15% of this truncated NBA season is over. If you look at any advanced NBA power rankings, the best team in the NBA at the moment is the Philadelphia 76ers. That would qualify as “shocking”, especially given the lack of roster turnover on the team.
You see, NBA basketball is not known for producing “shocking upstarts”. Normally, teams that do surprise do so because they add players that — for one reason or another — have been grossly underrated by the so-called experts. Or, the team will add a new coach who adds value through improved defense. The 76ers did neither.
In fact, the only “new” contributing player added to a team that finished 41-41 last season was the rookie Nikola Vucevic from USC. This summer I projected him as an average to slightly below average professional (based on how his college statistics compared to the rookie crop). I believe I compared him to Zaza Pachulia. So, he would not have been expected to dramatically change the team’s fortunes.
In fact, what has changed the team’s fortunes has been dramatically improved play from their holdovers. Let me illustrate. Here is the team’s current Win Chart, using Marginal Win Score projected over a 66 game season.
As you can see, the 7-3 Sixers are actually playing at a much higher level than their gaudy record indicates. Now, it is almost certain the team cannot continue this pace. For one thing, only 5% of all NBA players post winning percentages that exceed 1.000% (meaning their statistics are so much better than their counterpart opponents that they actually take losses off the board). Currently the Sixers feature 4 of 9 rotational players who post such an average. Moreover, only one player on the Sixers is even posting a “below the median” winning percentage, Thaddeus Young — and its just barely below the median!! What I am suggesting is, the entire Sixer roster (nearly) is playing better than 50% of all NBA players. That’s unsustainable.
But who among them is the greatest outperformer? Here is a Win Chart that uses the players weighted winning percentages numbers from the last two seasons to project what each “ought” to be producing. The last column tells you how many more or less wins (over 66 games) the player is currently projected to produce.
As the chart suggests, the Sixers projected as a better than average team, perhaps a playoff team. But they did not project as the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers.
The greatest “outproducer” at the moment is C Spencer Hawes. I had given up on him as a useless stiff who could not score and who really did not rebound well enough to be a big time win producer. This season he is doing both. His “Effective Scoring” per 48 is +3.63 points. Very good. His “plus stats” are at +20.84 per 48. Exceptional. (Plus Stats are Rebs + 0.5Ass + Steals + 0.5Blks). But can he keep that pace up? I don’t see it.
Another big leaper forward is PG Louis Williams. He has also improved his “Effective Scoring” and he has dramatically improved his defense. Defense is really driving his numbers. Opposition PGs and SGs are a combined (-4.20) Effective Points per 48 against him. Very, very good. But can he sustain elite win percentage numbers? Hard to see how he can.
The one player who can, without a doubt, is SF Andre Iguodala. It is time for Iguodala to get his due. He has been an exceptional NBA player for a long, long time, and I don’t recall seeing him in very many NBA All-Star games. That must change.
Another player I see as a legitimate upstart for the Sixers is SF/SG Evan Turner. Turner can fill the statistical pages with positive stats, and he is beginning to look for better shots, and he is beginning to figure out how to use his length and ballhandling to his advantage.
One final reason the Sixers might need to be reckoned with this June. Their defense. It is, at the moment, astonishing. They are playing championship level defense. Their Opponent Team Win Score per 48 is, at the moment, below 30.00. What does that mean? Most teams that play defense at that level end up winning championships. Can the team sustain this defense? I don’t know. But, generally speaking, you don’t see teams start off playing stifling defense and then revert back downward. Generally a stifling beginning is the sign of a new commitment to defense. It looks like they have made that commitment in Philadelphia, and it could carry them on a nice playoff run. We shall see.