Monday, November 4, 2013

NBA Team of the Week: The Surprising Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers are supposed to be terrible, but they have started the season 3-0.

(Editor's Note: This year, I did not have the time to do a comprehensive 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview, so each Monday I'll be posting (perhaps from time-to-time with the help of some friends) my NBA Team of The Week. These posts won't be based on the team that performed the best during a given week, or who had the most newsworthy headlines, but based on the team who, in my opinion as an objective NBA obsessive, seems the most "interesting" to me after a given week of action. This could be something as subtle as a promising 9th man starting to develop; or as big as Chris Paul putting on a string of virtuoso point guard performances that make me want to cry for all that is pure and beautiful in the world.)

 A lot of people will say that I am full of shit, but it almost makes sense that the Philadelphia 76ers have started out 3-0.

There are all kinds of proverbs that are used to help us navigate what we can expect in life. "Where there's smoke there's fire." "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck." Obviously there are truth to these phrases, since they remain in the rotation of daily, idle conversation.

However, life is strange and changeful, and logic does not always apply. All you have to do is look out your window, read a newspaper, or watch a documentary about theNew York Islanders to see that that fact. Often, what we expect to happen—that the good will be appreciated or rewarded—does not happen, no matter how much reason and data we have to believe that it will. That's why people love sports. The unexpected is always in play, and when the unexpected occurs, there is no other feeling on earth like it. And you don't want to miss out on that feeling by being away from the TV.

As of late, one of the main, widespread discussions in sports has been the debate between advanced stats and antiquated "gut feeling." There are arguments against the idea of momentum, mistakes in scouting, and amazing newNBA owned websites that can turn player movements into statistics. There is no true answer to the debate on whether the "head" or the "heart" is better when it comes to sports. The only thing smart people can agree in, just as in life, is that there should be a balance of both.

What all this means is that, during this past summer when the Philadelphia 76ers positioned themselves to be in the best position for the #1 Pick in the 2014 Draft, there was every reason to believe they would be terrible. When your head coach is quoted as saying that the team's roster only has six NBA players, that should count as the "smoke" leading to "fire"—i.e. the team being historically bad.

But when endless jokes are made about just how bad your team is going to be, a certain point the cosmos have to intercede. Whether that intervention takes the form of player pride, Dwyane Wade sitting out in favor of proceeding with his knee rehab plan, Derrick Rose still being rusty, an underreported levelplayer-coach chemistry, or just an overall odd game of streaks, the universe will sometimes right itself. And that is why it makes sense that the Philadelphia 76ers are 3-0.

Obviously, over the course of 82 games, this team will not be able to keep up their hot start. As Zach Lowe pointed out on Twitter, the Charlotte Bobcats started 6-4 last season and had yours truly begging their PR people to conduct an interview with Kemba Walker to ask about his team's improvement. The Bobcats ended the season with a 21-61 record and fired their head coach after one season. It's best not to jump to conclusions.

The 76ers will probably end the season with a bad record. Evan Turner is their leading scorer with 23 points per game, on 50% shooting and 17 shots per game. Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 Draft and has vastly underperformed thus far in the NBA. He is leading this team as a "veteran" presence, but that is most likely in an attempt to drive uphis market value so that the team can trade him later in the season for better, long-term assets—like a first round draft pick. It will be interesting to see how Evans performs this season. He needs to play well in order to increase his worth, since he will be a restricted free agent after the season. The Sixers' smart and analytics-embracing GM Sam Hinkie knows this and, since he did not draft Evans, will most likely use this fact in order to leverage Evans for the best deal he can get.

Then there is rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams who has set the league on fire in his first three games. Carter-Williams was an uncertain prospect coming out of Syracuse. He flashed moments of brilliance, but often had Syracuse fans and alumni wishing for the days of unreliable Scoop Jardine. At 6'7" he called to mind the size and potential of Penny Hardaway, which is enticing for any basketball mind. When the Sixers drafted him with the pick they received in the Jrue Holliday/New Orleans trade, it seemed like an experiment worth trying, since trading Holliday meant that the Sixers were looking to take a step back.

In MCW's first game, last Wednesday against the Miami Heat, he scored 22 points, had 12 assists, 7 rebounds and a rookie record 9 steals. He followed that up with a 14-5-3-1 line against Washington and then had 26-10-4-3 against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. After three games, he has a true shooting percentage of 55%, and is one of only seven players to play over 30 minutes pergame and average more than 27 points created via assist per 48 minutes. He has looked remarkably calm and composed with only 7 turnovers to his 27 assists. His two most impressive games have come against the two teams favored to win the Eastern Conference. Needless to say, Philadelphia may have a drafted a future superstar to run their team; a player they can use their bevy of future first round picks to build around. Or, it could be a flash in the pan, an early season hot streak against unsuspecting, rusty contenders, that we'll later only use as a way to cite the rookie record 9 steals.

Finally, there is the coach. Brett Brown comes from the San Antonio coaching tree and has a very good reputation within the league. Everything he has said so far as Sixers coach, reflects a guy who has been put in a position by his management to succeed. There are no results expected of him this year, so he has the time to teach, to grow a culture, to bond with his players. Quotes like, "I'm happy to sacrifice practice time for a chemistry, relationship type of thing where everybody can have a laugh and learn different sides of each other's past," and "There is a fine line between demanding and saying 'I understand, your young, you don't know my accent, we're throwing a lot at you.' So you always walk this crazy balance between positive and negative," reflect a common sense teaching approach that should be encouraging for any Sixers fan; and be appreciated by anyone who is writing a manual on management.

Again, it has only been three games. Carter-Williams could come down to earth. Turner very well might play listlessly like he has for the past three years and lower his trade value. I'm pretty sure Brown is going to be a good coach, but he's going to have a lot of nights where his lack of true NBA talent will lose him games—effort goes a long way, but it's not always there in January and February.

But I like a good party, so for now let's ride the highs of the Sixers early season success. I mean, when's the next time we'll see Tony Wroten with a highlight block on Derrick Rose?

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