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Are They For Real?

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Make no mistake about it, this roster was built to lose. Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown spent extensive time this summer talking about how the rebuild was going to be a slow process. The team didn't make a single move in the offseason designed to move the needle in a positive direction for the 2013-2014 season. This is a team full of cast-offs and immovable pieces and their second choice at #11 in last summer's draft is, to steal a phrase from Zumoff, turning garbage into gold.

When they beat the Heat on opening night, Miami was on the second night of a back-to-back, with Dwyane Wade on the shelf in a cryogenic freeze to save wear and tear for games that actually matter. There were excuses. The second win came over the Wizards, who until further notice are still the Wizards. Last night, however, there really wasn't an excuse. The Bulls were rested, their entire roster was playing. In fact, it was the Sixers who were on the second night of a back-to-back, and they still lit up the Bulls. They absolutely shredded Chicago's defense (109.2 OFR), and their rookie PG made life hell for Derrick Rose, especially in the second half.

The obvious question is how are they doing this, with the follow-up of can they keep doing it? Much easier to answer the former, so let's start there. The incumbent starters are all basically playing the best basketball of their careers. We've seen stretches like this from Hawes in the past (the beginning of the '11-12 season), and Evan Turner has also had a few brief stretches of efficient play (most notably in March of 2012, four glorious games). Thad remains consistently solid, plus the three-point shot. James Anderson, the fifth starter, has basically been invisible. Worse than invisible, really, in his 33 minutes/game. Off the bench, Lavoy and Daniel Orton have provided surprisingly solid minutes up front while Wroten and Darius Morris have both energized the team with hustle and helped out with solid three-point shooting. The bench has done more good than harm, which wasn't expected from that fearsome foursome, but they'll have to keep it up if the team is going to continue winning.

I'm sure you noticed I've left someone out of the conversation to this point, mostly because I'm hesitant to jinx what we've seen so far, but here goes. Michael Carter-Williams has played like a superstar. No ifs ands or buts about it, this kid owns this team, and he's carrying them on both ends of the floor. His defense has been stellar, he's been running the offense to perfection (27 assists to only 7 turnovers), and every time they've needed a big hoop, he's stepped up. Superstar play is what MCW has provided, and he's the reason they're 3-0 right now.

It would be foolish to gloss over Brett Brown's impact, as well. Anecdotally, he's done a stellar job with the x's and o's. Several times, out of timeouts the Sixers have had crisp plays which led to easy looks. He seems to know his roster, his rotations make sense and he's leaning on the guys with the hot hand. From a gameplanning perspective, they've made good adjustments at halftime in the past two games, they're eschewing long twos for threes much more frequently, and they're playing the fastest pace in the NBA. Through three games, his team has bought in to the philosophy. Nothing to pick at with the job he's done so far.

So where do they go from here? If the answer you're looking for is the playoffs, I think the only path leading in that direction is MCW. Specifically, he needs to be a legitimate superstar. He has been through his first three games, this play in the early season needs to be the norm. If he's legit, he can carry this team to the .500+ record needed to squeak into the playoffs. He isn't the only reason they're 3-0 right now, but his play is the only thing that's happened to this point that might be repeatable.

Evan Turner's TS% through three games is 57%. Coming into the season, his career TS% was 47.9%. Part of that bump is an increase in free throw rate, but the majority of is coming from shooting 57% from 2-point range. That's not going to last, not with his shot selection. This is a guy who shot 42% from two last year. Add to that the fact that he hasn't hit a three yet, and he's only attempted 6 and you've got a recipe for the same old Evan Turner rearing his head sooner rather than later. As a team, they can overcome a serious drop off by Turner if MCW is legit. The caveat here is Brown must limit Turner's touches if/when he returns to form. If his usage rate remains +25% with a TS% at or below 50% I'm not sure anything will save the Sixers.

I'm more bullish on Hawes. He won't keep up his current level of performance, but if he keeps up 4 3PA/game and shoots a decent percentage, his efficiency will definitely improve, and it wasn't as bad as Turner's to begin with. I could see Hawes settling in at maybe 55%, which is a solid number for a perimeter big.

Forgetting, for a second, whether squeaking into the playoffs is a smart thing, the right thing, or even something Hinkie will allow this squad to do, the whole ball of wax is riding on MCW being legit. Some of the other things leading to this 3-0 start where they've been world-beaters is completely unsustainable. The good news is they don't need to be this good to make the playoffs. They just need to be average. A superstar gets you to that point, even if Hawes, Turner and the 4-man group off the bench come back down to earth. If MCW turns out to just be a pretty good rookie, he won't make enough of a difference and they'll wind up in the lottery.

Anyway, that's my early take on the situation. I've been completely blown away by MCW's play. I like what I've seen from a strategic POV, they're taking better shots, they're moving the ball and pushing the pace. I love seeing Hawes and Thad letting fly from three. Turner is still Turner, and I'll give you an example of what I mean. In the Miami game, Turner got the ball in the corner with Rashard Lewis guarding him. That's, 6'10, 34-year-old Rashard Lewis. Turner used three moves to try to shake Lewis, and wound up settling for a 20-foot jumper from the baseline because he could not get by him off the dribble. He hit the jumper and pounded his chest, obviously impressed with his sick moves. That play is who Evan Turner is, a ton of moves to get clean for a bad shot. Right now, those bad shots are falling. In a week or two, well let's just say I'm doubtful they still will be.

That being said, do I believe MCW is for real? Well, I'm going to pass on that question for now. I need to see more. The most important revelation through three games is I want to see more. These past three games have been more fun than I thought I'd have the entire season. They play hard, they play fast and, man, there's just something about that kid...
by Brian on Nov 3 2013
Tags: Basketball | Michael-Carter Williams | Sixers |