Eleven years ago, when I was in 7th grade, the 76ers united the city of Philadelphia behind booming chants of "BEAT LA" rattling the then-titled First Union Center. In a city that hadn't seen a championship in eighteen years, this team had Philly 100% behind it in a time when the Phillies were awful, the Flyers seemed to have already solidified themselves as an early playoff burnout, and the Eagles, despite their success in Andy Reid's second season, still had James Thrash and Todd Pinkston as their top receivers.
I vividly remember being at game seven of the conference semi-finals against Toronto and screaming my lungs out when Vince Carter missed the potential game-winning shot as time expired. I remember Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson shooting the lights out in the conference finals against the Bucks, but still prevailing in 7 games. I remember Iverson hitting a jumper in Tyronn Lue's face after breaking his ankles and then stepping over him in game 1 of the finals. Even though we lost--granted, to a significantly better LA team--that was a magical season for that team and this city.
Since then, the Sixers have had only three seasons above .500, gone to the playoffs six times and advanced only once. They have had eight coaches, six of which probably should never have had a job--Randy Ayers, Chris Ford, Jim O'Brien, Maurice Cheeks, Tony DiLeo, and Eddie Jordan. At the bookends of these masters of the game are the only coaches who have had success with this team since before I was even alive--Larry Brown and Doug Collins.
The Doug Collins hire was probably the best move the Sixers have made since drafting Allen Iverson first overall in 1996. The Sixers were atrocious in the mid-to-late 2000's, and fan attendance and media attention reflected that. Hell, even Marc Zumoff has had four or five different color guys since Steve Mix retired. Yet, after a 14 win turnaround last season from the 09-10 campaign, and a current record of 18-7, Collins has single-handedly reinvigorated this city's love and appreciation for basketball. And, more importantly, not the star-powered spectacle that we have all come to associate with the NBA, but Philadelphia basketball--hustle, teamwork, defense, and grit.
Sure, that 2001 team had Iverson in his prime, and he averaged 31.1 points per game that year. The next highest PPG totals for that team? Theo Ratliff at 12.4, who was traded mid season for Dikembe Mutombo, who turned out to be the next highest with 11.7, followed by Aaron McKie at 11.6, Eric Snow at 9.8, Tyrone Hill at 9.6, George Lynch at 8.4, and Toni Kukoc at 8.0. The rest of the team includes names such as Matt Geiger, Rodney Buford, Vernon Maxwell, Jumaine Jones, Todd MacCulloch, Kevin Ollie, Roshown McLeod, Pepe Sanchez, Nazr Mohammed, and Anthony Miller. The only players on that entire team that even played more than 50 games for the Sixers that season were MacCulloch, Jones, McKie and the starters (Snow, Iverson, Lynch, Hill, Mutombo).
My point? This wasn't anything like the powerhouse teams assembled in the modern NBA that create the star-studded rosters apparently necessary to win championships. The Heat have Lebron, Wade and Bosh. The Celtics have Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Rondo. The Lakers have Kobe, Gasol and Bynum. The Thunder have Westbrook and Durant. The Knicks have Melo and Amar'e. Even The Clippers now have CP3 and Blake Griffin. You can make the argument that the Spurs, even though they're past their prime, had a similar group with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. The Hawks have a slightly less-renowned combo of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford, but still a potent trio.
This season, all of those teams except for New York are above .500. The other teams above .500? Chicago, Indiana, Denver, Portland, Utah, Minnesota, Houston, and Dallas. How many of those teams have a star or superstar caliber player? Chicago has Derrick Rose, Indiana has Danny Granger, Portland has LaMarcus Aldridge, Minnesota has Kevin Love, Houston has Kevin Martin, and Dallas has Dirk. You could say that the 2001 76ers team falls into that category as well. That leaves us with Denver and Utah. Can anybody guess the remaining team above .500? That's right, the 76ers, who lead the Atlantic Division and have the fourth best record in the NBA.
Out of every winning team in the NBA, guess what team's leading scorer has the lowest PPG? If you also guessed the 76ers, good for you. It's Lou Williams, OFF THE BENCH, averaging 15.5. With the 2nd best PPG allowed in the NBA, along with six players scoring in double figures, the 76ers have redefined what it takes to win in the current NBA. They don't have a superstar. Heck, they don't even have a regular star. Elton Brand has played admirably in his post-injury career. Iguodala has more or less settled into his role as an elite defender with outstanding athleticism and a good all-around game. Spencer Hawes has begun to show signs that he can be a viable starting NBA center. Evan Turner has had a promising sophomore season after a disappointing freshman campaign. Jrue Holiday could be a star in the making. Thaddeus Young has transformed himself from an undersized 4/oversized 3 into a matchup nightmare and defensive stalwart. Jodie Meeks has become the first three-point threat on this team since Kyle Korver. Even rookie F/C's Nik Vucevic and Lavoy Allen (Go TU!) have played above their expectations. And, at the forefront of it all, Lou Williams has developed into this team's closer, something we haven't had since Iverson left.
My other point? The current Sixers roster reminds me more and more of the energy, passion, and excitement that the 2001 team brought to Philadelphia. Does this team play pretty? No. Do they have household names? Definitely not. But are they having fun, filling the Wells Fargo Center, and, most importantly, winning? Yes. And they're doing it in a way that very few teams in the recent past have--without a superstar. They are a team comprised entirely of role players that have gelled as well as anybody could have hoped, and more than most could have believed.
Personally, I don't think this team has a shot this year to win it all. I do, however, believe they'll make it into the 2nd round of the playoffs and give the Heat, Bulls, or Magic a run for their money. This Sixers team is one star player away from being a legit contender. Here's to hoping that future is close at hand.