Since starting the season 1-2, the Philadelphia 76ers have ripped off 16 wins in 21 games and vaulted to the top of the Atlantic Division with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. The results are no fluke. Last season, the Sixers started 5-14, and at one point were slogging along at 15-23. From there, they went 25-13 before a late swoon left them at .500 heading into the playoffs.
Signs certainly pointed to Philly as a potential team on the rise, and this year they've definitely made a major leap. While the Sixers lack a definitive go-to scorer, coach Doug Collins has plenty of effective offensive weapons at his disposal. Not that it matters all that much, since Philadelphia is the league's best defensive team through the first third (give or take) of the year.
And, as Kobe Bryant pointed out after the loss in Utah on Saturday, the Sixers are young and fast, representing a major challenge for the "old, slow" Lakers. To gain a little more insight into the surging Sixers, we hit up Carey Smith of Philadunkia, part of ESPN.com's TrueHoop network, with some questions:
Land O'Lakers: By nearly every metric, the Sixers are the league's stingiest defense. What accounts for their success?
Smith: First and foremost, it’s the 76ers' commitment to playing defense that is the key. Doug Collins has gotten these guys to buy in to the idea that you have to play solid team defense to win in the league, and given the results when compared to the brief-but-disastrous Eddie Jordan era, Collins is 100 percent correct. The other factor is that the Sixers have some phenomenal perimeter defenders in Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Add in Thad Young (another solid defender), and you have a nice collection of players who can make it really difficult for the opposing team’s guards and wings to score the ball.
Land O'Lakers: The team's leading scorer is Lou Williams, who comes off the bench, but nine players average more than nine points a game. Is this a reflection more of a great team-first ethic or the lack of a true go-to scorer?
Smith: Great question. Honestly my answer is it is a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Collins preaches team, team, team, and then still more team, and the Sixers have played that way very successfully over the last two seasons. They do a great job with the little things that make balanced scoring work -- making the extra pass or setting screens for each other or rotating the ball quickly or finding the hot hand. But if Collins had a superstar like he did, say, in Chicago with that guy named Jordan, I wonder if the offense would flow the same way.
Land O'Lakers: What's the most dangerous matchup for the Sixers playing the Lakers, and how do they combat it?
Smith: It’s the Lakers' bigs versus the Sixers' interior defense. For the most part, the 76ers' bigs -- Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand, Nik Vucevic and Lavoy Allen -- have done a great job on offense this year, but they can’t stop anyone from scoring down low. They have been very weak on the glass, as well. I prayed the Sixers' front office would find a more physical post presence in the offseason, and it didn’t happen. I really wanted the 7-6 to sign Kenyon Martin, and that didn’t happen either. So this issue will continue to plague the Sixers for the foreseeable future. If the Lakers play through Bynum and Gasol, there’s very little the Sixers can do to combat those inside threats, and the Lakers will win this game.
The one thing Collins has tried regularly is going small, by using Brand at the 5, and forcing the opponent to adjust. There’s no doubt it has worked at times this season, but it’s not a long-term solution.
Land O'Lakers: What's Philly's relationship [with Kobe] these days? Does he get another frosty reception?
Smith: I would say Philly’s relationship with Kobe has improved, but you’ll never mistake it for a romantic comedy script. Last year, he made a $400K-plus donation to LMHS’s new Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, and that didn’t go unnoticed here in Philly. However, there’s too much history behind the disdain for it to ever disappear completely. In fact he was recently ranked as Philly’s second-biggest sports villain of all time. Ahead of legendary Philly demons like Bird, Magic, Joe Carter, Scott Stevens and Kevin McHale.
Honestly, I think the whole thing is kind of hilarious.
Thanks to Carey for his input.