Are the current Philadelphia 76ers this year’s Bulls?
Last season, the Chicago Bulls figured to be a good team that might rise into the top tier of the Eastern Conference by winning the weak Central Division. Instead, the Bulls rode a suffocating defense and a marked improvement by their best player, MVP Derrick Rose, to 62 wins and #1 seed in the conference.
I don’t know think that anyone on the Sixers roster is going to mount an MVP candidacy (though Spencer Hawes has a solid case going for Most Improved Player), they are riding an elite defense into the league’s top echelon. After the games of 01.10.12, they were 7-2 and boasted some impressive peripheral metrics. Their defense ranked first in both points allowed per game, 86.5 and Defensive Rating 93.1. Their scoring differential, plus 16 points per game, is outright scary. The 72-10 Chicago Bulls of 1995-’96 only outscored their opponents by 12.3 points per game.
The Sixers monster differential is a reminder that their schedule has been somewhat soft so far. Portland, Utah and Indiana are the only quality teams they’ve played so far, and the Pacers were missing Danny Granger for the game. In fact, as John Smallwood pointed out today, the 76ers have benefited from opponents missing key players with surprising frequency. Nevertheless, when you win seven of nine games and outscore your opponents by double digits in the process, there’s far more skill than luck at work.
The Sixers schedule doesn’t get mean again till late next week when the Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat show up on the slate. The 76ers already lead the Atlantic Division by two and two and half games respectively over the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics. They play the Knicks tonight at the Garden, and with a win they begin to change the dynamic of the Division race. Instead of an old fashioned Knicks-Celtics duel for Atlantic supremacy, both of those teams will be chasing Philadelphia.
It’s been widely suggested that youth, continuity and depth are the keys to winning in this compressed season and the Sixers returned every member of their top eight from last season. Of that eight, only forward Elton Brand is on the wrong side of 30, and no one on the team is averaging more than 35 minutes per game.
Two of the other Philadelphia sports teams, the Eagles and the Phillies made all the headlines are raised expectations with splashy offseason acquisitions. Instead it’s the Sixers, a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2005 and hasn’t been a title contender since 2002, who are the best bet for the postseason and success beyond that.