Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Resurgent Sixers

It makes me uneasy to discuss the next topic in some ways. I was really hoping that the Sixers would simply tank the season in order to bring on the Greg Oden era.

Naturally, the Sixers chose not to cooperate.

From February 26th to March 10th, the Sixers ripped off 7 straight wins that included wins over the Lakers and the Suns. Despite the beatings the Sixers took on Sunday March 18th against the Rockets and their March 20th whipping at the hands of Detroit, the hometown hoops team has a record of 8 wins and 4 losses for the month of March. That goes with their just below .500 record in February. What does this all mean? It means they're getting better as a team, somehow.

But how?

There are several theories being bandied about, with all of them having some truth to them that, when combined, probably best explain why the Sixers are playing better basketball.

I think it's fairly obvious at this point that the departure of Allen Iverson, while traumatic to a segment of the fan base, has been the jumping off point for the remaining players on the team to perform as an actual team rather than acting as Allen Iverson's support system.

No matter what Iverson does in Denver in the way of hanging offensive numbers, I firmly believe that Allen Iverson does not, in any way, make his teammates better through his self-centered style of play. To support this point, the Nuggets record since the Iverson trade is below .500 (22 wins, 25 losses), whereas, they were above .500 (13 wins, 9 losses) when he got there. Iverson is a great offensive scorer, but not a winner.

Alone, the mere absence of Allen Iverson does not explain the recent Sixer surge towards respectibility. For all of his selfish tendencies, Iverson is a tremendous talent and an offensive scoring machine. Somehow, Iverson's offensive output, while never replaceable, needs to be made up for in some way. Enter true point guard Andre Miller. Miller, part of the Iverson deal, has been exactly what the Sixers have truly lacked since Eric Snow got old right in front of our eyes and we realized he couldn't shoot....a real point guard. A point guard that runs the offense and looks to get other players involved. Miller has averaged 13 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game, which suggests that Miller is not only a good setup guy, but can score and help out on the boards when needed. His assist to turnover ratio is approximately 2.7:1, which is comparable to perrenial league MVP Steve Nash's ratio of 2.95:1. His floor leadership has helped immensely on a team which was getting perfectly content to watch Allen Iverson hoist an average of 25 shots per game (the less shot-needy Miller averages a measly 11 shots per game).

As Miller has asserted his game with the Sixers, the rest of the team has gotten in on the act. Andre Iguodala has made a transformation from talented slasher to well-rounded star in the making. He is averaging a shade less than 5 more points per game (from just above 15 ppg to just under 20 ppg) and approximately 2 more assists per game (from about 4.5 apg to just over 6 apg) since the Iverson trade. That Iguodala has more assists even with the departure of a scorer like Iverson is astonishing. It tells you that when Iverson scored, it was mostly in the form of drives where Iverson brought up the basketball and simply kept it and scored. Iguodala is not the only player who has seen his numbers increase since the Iverson deal. Kyle Korver's point output per game has increased as well as that of Sam Dalembert and Rodney Carney. This increased scoring activity amongst the young core of the team can only assist in the development of confidence that every NBA player needs in order to succeed.

So, yes, while it is painful to watch the young Sixers win games and continue to fritter away their opportunity to draft a talent like Greg Oden, it is also fun to watch the Sixers develop and function as a team.

From here, I simply hope the Sixers continue to develop their core players and draft wisely this upcoming draft. Specifically, I'd like a bigger body in the middle and/or a scoring option down on the low blocks in the form of a real power forward. They need to retain Andre Miller's services and keep with the philosophy that a true point guard is the best way to foster team play. It might also be wise to begin grooming a successor to the 31 year old Miller. Louis Williams may or may not be the answer (no pun intended), but they are going to need to find out.

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