The Sixers are counting on continuity to take the next step in the Eastern Conference.
The only changes in Philadelphia came in the front office when billionaire Joshua Harris and eight co-owners, including Philly native and Hollywood superstar Will Smith, bought the franchise for $280 million from hockey- obsessed Comcast-Spectacor.
Wisely the new ownership kept the highly-regarded Rod Thorn in charge of basketball operations. It also understands Doug Collins is one of the best coaches in the NBA.
On the floor the Sixers decided to keep their best all-around player for now. Trade rumors seemingly swirl around the defensive-minded Andre Iguodala constantly and moving him is probably going to happen at some point since second-year pro Evan Turner, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, is best suited for the small forward position that Iguodala plays.
For now, however, AI9 will get most of the minutes at the three. Philadelphia was also able to keep the rest of its core together by re-signing restricted free agents Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes.
Last season the Sixers started at a miserable 3-13 before rebounding to finish at .500 and stay surprisingly competitive with mighty Miami in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
"Our calling card is going to be internal improvement," Collins said when asked anyone should expect much improvement form a stagnant roster.
Getting off to a better start this season is paramount to any success the Sixers might have, something that won't be easy since Philly will start the truncated campaign with a five-game road trip while Disney on Ice makes its annual Holiday trip to Wells Fargo Center.
2010-11 Results: 41-41, third in Atlantic; Lost in East quarterfinals to Miami.
KEY ADDITION: PF/C Nikola Vucevic.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
FRONTCOURT: A lot of outside observers thought Elton Brand might be a candidate for amnesty but it wasn't even an issue with Collins, who loves his power forward.
Brand had a nice bounce back season a year ago and has settled in as a consistent player with a very solid mid-range jumper. Brand was once a horse on both ends of the floor before a devastating Achilles injury in Los Angeles a few years ago. Collins asked the veteran to drop weight before last season in order to regain some quickness and take some of the pounding off his aging legs and the classy Brand did everything that was asked of him. Now another year removed from the injury, Collins feels Brand is going to be able to extend his shooting range another few feet this year and perhaps regain a bit of lost lift and explosion.
Iguodala is healthy again after an injury-plagued 2010-11 season in which he missed 15 games due to knee and Achilles issues. The swingman also slimmed down to 215 pounds and remains Philadelphia's best all-around player as well as the team's defensive stopper that is capable of locking down any opposing wing. An athletic marvel, Iguodala can stuff the stat sheet like few others. However, his inconsistent offensive game has kept him from developing into an All-Star level performer. Collins continues to preach to Iguodala that he should stop relying on a suspect jumper and become more of a slasher that can get to the free throw line when things are bogging down.
This season Collins has politely asked the 7-foot Hawes, who signed a one-year qualifying offer of $4.1 million, to "play bigger." A wide body with a high basketball IQ, nice shooting touch and the ability to pass from the pivot, Hawes needs to play more aggressively at the rim, feed the team's athletic cutters and be a more consistent force on the boards.
To that end, Hawes, A Washington native, got in better shape and sought the help of former Sonic star Shawn Kemp, who talked to him about "demanding" position. Hawes' success is paramount to the Sixers -- when he scored 10 points-or-more last season a .500 team was 14-6.
"He's so far ahead of last year that it's not even close," Collins said. "Last year he came in and his body didn't look like it does. I mean, this year it looks like he's been on P90X compared to last year. I give him a lot of credit because he got better as the season went on. When Spencer is playing well, we are tough to beat."
BACKCOURT: The Sixers think Holiday is a future star and he certainly showed signs in his first full season as a starter last year. The book on Holiday before the 2009 draft was the cliched "raw with the huge upside." A true quarterback, Holiday is already one of the top 10 defensive point guards in the league. A little more experience should turn the former UCLA guard into an All-NBA defender and a more consistent jumper has Collins seriously considering him as the team's go-to-guy down the stretch of close games.
The sharp-shooting Jodie Meeks is one-dimensional but his three-point ability can't be underestimated on this club. In fact, the Sixers took off last season when Meeks was inserted into the starting lineup. His mere presence on the floor creates the type of spacing that athletes like Iguodala, Young and Lou Williams can really take advantage of.
BENCH: The Sixers have a very strong bench led by a pair of Sixth Man of the Year candidates, Young and Williams, as well as an emerging second-year player in Turner.
Young, who re-signed with the Sixers for $42 million over five years, brings energy and athleticism to the game. He's a tweener best served as a power forward on offense and small forward on defense. A natural scorer with an array of low-post moves and a feathery touch around the basket, Young blossomed under Collins last season, excelling in transition and using his speed and quickness to torture bigger players on the block. Against smaller opponents his imposing length is a problem. Young's defense and rebounding, however, leave a lot to be desired and Collins would like him to stop handling the ball on the wing so much and concentrate on being a finisher.
Williams, meanwhile, is an extremely quick and talented offensive player that flourishes in his role as instant offense off the bench.
The Sixers would love Turner to break into the starting lineup but he has struggled learning to play without the ball in his hands. At Ohio State everything ran through Turner but in the NBA, he still needs to learn to play off the ball like a Reggie Miller or Rip Hamilton. That said, Turner is a basketball player with a tremendous feel for the game that will eventually become an extremely efficient offensive player in the mold of a Grant Hill. His mid-range game is something rarely seen among kids these days and his prowess as a facilitator is also exciting.
Andres Nocioni is a hard-nosed defender that competes on both ends of the floor and often gets under the skin of opponents. He brings much-needed toughness to a team that has lacked it in the past.
The Sixers were probably a little too excited over power forward Marreese Speights because of his offensive skills. Unlike most young players, Speights arrived with an NBA-ready offensive game but regressed badly last season and struggles mightily on the boards and at the defensive end.
Veteran center Tony Battie gives the Sixers leadership along with a big body that can block shots and crash the boards in limited minutes.
Collins' deep bench also features a couple of young bigs with upside in Craig Brackins and rookie center Nikola Vucevic.
COACHING: Great coaches in any sport have always added talent that fits into what they want to accomplish (the system), while maximizing the strengths of their current players and masking as many of the deficiencies as possible. That defines Collins, a disciplinarian who is a stickler for execution in the half-court set and accountability on the defensive end.
OUTLOOK: The Sixers are an interesting team. They don't have a true closer on the offensive end but could probably go 11 or 12 deep with solid rotational type players.
It's that depth and balance that's their calling card and strength but a lot of the club's key contributors are still fairly young and Hawes, the one proven commodity at center, is far too inconsistent.
Collins engineered a 14-game improvement when taking over the team last season. The next jump will be much tougher but another trip to the postseason should be in sight.