Improving Hawes may be key to Sixers' fortunes

(Sports Network) - The star power in the Atlantic still game regular season schedule 95 corridor.

The Philadelphia 76ers are an interesting club. They don't have a go-to-guy on the offensive end and have lacked a real presence in the middle for years but they can also go 10 or 11 deep with solid rotational type players even after sending the disappointing Marreese Speights to Beale Street.

That kind of depth and unselfishness should be lauded but it doesn't add up to much other than a seven or eight seed in a star driven league that revolves around closers whether they be Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant or the new "it guy," Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant.

In Philadelphia there is no Mariano Rivera -- heck there is no Armando Benitez. On one night the shooting-challenged Andre Iguodala may get the ball in the final seconds. The next night emerging star Jrue Holiday may get the call from Collins and the next, it might be the team's most gifted pure offensive player, the undersized Lou Williams.

Meanwhile, Speights' exit brought up some ugly flashbacks from the 2008 draft when then-general manger Ed Stefanski grabbed the offensive-minded Florida product with the 16th overall pick, one slot ahead of Indiana's Roy Hibbert and 19 picks before the Clips grabbled shot blocking machine DeAndre Jordan.

A look at Philadelphia's first four outings during their season-opening five- game road swing magnified some of the strengths and weaknesses of this club. The team was able to keep it close in Rip City and Salt Lake before faltering in the final moments, highlighting the need for a more consistent scoring threat.

On the other hand the club was able to blow out Phoenix and Golden State thanks to its steady stream of contributors. In the desert, Iguodala, Holiday, and Thaddeus Young led six players in double figures with 15 points apiece during a 103-83 triumph. In Oakland, Williams went off for 23 but four others also reached double digits in a blowout.

Perhaps what wasn't noticed, however, was the development of Spencer Hawes, a player Collins politely asked to "play bigger" this season.

A 7-foot wide body with a high basketball IQ, nice shooting touch and the ability to pass from the pivot, Hawes really never showed much aggression at the rim or consistency on the boards in the past. To that end, the Washington native got in better shape and sought the help of former Sonics star Shawn Kemp during the lockout.

Kemp talked to the big man about "demanding" position and through four games, admittedly a very small sample size, Hawes looks like a different player, averaging 12.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 4.0 apg with a league-best 67.6 shooting percentage.

"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."

Statistics bear that out -- when Hawes scored 10 points-or-more last season a .500 team was 14-6.

In 2010-11 Philadelphia started at a miserable 3-13 before rebounding to finish at .500 and stay surprisingly competitive with mighty Miami in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Despite the unenviable task of starting this campaign on the West Coast for a week, the Sixers have kept their heads above water and managed to keep pace with the Celtics and Knicks.

Starting with Wednesday's game in New Orleans, Philadelphia will play eight times in 11 days, including Friday's long-awaited home opener with the Detroit Pistons. Although the Sixers will be the last team to open the home portion of its schedule, the NBA will make it up to them by giving Philly 18 of its next 22 at home, a stretch that will likely determine whether the team is a real contender in the Atlantic or just a .500-type club again, battling for one of the final postseason spots.

Since it's highly unlikely Rod Thorn will be able to acquire the type of consistent offensive presence Collins needs, the Sixers will continue to rely on that depth as well as improvement from within.

In fact, when Collins was asked why anyone should expect much improvement from a stagnant roster during the preseason he responded, "Our calling card is going to be internal improvement."

That calling card is now sporting the name of Spencer Hawes.