John Smallwood: Sixers' hot start matters in the long run

Posted: January 16, 2012

THE BEGINNING of a season is always tricky, primarily because we have a hard time defining it.

After how many games does a team that is off to a good start become simply a good team?

After today's game with Milwaukee, your 76ers will have completed about 20 percent of the NBA's abbreviated 66-game season.

In the wake of the weekend home-and-home sweep of Washington, they are 9-3 and leading the Atlantic Division by three games over New York and by 4 1/2 over Boston.

If the playoffs started today, the Sixers would be the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Only Chicago and Oklahoma City have more wins than the Sixers.

Nobody can argue that the Sixers haven't had a great start.

Still, there are skeptics.

When you look at who the Sixers have played, it is fair to point out that only four of the teams do not currently have losing records.

It can also be noted that the Sixers are 1-3 against those other teams, but to be fair, those three losses have all been on the road.

Obviously, the Sixers are taking advantage of a soft part of their schedule, but as pointed out before, that's what good teams do.

In their first 12 games, the Knicks (6-6) have played three games against teams that have winning records. Their only win in those games came against the Sixers, who were on the road for the third of three games in three nights.

The Celtics (4-7) are 0-5 against teams with winning records.

The C's four wins have come in games against Detroit, Washington and New Jersey - teams that have a combined record of 7-30.

Going into last night's games, the winning percentage of the teams the Sixers have played was a not-so-lofty .380.

However, the winning percentage of New York's opponents was .388 and of Boston's was .446.

Playing schedules that are similar in strength to what the Sixers have played, the Knicks and Celtics have foundered out of the box.

Sixers coach Doug Collins was right on point the other day when he told his team, "If you don't think that we can win the Atlantic Division this year, you are making a mistake."

The Atlantic Division is all that matters at this point of the season. A division champion can be seeded no worse than fourth in the playoffs.

Managing a schedule is crucial to any team's success - especially one that is thinking about making a surprise run.

Three games into the NFL season, everyone said it was still early when the San Francisco 49ers, who hadn't made the playoffs since 2002, were 2-1.

Few saw what was coming.

Playing in the weak NFC West, the 49ers went 5-1 in the division and 9-2 against teams that didn't make the playoffs.

With a 13-3 record, San Francisco got the second seed in the NFC, a first-round bye and a home game against New Orleans in the second round.

If Saturday's game had been in New Orleans, there's a good chance the 49ers would not be in the NFC Championship Game.

San Fran took a schedule that featured just five teams that made the playoffs and has ridden it to within a game of the Super Bowl.

Starting with the Bucks, the Sixers have five of their remaining nine games in January against teams with some of the worst records in the NBA.

The games against Denver, Atlanta, Miami and Orlando will be challenges, but three are at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers are 5-0.

It's unreasonable to think that Sixers can keep playing at a .750 winning clip. But if the Sixers finish the month just 5-4, they'll have a 14-7 record (.666) with more than a third of the season gone.

The Knicks would have to win eight of their final nine to finish with 14 wins by the end of January. Boston could go undefeated for the rest of the month but would still have just 13 wins.

That's what getting off to a "good" start can do for a team.

Slumps and downturns are an inevitable part of a NBA season.

The good teams are the ones that position themselves to be able to go through a difficult stretch and still be in good shape when things turn around.

That's what the Sixers have done.

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