 16th shooting 53.2%.
The insertion of three-point specialist Jodie (That’s My Mom’s Name) Meeks into the starting lineup plays a part in the rise (we’ll get to that later). But we cannot overstate the improvement in shooting percentage from Andre Iguodala.
Iggy has always been known in Philly as solid second banana getting star money — a great athlete who couldn’t lead a team by himself. This season, Iggy is doing everything he can to prove us wrong. I triple-checked this because I couldn’t believe it myself, but Iggy is shooting 12-18 from three this season. In his first four games last season, Iguodala shot 4-11.
Iguodala is doing more, while staying on the floor a little less. For his career, he ranks second among active NBA players in average minutes per game with 38.0 mpg. His minutes this season are down (34.3 mpg) from that mark while his shooting percentage is eight points higher. Not surprisingly, his scoring has climbed up as well (16.8 ppg). For a team that likes to go up and down, (they are currently 9th in pace), a little less action for Iggy may keep him from aggravating previous injuries that kept him out of 16 games last year. He leads the team in assists (5.0 apg) and continues to be the all-around player head coach Doug Collins envisioned when he took over the job last season.
The Sixers added no one in free agency this offseason choosing to stay the course. Now, you may be saying, “Great, the Sixers have the same team that finished 41-41.” Not true. The Sixers started the season 3-13. I’m throwing that out the window. These guys are not the 3-13 team that was trying to undo everything Eddie Jordan did to them while also trying to figure out Collins’ approach and coaching style. This is the 38-28 team that looked every bit like the playoff-contender we see today.
We talked about Iggy’s improvement, but Spencer Hawes is beginning to earn some attention for Most Improved Player of the year. Hawes has been a revelation at center for the Sixers averaging, 12.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.0 asts., 1.25 steals and 1.75 blocks a game in only 28 minutes of action. Hawes is entering his fifth season and is playing like he is on the final year of his contract…which he is. All the better. Hawes has brought stability, strength and size to a Sixers frontcourt that desperately needed all three. The Sixers are an athletic group, but toughness inside is a requirement during playoff time. Now, the Sixers boast a unique lineup of interchangeable parts, anchored by Hawes inside. That’s two guys in the starting five who have drastically improved their play this season. When you add no one in free agency, the leap from good to great has to come from within. So far, it has.
One more thing: due to the lockout, the NBA is playing a 66 game schedule. Throwing out their 3-13 start, the Sixers went 38-28…in their final 66 games. In my view, anything less than 38 wins this year is a disappointment.
Doug Collins likes to say that when scouting the Sixers, you have to incorporate all five guys into your gameplan instead of focusing on just one or two. This isn’t entirely true. Team scouts really have to scout seven or eight guys. The Sixers have eight guys averaging at least 20 minutes a game. Their leading scorer is their sixth man. Two of their top five scorers come off the bench. In their two victories (both by 20+ points) no player scored more than 15. Their small forward leads the team in assists. Their most expensive player is averaging 8.3 ppg. I can go on and on, but the truth is… it’s all working!
Early on last season, the Sixers’ roster was a hodgepodge of overpriced, overvalued and often duplicated…talent. The talent was always there, but it was a matter of putting the pieces in the right places. Collins tinkered with the starting unit until, like a starting offensive line working as one, the lineup fell into place opening holes for their playmakers. The key to Collins’ success was Jodie Meeks. With Meeks in the lineup last season, the Sixers were 36-25. He does one thing and does it well — shoot from the outside. When his shot is on, the team clicks into place and the floor opens up for their athletic swingmen and guards. When it’s off, Collins has the pieces off the bench to overcome it.
Lou Williams is the leader of the Philly Bench Mob. Williams leads the team in scoring averaging 20.3 ppg in only 27.3 minutes a game. Williams is the closer. He has twice scored 10+ points in the fourth quarter this season. The Sixers currently rank fourth in fourth quarter points, averaging 28.8 points in the final frame — a huge leap from last season when they ranked 22nd. What I like about Williams is that he’s comfortable taking the final shot and has the mental make-up to move on from it…whether it goes in or not. Now, Iguodala has taken final shots in the closing seconds (with low degrees of success), but for my money, I want Williams with the ball in crunch time.
So this is where the Sixers stand — on the cusp of making a huge leap from mediocrity to perennial playoff contender. I was watching the Oklahoma City Thunder play the Dallas Mavericks last week and TNT analyst, Steve Kerr said something interesting. He talked about how the honeymoon is essentially over for the Thunder. They are now expected to win a ring. Kerr said the rise is always the fun part, but making the leap from playoff contender to champion is not easy and even the best have failed at it. Expectations rise. The team is under the spotlight and must learn to endure the added scrutiny that comes with high expectations. Sixers fans should know that they have a team that is in the midst of a fun-loving rise. This team will win 38-40 games and it’ll be a joy to watch.
Now, they have a brutal stretch to begin February: at home against the Bulls, Heat, at the Hawks, then home against the Lakers, Spurs and Clippers. They need to pile up victories now because that stretch of games could make or break their season in terms of seeding in the playoffs. But until then, throw out all the numbers and stats, Sixers fans. Enjoy the rise.