The Philadelphia 76ers opened the season with a spirited loss - if such a thing exists - in Portland on Monday night, followed by an outright dismantling of the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. The team showed a ton of resilience in Portland, coming back from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to have a chance to tie the game with 5 seconds left, then showed a killer instinct in putting the Suns to sleep with a monstrous run in the third quarter. At times they looked like a squad desperately in need of a full training camp, but overall, you have to be pleased with what you saw. Three players in particular deserve credit for the team's strong opening.
Spencer Hawes, the oft-maligned center, came crawling back to the Sixers for his qualifying after testing the waters of free agency and finding no takers. Last season, Hawes played a largely inefficient and soft game, mostly getting pushed around by opposing big men. He did a good job on the glass last year, but his offensive efficiency was terrible and if you look at the team's overall production, they were better with him on the bench than manning the middle. If you took into account his strengths and weaknesses, and the general makeup of the team, you'd set two realistic goals for Hawes heading into this season. (1) Don't shoot so much. He was the least efficient regular last season. (2) Concentrate on rebounding. Hawes has done a superb job through the first two games in both areas.
He's cut down his usage rate (the percentage of the team's possessions a player uses while he's on the floor. 20% would be average) to 14.6% (20% is average, his was 18.9% last season). This means other players are getting more shots, players who score more points with those shots. On the glass, he's been dominant. He's actually leading the league with a 32.8% defensive rebounding rate (of all available defensive rebounds when he's been on the floor, he's grabbed 32.8% of them), this is up from 22.5% last season. The rebounding number probably isn't sustainable, but he can definitely improve upon last season's total. Hawes' production has also allowed Doug Collins to limit Elton Brand's minutes while he gets his legs under him. He doesn't need to be quite this good, but he does need to continue focus on these areas.
The second player of note is Evan Turner. Turner's rookie season can only be classified as a disappointment. For most of the season, he looked lost. This summer, he worked with a shooting coach and he's come into the new season with a newfound, or possibly refound confidence and he's making decisive moves as a result. Where he used his dribble to no advantage last year, this year he's using his handle and crafty moves to get the ball into the lane where he's finishing with confidence using a variety of floaters to get over and around defenders. His shot selection has also been much better through the first two games. Last season, over 39% of his shots were long jumpers (from 16 to 23 feet). Not a good percentage for any player, let alone a guy with a broken jump shot. So far this year, he's cut that number down to 20%. The next step he needs to make is to draw contact on his drives to the lane. He won't be a truly efficient scorer until he either adds the three to his arsenal, gets to the line regularly or, preferably, both.
Speaking of efficient scorers, Andre Iguodala is off to an unbelievable start. The scourge of Philly.com has opened the season scoring 37 points on 21 shots and shooting 7/11 from three. He's been much more aggressive than he was last year and appears to finally be fully healthy after an extended summer. As usual, he's packing the box score and taking care of the ball. If Iguodala keeps playing like this, WIP is going to have to find someone else to run out of town.
Obviously, we're only two games into the season and this could all change tonight in Utah, but so far so good. On the opposite side of the ledger is Jrue Holiday, who is off to an extremely shaky start and had a brief injury scare in the Phoenix game. Elton Brand, who does look a step slow and Jodie Meeks, who hasn't quite found the range from deep yet (and if he isn't hitting threes, he's not doing a whole lot). Lou Williams has upped his game a bit, but he was solid last year as well. Mostly more of the same from him.
The Sixers will play their first back-to-back of the season tonight in Utah at 9pm and tomorrow night in Golden State, at 10pm, then they'll finish their 5-game road trip in New Orleans. Three winnable games including ringing in the New Year in Oakland.