1) Philadelphia has been one of the big surprises of the NBA seasonso far, but they've slipped mostly under the national radar. What's been the biggest reason for their improvement this year?
It's all about limiting turnovers and playing defense. They're tops in the league at not coughing up the ball - something Doug Collins is absolutely maniacal in how he preaches it. As is the case in football (like we saw with the Eagles this season), if you turn the ball over too much, you're not going to win games. The Sixers hold onto the ball and it masks a lot of their other inefficiencies - mainly how bad they are on the boards, especially without Spencer Hawes.
Defensively, they're led by Andre Iguodala, the best perimeter defender in the game, and Jrue Holiday, a terrific (if occasionally inconsistent) on-ball point guard defender. An interior force in the paint (
DWIGHTHOWARD!) would be nice, but they've got solid interior defense from Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes (when healthy) rookies Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen. I wish I could point to one reason or one guy, but it's all about defense, not turning it over, and hitting open shots. They will absolutely depth you to death.
2) Evan Turner hasn't lived up to the considerable hype he came into the NBA with out of Ohio State. How much of that is a function of his role on the 76ers and what do you think his long-term ceiling is?
I tend not to agree with really any of the popular opinion about Turner thus far in his NBA career. He's historically taken a year or two to adapt to his environment, and the jump he's made from last year to this year is considerable and unsurprising. Without monster athleticism, he has to figure out how to make it work with his hefty skill set and he's definitely learning. But there are a number of things working against him: Andre Iguodala has a similar set of skills and is having a career year - they're not likely to replace one with the other any time soon, and the fact that the 76ers are good means there are less minutes for him. If they sucked, he could Kemba Walker and play 30 a game. That's not how Collins coaches though, for better or worse, and he's sitting at around 20-25 with Jodie Meeks in front him.
3) Philadelphia seems to have a fairly unbalanced roster with most of their talent -- Holiday, Iguodala, Lou Williams and Turner -- on the perimeter. Do you think one of them will be moved eventually?
The 76ers are definitely lacking for depth up front, especially Hawes' lingering injury and the learning curve for Vucevic and Allen, but Brand and Thaddeus Young still play major useful minutes down low while Iguodala and Turner are right there with LeBron in terms of defensive rebounding from the wing. Williams can opt out after this season and I'm worried that the 76ers will offer him a huge deal, but it seems likely he'll go the Ben Gordon route elsewhere as a future overpaid chucker. With a Jrue/Evan/Andre/Meeks foursome at the 1/2/3 spots, it's not a bad problem to have. There are whispers of moving Turner, but I can't imagine that would happen.
4) Where would you rank the 76ers in terms of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and what do you think this team's ceiling is?
Philadelphia is definitely a top 4 team in the East, capable of beating anyone in a 7-game series but the Miami Heat. Whether they will is another thing. Rebounding deficiencies and a lack of getting to the foul line will hurt them in the playoffs even more, and they could really use a big that can score inside. I can't see them getting past the Eastern Conference Finals, but even saying that makes the Me from two months ago extremely skeptical. They've played terrific this year, undoubtedly, but I simply don't think they have the talent (yet) to play with the big boys. It's fun to think about, but this isn't the year.
5) What should Dallas fans who haven't seen much of Philly on national TV the last few years be watching for Friday night?
I've got mostly complaints about how the 76ers run their offense but when it's on, it looks really pretty. Ball movement is nice, everybody sharing, though the absence of Hawes has and will hurt that fluidity. Keep an eye on Thad for his awkward effectiveness and Iguodala for just how underappreciated his stellar defense is. I'm thinking this will be a ticklingly fun game.