When the 2010-2011 season began for the Sixers, most people thought they had a decent handle on who this team was. After a disastrous season under Eddie Jordan, the flaws had seemingly been exposed. They were a bad team with a few young pieces burdened by heavy contracts for guys who weren't superstars. There was a glimmer of hope after lucking into the number two pick in the draft and selecting Evan Turner. The faithful took solace in their up-and-coming point guard Jrue Holiday and Doug Collins' pedigree, but very few people thought this team would make the playoffs. A moderate improvement was the most any reasonable fan should have expected.
In the following seven months, this ragtag group of mostly young, mostly inexperienced players played basketball that ranged from infuriating to inspiring, with more of the latter than the former sprinkled in there. When the dust settled, the Sixers finished the regular season 41-41 and gave Miami more problems than Boston, Chicago or Dallas have since in the playoffs. If at any time during the past eight months you were to stop and look at the roster only one question would come to mind: How?
Absolutely nothing is simple about this team, and figuring out what makes them "work" is an exercise in futility at times. The obvious answer to how they won 41 games is defense. They finished the season with the #7 defense in the league in defensive efficiency rating (points allowed per-100-possessions). Peel a layer back, though, and it's nearly impossible to figure out how they defended at that level.
Andre Iguodala is the best wing defender in the league in my opinion, but he's a wing defender. The most he can do is lock down the opposing team's best wing scorer and maybe provide a little bit of help to other perimeter guys. Having the best wing defender isn't the same as having Dwight Howard locking down the paint. Not to mention the fact that Iguodala missed 15 games and played hurt for a number of others. Jrue Holiday has the potential to be a great defender, but his play on that end of the floor was sporadic, at best, this season. Elton Brand was a very good defender earlier in his career, these days he's got slow feet, long arms and makes due. Calling him above average for the position is probably as liberal as you can get in evaluating him on the defensive end. Spencer Hawes, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Jodie Meeks and Evan Turner run the gamut from pitiful to below average on the defensive end. That's it. That's their 8-man rotation. That group of players should not be capable of playing elite defense, but somehow they did it.
The complexity grows the closer you look. Taken at face value, you'd think the Sixers have a bunch of mismatched pieces: Wings who can't shoot, bigs who can't defend, athletes with more athleticism than skill. You'd think they'd play a sloppy brand of basketball, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. The Sixers were the best team in the league at taking care of the ball. You'd think they'd need to push the pace to be successful, but in reality they were middle-of-the-pack in pace. Without a legitimate rebounding big, you'd think they were killed on the defensive boards, but they finished 12th in defensive rebounding rate, on the backs of their smalls, for the most part.
It shouldn't work, not with the pieces they've assembled, but it does. This team shouldn't have been .500 this season. This core group of players shouldn't be able to hold Miami to 82 points in a playoff game. They shouldn't be able to blow the Bulls' doors off in Chicago. They shouldn't be able to make the San Antonio Spurs look like a D-League team, but they did. Part of the credit for this goes to the players, or maybe to the type of players they have. Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Thad Young, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and even Elton Brand all represent the modern player. They're all guys who can play multiple positions, defend multiple positions (some more than others here), and can use either their size or athleticism to create a mismatch and take away a potential mismatch on the other end. They have a roster full of Swiss Army knives, and now they have a coach who has figured out which tool to use for which task.
That's the big secret here. Doug Collins figured out how to put each guy into a role in which he could not only succeed individually, but he could help cover for his teammates' weaknesses. The team lacks a superstar in the traditional sense, so they shared the scoring load. They kept multiple playmakers on the floor most of the time and spread the responsibilities out. Instead of trying to overcompensate for defensive weaknesses, they developed a system which would force opponents to attack their defensive strength. They took the roll option out of the pick-and-roll and made ballhandlers beat their perimeter defenders. They put Iguodala and Jrue on an island, refused to collapse from the outside in and leave three-point shooters open. An intricate system on both ends of the floor, made simple on an individual level. Made possible by a coach with the mind to devise it, the communication skills to explain it and the cache to get his players to buy in.
Despite the overall talent level of the roster when compared to the legit contenders, this Sixers team deserves your attention. On paper, they may be a 35-win team, but in reality they aren't that far away from 50. If they can find a way to upgrade a few of their weak links, notable among them Spencer Hawes, they'll have a legitimate shot at home court in the playoffs next season Unfortunately, even if they get to that level there's another giant leap to make before a team is still playing in early June. Adding another Swiss Army knife or two can get them to the next level, but can they get beyond if they follow this road? History tells us no, but history also tells us they shouldn't have even achieved the moderate success they did this season.
In the short term, unless they do something drastic this summer, the Sixers are absolutely a team worth watching. A team Philadelphia should have no problem getting behind. Young, energetic, underdogs who don't shy away from the uphill battle and (hopefully) win more than they lose with bigger things in front of them and the lean years behind.