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January 10, 2012
Fast Starters
The Philadelphia 76ers

by Kevin Pelton

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On Monday, the Philadelphia 76ers pulled off a remarkable feat. Playing at home, the Sixers defeated the Indiana Pacers 96-86, yet saw their point differential decline after the 10-point victory. Through eight games, six of them wins, Philadelphia has outscored the opposition by an incredible 14.6 points per game, far and away the league's best mark. The 8-1 Miami Heat (+11.8 ppg) is the only other team averaging double-digit wins thus far.

The Sixers' pair of losses, both on the road, came by a combined seven points to the Portland Trail Blazers (on opening night) and the Utah Jazz. Meanwhile, four of Philadelphia's six wins have been by at least 20 points. Even if the competition hasn't been particularly stout, that kind of dominance is impressive. Consider that, while blowouts are now more common, the 76ers won by 20-plus points just seven times all last season.

This is also already the best eight-game stretch by differential of Doug Collins' time in Philadelphia, surpassing an 6-2 span last February where the Sixers went 6-2 with a +11.6 differential. So, even though it's early, it appears safe to believe that this year's Philadelphia squad is an improvement on last year's .500 club that finished seventh in the Eastern Conference.

There are a handful of reasons the Sixers have played so well. The most interesting might be the team's continuity. Through Sunday, 96.2 percent of Philadelphia's minutes had been played by returning players, which ranks second in the NBA behind the Oklahoma City Thunder (98.1 percent). Before trading Marreese Speights last week, the Sixers had brought back every player who saw more than 112 minutes of action last season. The only newcomer of note is rookie center Nikola Vucevic, who functions as the ninth man in a rotation that goes just eight deep some nights.

Given the brief training camp coaches had to install their systems and integrate new players, and how little practice time the compressed schedule offers teams, it's logical that teams with greater continuity might have an edge, especially early in the season. It's more difficult to find statistical evidence of that. There is a positive correlation between a team's percentage of returning minutes and the amount by which they've outperformed their SCHOENE projection so far, but it's slight (r=0.324). (The correlation between win-loss record and returning percentage, which is a bit higher, is skewed by the fact that good teams are more likely to stay intact.)

Either way, Philadelphia surely has an advantage over last season, when Collins was new to the team and spent the first month trying to figure out a rotation. The 76ers started the season 3-13 and were just 17-25 a little past the midway point before finishing the regular season on a 24-16 run. Promoting Jodie Meeks to the starting lineup and cutting Andres Nocioni's minutes helped make Philadelphia an entirely different team, and Collins has been able to apply those lessons from day one this time around.

In fact, simply excising Nocioni from the rotation might have been one of the most important changes Collins could make. Last season, per BasketballValue.com, the Sixers were outscored by 7.5 points per 100 possessions with the Argentine forward on the floor. Nocioni still played more than 900 minutes. This season, he's played 11 total.

The other big difference for Philadelphia has been the development of fifth-year center Spencer Hawes. After making progress as a defensive anchor in his first year playing for Collins, Hawes has made enormous strides this season. Through Sunday, Hawes was making 66.7 percent of his two-point shots, but that performance is likely to be fluky at this point. More meaningful is that Hawes has pushed his defensive rebound percentage from last year's career best 22.5 percent to 27.1 percent, which puts him just outside the league's top 10. Hawes is also blocking more shots, another category that is somewhat less prone to random spikes. Both developments are highly encouraging. Hawes has additionally become a dangerous playmaker from the high post, handing out assists more frequently than any other center in the league.

If Hawes' defensive development is legitimate, the Sixers will rank as one of the league's top defensive teams all season. After finishing 10th a year ago, they led the NBA in Defensive Rating through Sunday, allowing just 94.0 points per 100 possessions. Philadelphia was also tops in Offensive Rating at 111.0 points per 100 possessions, but that performance will be more difficult to sustain. The Sixers scored at a below-average rate last season and SCHOENE projected a step back this season. Besides Hawes' hot shooting, it's difficult to point to any single factor explaining the difference, but such an improvement would be out of the ordinary, especially with essentially identical personnel.

If one factor could derail Philadelphia's season, it's injuries. From one through eight, the Sixers are as balanced as almost any team in the league. Six of the team's eight regulars have rated as above-average players thus far, and Meeks was nearly at that mark last season before suffering an early slump. Vucevic has also been impressive in limited minutes. After that, Collins has little at the end of his bench. Besides Nocioni, the Sixers have Tony Battie and young forwards Lavoy Allen and Craig Brackins. Battie is more valuable now for his leadership than his play, while Allen and Brackins do not appear to be NBA-caliber contributors. If one key player goes down, Collins will be forced to give the rest of the rotation heavy minutes.

Before the season, SCHOENE saw the 76ers neck and neck with the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks for supremacy in the Atlantic Division. Given that both of those teams have struggled in the early going--much more, when adjusting for schedule, than their records would indicate--the division now appears to be Philadelphia's to lose.

Get your copy of the most comprehensive guide to the new NBA season. Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 is now available in .PDF and paperback format.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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