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, all the time

ai21031.jpgIf you've been trolling the mainstream media sites, by now you realize the Sixers are by far the worst team in the league. Hollinger pegs them at 21 wins. Twenty-one. Every expert on ESPN has them finishing last in the Atlantic. Even Sixers bloggers think they're going to be horrible.

Before we look forward, let's take a look back. The Sixers finished 2006-2007 with a record of 35 wins, 47 losses. Putrid. Of course, the team that compiled that record wasn't really the team we're looking at today. The team we're looking at today actually finished last season 30-29. The Sixers who started the season last year had Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, and got off to a 5-18 start. When Andre Miller and Joe Smith came to town, they played above .500 ball. They finished the season 17-9 and beat some quality teams, who were fighting for playoff berths in that stretch. On paper, they had no business winning most of those games.

On paper, they didn't rebound enough. On paper, they didn't have enough scoring. On paper, they didn't have a superstar. On paper. You know what all the prognosticators are looking at right now? That's right, paper. Hollinger et al look at paper and see a team with too many holes, what he can't see is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and there are two reasons for this: Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala.

andremiller1031.jpgThe Sixers are led by two excellent players, who raise the level of play of everyone around them. Andre Miller's specialty is getting the ball to other players in position to make easy shots. Andre Iguodala moves with the ball, and without the ball, with his head on a swivel and always looks for an open teammate. Mo Cheeks has tailored the offense to take advantage of the passing skills of his two leaders. The Sixers played as a team once the roster was settled last year, and as time wore on they grew to know each other on the floor. Down the stretch, they kept games close by playing tough D, then they leaned on their best player to put them over the top down the stretch. More often than not, Andre Iguodala was up to the task.

There is statistical data to back this up. Before the Iverson trade, the Sixers were 5-18. In those 23 games, they allowed 100.2 points per game while scoring 94.4. After the trade, they allowed only 97, but of course this is to be expected. Iverson was always a liability on defense and gave away a ton of size to whoever he was guarding. Adding Miller allowed the Sixers to match up much better on defense. What may surprise you, however, is that the Sixers lost the number 2 scorer in the league in Iverson and still managed to score more points per game after he left (95.1).

Obviously, there were areas which needed to be improved upon. Mo Cheeks used a two-center lineup for most of the second half last season, with Steven Hunter playing the 4. Hunter was great at getting open around the basket for easy dunks, he ran the floor very well and he'd block the occasional shot, but he was pitiful on the boards. (Hunter averaged only 8.4 rebounds per 40 minutes. For perspective, Eddy Curry averaged 8.0 and I consider him the absolute worst rebounding big man in the league). The Sixers obviously needed rebounding help. So what did they do? They went out and got the player with the highest rebound/40 minutes rate, Reggie Evans (16.3). Evans isn't going to score many points for you, but neither did Hunter. What he will do is limit the number of second-chance opportunities the Sixers allow (a problem last season), and get the team second chances (another weak spot). This move has been largely overlooked, but adding Evans makes this starting lineup much better. The trade addressed the team's biggest need.

There are other areas which needed improvement, but may not have been addressed. Last season, the Sixers were last in the league in three-pointers attempted. They have one of the best long-range shooters in Kyle Korver, but pretty much no one else who can stretch the defense. They didn't address this need, and I think this may hold them back somewhat. Andre Miller does a great job of running the offense to find guys inside, but teams tend to pack the lane when they don't have to honor the deep ball. Thaddeus Young may turn into a guy who can hit the three, but he's nowhere near ready, and might not contribute at all this season. One positive sign was Iguodala's preseason performance, he shot 39% from downtown and attempted more than 2 per game. His jumper looks much more smooth as well.

samdalembert1031.jpgThis team is going to win or lose on the defensive side of the ball. That part of the equation basically comes down to Samuel Dalembert. If he's healthy, they're a very good defensive team. Andre Iguodala is an excellent on-the-ball defender, Miller stays in front of his man, Willie Green and Rodney Carney are probably average with an edge to Carney at this point, Reggie Evans is a tenacious, physical, yet under-sized workhouse at the 4, but it all comes down to the big man in the middle. Dalembert is a shot-blocking machine who has toned down his fouling and goal-tending habits. He's added bulk this year to be able to man up against the heftier centers in the league. The only thing holding him back is the stress fracture that kept him out for all but one game of the preseason. The latest word is that he will be in the starting lineup when the Sixers open the season tonight, and Mo Cheeks expects him to play 30 minutes. If the foot responds well, and he's back for good, the Sixers will be fine. If he's out, well things could get dicey.

Which brings me to the rookies. Thad Young is too raw. Even in the preseason, he didn't see much action. I think the Sixers will get him about 10 minutes/game in the first half, then hopefully expand his role after the All Star break, but don't expect much from him. Jason Smith is another story altogether. He's very, very athletic for a seven footer, he's shown shot-blocking skills and he can give the team an offensive spark off the bench. The biggest disappointment for the Sixers came in the form of surgery for Herbert Hill. Hill looked like a solid contributor in the power forward rotation, but went under the knife for a knee injury and he'll be out 6-8 weeks. Expect him to log decent minutes when he comes back. He's got great low-post moves and a nose for rebounds. The Sixers cut their fourth rookie, Derrick Byars.

The Sixers should do very well in bench scoring with Korver, Smith, Green/Carney and Lou Williams rounding out the rotation. That group should be able to get out and run. Unfortunately, we're going to see way too much of Calvin Booth at least until Dalembert gets his legs back.

As I said in my preview yesterday, I see the Sixers winning 40 games this year. A gain of five games on last year's total, but missing the playoffs. I think they're going to do this in much the same manner as last year. Their early schedule is difficult, to say the least, and they're going to need some time to get the younger guys into the mix. Come December, they're going to be surprising some people, by April they'll be pushing for the playoffs.

There are some things that could derail the season, especially around February. If they aren't in contention, Andre Miller could be moved at the trade deadline. This would be a horrible move, as far as I'm concerned. I think his veteran leadership is exactly what this team needs to take the next step. Then, of course, there's Dalembert's foot as well.

Game one is tonight, in Toronto. Hope springs eternal.