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Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Why the 76ers are legitimate contenders

By Ryan Feldman, ESPN Stats & Info

The Philadelphia 76ers are perhaps the biggest surprise in the NBA this season, leading the Atlantic Division at 18-7. It’s their best start since starting with the same record in the 2000-01 season, when they won the division and advanced to the NBA Finals.

The team’s top eight scorers this season are identical from last season when it finished with a 41-41 record. So what has led to this impressive turnaround?

DEFENSE
The Sixers defense has been phenomenal, holding teams to 86.6 points per game -- second in the NBA -- compared to 97.5 per game a season ago. They’ve held opponents to fewer than 100 points in each of their 18 wins.

The last time a team held opponents below 87 points per game for a season was the 2003-04 season, when the Pistons, Spurs and Pacers did it. The Pistons beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals that season.

Accounting for pace, the Sixers are first in the NBA in points per play allowed (10th last season), and third in points per play allowed in transition and in points per play allowed in half-court situations.

Specifically, the Sixers are great in pick-and-roll situations. They’re first in the league in points per play allowed against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and are holding teams to 34.2 percent shooting in those situations, also tops in the NBA.

Last season the Sixers were 24th in points per play allowed against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and allowed teams to shoot 43.2 percent in those situations.

Taking all this into account, the Sixers lead the NBA this season with a points-per-game differential of +10.1. Only four teams in the past 25 seasons have finished +10.0 or better, and all four of those teams won the NBA Championship.

TURNOVERS
The Sixers lead the NBA with a +4.3 turnover differential -- up from +1.2 last season -- and are second in points per game off turnovers at 19.6, an increase of more than three over last year.

It’s not just defense in this regard; Philly has a league-low 10.7 turnovers per game and easily leads the league in opponents’ points per game off turnovers.

As a result, the Sixers have by far the best points per game off turnovers differential in the NBA, more than double the next-closest team.

In addition, the Sixers have a 2.11 assist-to-turnover ratio this season -– the Bulls are second at 1.62.

SPENCER HAWES
Spencer Hawes
Hawes
Elton Brand is playing seven fewer minutes this season than last season, and they’ve all gone to fifth-year man Spencer Hawes. The latter is averaging more points, rebounds and assists, and shooting a higher percentage from the field in the same amount of minutes this season.

CONCLUSION
Only two of the Sixers’ first 14 wins were against teams that are currently above. 500, so there were questions about their legitimacy.

Over the past five games the Sixers have gone 4-1 against teams that were in the playoffs last season and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Philly has held its past seven opponents below their season scoring average.