The NBA certainly put its fans through the wringer this past summer - and most of the fall - but their timing couldn't be better for a number of Philadelphia sports fans. Sixteen hours after the Eagles playoff hopes were extinguished, the NBA burst onto the professional sports scene with a quintuple header which featured buzzer beaters and star players making star plays over nearly 13 hours of game action. Now the holiday weekend has come and gone, the marquee matchups have set the table and the Philadelphia 76ers are getting ready to play their first game.
If you followed the Sixers last season, you don't need a reason to tune in later tonight to see them open their season in Portland against the Trail Blazers, or for the next 65 games over the following 122 days. If you're a casual observer who hasn't been won over, though, there's plenty you should know about this Sixers team and upcoming NBA season.
The Sixers didn't make headlines during the abbreviated preseason. They didn't sign any big name free agents. They didn't trade for Chris Paul. Pretty much all they did was bring back the same roster that finished last season .500 and fell 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs last May. If the Sixers were an old team that had topped out its talent, that would probably be a pretty depressing thing. If this was a typical NBA season, it would probably only lead to incremental improvement. But this team is far from old, and this season will be anything but typical.
When the NBA decided to shoehorn 66 games into a little more than four months, youth, continuity and depth became extremely valuable traits. The Sixers have all three, in spades. This is the second season under Doug Collins for their entire eight-man rotation, a rotation that saw zero turnover and features six players under 25 years of age. The have a stable of young, versatile players and the ability to keep the pressure on older teams for 48 minutes, every night. Over the course of a normal 82-game schedule, these advantages are mitigated by off days. With this schedule, though, other teams won't have a chance to rest. They won't have enough practice time to integrate new personnel until a decent chunk of the schedule has already played, and most importantly, they don't have the bodies they're going to need to cover for their stars when their stars need rest.
If you look around the Atlantic Division, two teams will probably jump out at you based on talent alone: The Knicks and the Celtics. The Celitcs still have their core of four stars, they've still got the tradition they've built up since trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Knicks have the three splashy moves they've made in the past 18 months: Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and most-recently, Tyson Chandler. If you had to rank the Sixers against those teams in terms of talent, with both rosters 100% healthy, one game, the Sixers would finish a distant third. But when you look at those teams viewed through the lens of the shortened season, they're probably going to run into some serious issues. The Celtics are one of the oldest teams in the league, and they have virtually no bench. Paul Pierce missed the opener yesterday and his replacement in the starting lineup was Sasha Pavlovic.. Brandon Bass is their best player off the bench and they're counting on Jermaine O'Neal to be their starting center. Even if they can remain relatively healthy, how many minutes can Paul Pierce (34), Ray Allen (36) and Kevin Garnett (35) be expected to log with extremely limited off days? If they can't got 30+ minutes every night, the Celts are going to look like a D-League team.
The Knicks are a bit younger, but just as shallow. Jared Jeffries, Renaldo Balkman, Bill Walker and a couple of rookies represent their second until the 33-year-old Baron Davis returns from injury. To squeeze out as many regular season wins as possible, Mike D'Antoni is going to have to push Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler for heavy, heavy minutes. The two bigs both have a checkered injury history. Even if the Knicks can somehow keep those three on the floor for enough minutes and avoid injuries, they still have to figure out how the pieces fit.
No one can tell you if the Sixers' new ownership group, led by Joshua Harris, made the right long-term decision by staying the course on the court heading into this season, but in the short term, they've got a big advantage and a coach who knows how to play the angles. Their depth and continuity will have them better prepared to weather the storm of the condensed schedule, and even if none of their players make dramatic improvements year-over-year, they should still be in great position to move up in playoff seeding this year. If Jrue Holiday and/or Evan Turner elevate their games, who knows what their ceiling is.
Put a winner on the floor and the fans will come to the games. That's been the mantra for Philly sports forever. Well, this Sixers team not only has a chance to win the Atlantic, they also promise to put on a good show. They play an exciting brand of team basketball, and they've got a 21-year-old point guard who's on the verge of making the leap to stardom (or at least notoriety). If there was ever a time to jump on the bandwagon, this is it. The 66-game schedule may be onerous for the teams, but it's a dream for the fans. They'll be playing four or five games a week in an imbalanced schedule which pits them against conference rivals they'll be fighting for playoff position. It's going to seem more like a baseball schedule than basketball.
It all starts tonight, in Portland, at 10PM. The season begins with a five-game West coast trip (five winnable games), before they open their home schedule on January 6th against the Detroit Pistons. If you're a non-believer, or just looking for a way to kill a couple hours during this quiet week, tune in to a couple of games out west, give this team a chance to win you over. You don't want to miss the beginning of what promises to be a wild ride all the way to the playoffs.