Bernucca: Should we take the Sixers seriously?

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Should the Philadelphia 76ers be taken seriously?

Here’s why they should: In a season where continuity counts, they have virtually the same roster as last season’s. They have terrific depth to handle a relenteless schedule. They value the basketball. And they have no individual agendas.

“They’re a very underrated team,” Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut said after his team became another double-digit victim earlier this week. “They move the ball well, they’re very well-coached and they showed it.”

Here’s why they shouldn’t: They don’t have anyone in the top 20 in scoring or the top 10 in rebounding. They don’t have a dynamic post presence on either end of the floor. Their best 1-on-1 player isn’t even a starter. And they don’t have an alpha dog to go to down the stretch.

“We don’t have a superstar,” swingman Andre Iguodala realistically admitted. “So we don’t get those foul calls, the whistles as much as the teams that do have one. So we have to do the little things right.”

Some of the warts were on display Wednesday, when the Sixers failed one of their few tests this season and fell in overtime to the Denver Nuggets for their first home loss. Upcoming pop quizzes include a visit from Atlanta on Friday and a trip to Miami on Saturday.

However, Philadelphia is a spiffy 48-32 since last season’s 3-13 start. The culture clearly has changed – courtesy of coach Doug Collins – and in a strange season with an unknown number of unknowns, a team riding a run of four first-round fizzles could make a march through May.

“We are off to a good start,” said Iguodala, an eight-year veteran who never has won a playoff series. “We are playing well together and we have to keep this momentum going throughout the rest of the season.

“The season is short, so we have little room for error.”

On two fronts, the Sixers have taken Iguodala’s words literally.

While Philadelphia’s four losses have come by a combined 17 points, all but one of its 10 wins have been by double digits, and six have been by at least 20 points. That has given the Sixers an average margin of a staggering 13.6 – and perhaps raises the question of whether they can execute in close games.

And despite playing at a pace that has them in the top five in fast break points, the Sixers limit their mistakes better than any team in the NBA. They commit just 12.1 turnovers per game, and their turnover margin of plus-3.7 also is best in the league.

“That is one of the things that coach has been harping on, so we have been making a conscious effort to go out and take better care of the basketball,” said sixth man Lou Williams, the team’s leading scorer at just 15.7 points and best breakdown player.

Over the weekend, Collins even used the NFL playoff games to illustrate his point.

“That was a big part of us losing last season when we were 3-13,” he said. “I put up on the board: San Francisco – 10 turnovers, the Eagles – 38, and the Cowboys – 21, and I said ‘Which team is in the playoffs? And who won today?’ I am a big stickler on turnovers.”

Collins also has shown trust in his players. He has given bigger roles and responsibility to youngsters Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young and runs a good chunk of the offense through 7-footer Spencer Hawes, who is a terrific passer with 20-foot range on his jumper.

After giving Jodie Meeks a quick hook in a game last week, Collins was approached by his player, who asked if the coach could run more plays for him to get his stroke going. Instead of dismissing Meeks as just another player looking for more minutes and shots, Collins took him up on his idea and was rewarded with 10-of-11 shooting with six 3-pointers from his sharpshooter in a win over Washington.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by Philadelphia. In a survey of GMs by NBA.com, the Sixers were the only team with more than one player receiving a vote for most likely to have a breakout season, with Holiday getting three and Williams and Hawes one apiece.

That group doesn’t include Young, who only needs consistency to make a quantum leap, and Turner, who has put a shaky rookie season behind him and is playing with much more purpose.

Hawes has missed three games with back and Achilles tendon issues, and his absence as a scorer, rebounder and facilitator has been noticeable. The Sixers have also had some dumb luck, playing no less than five teams missing one of their top players. They should catch similar breaks this weekend with the Hawks (Al Horford) and Heat (Dwyane Wade), but those teams aren’t the Pistons without Rodney Stuckey.

With a ton of games remaining against the weak Eastern Conference and both Boston and New York dealing with myriad issues, 40-plus wins and an Atlantic Division title is well within the realm of possibility for the Sixers. With that comes a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the first round.

And, perhaps, a march through May. Seriously.

TRIVIA: Which current player has scored the most points without making an All-Star team? Answer below.

THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: According to Us Weekly magazine, Nets forward Kris Humphries will have his Minneapolis apartment renovated on the DIY Network’s Man Caves. Because, you know, that first dalliance with reality TV went so well.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, after his team ended a recent slide with a win:

“A slump is like a comfortable bed — easy to get into and hard to get out of.”

LINE OF THE WEEK: Dwight Howard, Orlando at Golden State, Jan. 12: 44 minutes, 12-21 FGs, 21-39 FTs, seven offensive rebounds, 23 total rebounds, three assists, two blocks, 45 points in a 117-109 win. Warriors coach Mark Jackson’s strategy of intentional fouling allowed Howard to break Wilt Chamberlain’s 1962 mark for free throws in a game. Howard entered the contest shooting 42 percent from the line. “It’s amazing that he made 21,” cracked teammate J.J. Redick.

LINE OF THE WEAK: Deron Williams, New Jersey at Utah, Jan. 14: 33 minutes, 3-15 FGs, 1-4 3-pointers, 9-10 FTs, five assists, five turnovers, 16 points in a 107-94 loss. In his return to Salt Lake City, Williams heard boos and never got going against his former team.

TRILLION WATCH: The last game of our week gave us a 4 trillion from Clippers forward Solomon Jones, nowhere near the season-best (?) 9 trillion registered by Lakers forward Devin Ebanks on Jan. 11. Bulls center Omer Asik posed a minor threat to Ebanks with a nine-minute stint Friday that included only a block and turnover.

GAME OF THE WEEK: LA Clippers at LA Lakers, Jan. 25. If you watched the first meeting Saturday, then you know that this is now a rivalry. The teams also are jockeying for first place in the Pacific Division, which translates to a top-four seed. It would be nice if Chris Paul is ready to play.

GAME OF THE WEAK: Charlotte at New Jersey, Jan. 22. It’s a 6 p.m. ET start. You can probably skip this one. With the Giants playing the 49ers in the NFC championship game at 6:30, most of northern New Jersey probably will skip it, too.

TWO MINUTES: The Mavs may be just 8-7 after Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers, but better late-game defense could have them at 11-4. They have lost games on last-second 3-pointers by Kevin Durant, Derek Fisher and Chauncey Billups. “We must lead the league in last-second shots made by our opponents, so we’ve got to figure out a way to close the door,” Jason Kidd said. … How would you like to be Flip Saunders? His team has the league’s worst record, yet still finds time to clown while the ball is in play. In the third quarter of Washington’s loss to Houston on Monday, JaVale McGee had a breakaway dunk and threw the ball off the backboard to himself. Saunders said afterward, “That’s unacceptable. Maybe I’m too old school. Save that for the All-Star Game. We have some players that look for highlights instead of substance.” This was McGee’s response: “Apparently if you get a fast break and throw it off the backboard in the third quarterand you’re 1-11, you’re not supposed to do stuff like that.” Apparently, McGee is a space cadet. … Some of Al Horford’s minutes are going to rookie Ivan Johnson, who burst on the scene with a huge effort in Atlanta’s triple-OT loss to Miami on TNT two weeks ago and has been in the rotation since. The 6-8 Johnson is getting more frontcourt minutes than starting center Jason Collins and about as many minutes as backup center Zaza Pachulia. Johnson’s secret may be the bliss of ignorance. “My thing is, I don’t really watch basketball, so I don’t really know who anybody is, and when I match up against them, it’s just a regular player,” he said. “I know the major players like LeBron, Kobe and Wade, but all the extra ones, I don’t know them. But even if I did know them, I wouldn’t be afraid of them. We’re just playing basketball.” … Amid the tacit chaos going on in Orlando, where Dwight Howard seems to change his mind about his future on a weekly basis and expects an entire basketball community to just kind of roll with it, the Magic are pushing for a top-four seed in the East with a 10-4 record. Ryan Anderson has made everyone forget Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu’s playmaking is compensating for Jameer Nelson’s slow start and Glen Davis is finally starting to carve a role. Some credit has to go to coach Stan Van Gundy, who has retained his sense of humor through it all. After watching Howard repeatedly intentionally fouled by Golden State, Van Gundy cracked, “A suggestion from one of my assistants was that we do it to (Warriors center Andris) Biedrins when he was in the game. … That could have been fun. We could’ve just walked up and down for a few minutes and see who makes the first free throw. But we could’ve just saved everybody and said, ‘Let’s let them shoot it at the same basket.” … Kobe Bryant’s four straight 40-point games were “only” 10 shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time record set in his otherworldly 1961-62 season. On the all-time list, Bryant is third with 111 40-point games. Michael Jordan is second with 173. Together, they have just 13 more than Chamberlain’. As Gregg Popovich might say, that is beyond comprehension. … When Kevin Garnett first arrived in Minnesota, he received tutoring on his footwork and post play from Kevin McHale, one of the most unstoppable low-post players in NBA history. Now receiving that tutelage is Rockets center Samuel Dalembert, who has somehow made it to his 10th season without ever developing any sort of reliable post game. That may be changing as Dalembert has averaged 15.3 points in his last four games “He was doing coach McHale’s post moves,” Rockets guard Kevin Martin said after a recent game. “They must have been working together in their spare time because he’s really picked it up since last week.” … It is going to be a long season in Charlotte, where coach Paul Silas already has accused his team of giving up. But one bright spot has been the play of 7-footer Byron Mullens, who has to be in the Most Improved Player conversation. Mullens scored 39 points in 26 games over his first two seasons with Oklahoma City, spending most of his time in the D-League. The Bobcats have moved him off the low block and allowed him to face the basket, where he is more comfortable shooting mid-range jumpers. Mullens has had a pair of 20-point games and is averaging 13.2 points and 6.3 boards. … The Celtics finally ended their five-game slide – their longest in the “Big Three” era – with Wednesday’s home win over Toronto, which was without leading scorer Andrea Bargnani. “This is our second-longest winning streak this year,” Rajon Rondo said afterward. Boston’s problems are far from over, though. The Celtics look old and slow, and with Paul Pierce still not in shape, they are struggling to score points. Perhaps that is why VP Danny Ainge suggested to the Boston Globe that trading his aging stars are not out of the question. He recalled deals for Larry Bird and Kevin McHale that Red Auerbach turned down and told the newspaper, “If I were presented with those kind of deals for our aging veterans, it’s a done deal to continue the success.” … We might play the entire 990-game season and not see a result as stunning as Wizards 105, Thunder 102. It is hard to imagine a more unlikely win – or a worse loss, something we may track going forward. …

Trivia Answer: Jason Terry. … Happy 43rd Birthday, Luc Longley. … Hey, Kim, put the phone away and watch the game. Who knows? You might find your next husband.

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His column appears every Thursday. You can follow him on Twitter.