Posted Apr 15 2011 9:49AM
PHILADELPHIA -- It's a simple concept, really. In order to make the most of your talent, you have to play hard, play smart, play together, and play defense.
But when you look around the league, the list of teams that truly got the most out of their 15-man roster this season is short. On almost every team, there were players who took possessions off, made bad decisions, played selfishly, or focused on just the offensive end of the floor.
One of the teams that can say they left everything on the floor this season is the Philadelphia 76ers, who won 41 games to finish seventh in the Eastern Conference.
Nothing against Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes, but it's kind of unbelievable that they're starters on a team that's going to the playoffs. Yes, there are lesser talents starting for other playoff teams, but most of them complement All-Stars. Elton Brand was an All-Star, but that was five seasons and two major surgeries ago.
In terms of winning percentage, the Sixers were the second-most improved team from last season, behind only Chicago. In terms of aesthetics, the Sixers are pretty fun to watch.
When you look at their roster, you can't figure out how they won 41 games. You can't even figure it out from looking at the team's stats, with no player averaging more than 15 points and no real interior defensive presence.
They've done it with intangibles. They play hard, smart and together.
"We have to do it by committee," coach Doug Collins said. "We have to value the ball. Every possession is vital. We have to shoot a pretty good percentage. And then we have to defend well enough to give us a chance."
The margin for error is small, but the Sixers have found success by limiting their mistakes. They don't shoot the ball particularly well, but they did have the league's lowest turnover percentage in the league and 11th-highest assist rate. On the other end of the floor, they had a top-10 defense.
The defense is the key, because stops allow them to run. That's when the Sixers are most effective and most entertaining. And in making the most of what they've got, the Sixers have made Collins a Coach of the Year candidate.
"He does a good job of really relaying to the guys the message that we have to go out there and play hard every night," said forward Andre Iguodala. "He's a realist. We don't have loads of talent, but if we play together and play the right way, we'll put ourselves in a position to have success. And it's been working."
It's been working because each player has his role and isn't asked to do too much. Jrue Holiday is asked to push the ball. Meeks is asked to spread the floor and knock down open shots. Brand is the post presence. With his shooting, Hawes takes an interior defender outside. And Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young make plays off the bench.
Iguodala is the glue, the closest thing to Scottie Pippen since Scottie Pippen.
"I haven't played well this year," he said, "but I've learned to make the most out of everything, which is to get the most out of those guys."
He hasn't played his best because he hasn't been pain-free in a year. He began the season with a sprained right wrist suffered last summer with the U.S. National Team. Early in the season, he developed tendonitis in his right Achilles tendon. And lately, tendonitis in his right knee kept him out of three games down the stretch.
Iguodala is beat up and worn down. He would have missed a lot more games if his team wasn't winning. And with Brand playing through a broken left hand, you can add toughness to the Sixers' list of intangibles.
They've missed just 32 total games from the top seven guys in their rotation. And their main concern going into their first-round series with the Miami Heat is Williams, who missed the final five games with a strained hamstring.
A productive return from Williams would certainly make the Sixers a more dangerous opponent for the Heat. When first-round matchups were still in the air last week, Collins said that his team's playoff opponent didn't matter. But the Sixers have clearly had more success -- one win and two losses by less than five points -- against Boston than they did against Miami, especially defensively.
Pulling off a first-round upset will be a long shot. But though they're short on talent, the Sixers will give themselves their best chance to win. And they'll keep you entertained in doing so.
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Anderson Varejao fights for the rebound and comes down awkwardly on his left leg and would sustain a leg injury.
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