This Sixers team much improved over last season's

Evan Turner tries to find an opening as Maalik Wayns defends during Sixers training camp.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Evan Turner tries to find an opening as Maalik Wayns defends during Sixers training camp.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: October 14, 2012

At the beginning of the NBA season, the question in Philadelphia has been the same for what seems like an endless amount of time: "Is this team significantly better than last year?"

Over the past 10 years, the answer has been the same and the records prove that. The outlook for the season has usually been to secure a playoff seed and hope to make it out of the first round.

Last year's squad started out in a blaze of glory in the lockout-shortened season, winning 20 of its first 29 games. The decision to keep the squad intact for coach Doug Collins paid dividends early, as, while other teams tried to find themselves after a shortened free-agency period and quick training camp, the 76ers hit the ground running.

Injuries and other variables sunk the team in the second half, however, as, after the torrid start, it limped to a 15-22 record in the final 37 games, winning four of their final five games just to reach the postseason. They did, and once there, were able to get past the Derrick Rose- and Joakim Noah-less Chicago Bulls in the first round and then took the aging Boston Celtics to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Soon after that surprising playoff run, Collins and president Rod Thorn talked of the team's maxing itself out, hinting that big changes were in store. They weren't blowing smoke, they were setting a blazing fire, and the team now has been totally revamped, with the biggest piece coming in the form of center Andrew Bynum.

Bynum, of course, is out for another couple of weeks resting his rehabbing knees, so to know just how good this team will be is impossible to say right now. But I will say this: Even without Bynum, this Sixers team is better than last season's. That's right. In fact, in my opinion, it's not very close. Let's break it down:

Without Bynum, the Sixers will throw out Jrue Holiday at the point, Jason Richardson at shooting guard, Evan Turner at small forward, Spencer Hawes at power forward and, let's say, Kwame Brown at center.

To start with, Holiday appears to be way ahead of where he was at any point in time during his short career. He is shooting the ball with tremendous accuracy and has transformed his game into one in which he seems to see the game much more slowly than he used to. He is in total control and is the biggest scoring threat on this team. He totally schooled Jameer Nelson in the team's first preseason game, with 27 points in a little more than 19 minutes.

No one was hurt more by the lockout than Holiday. His game can slip to street ball in a hurry when he doesn't have the likes of Collins on him. This is a big upgrade at the point.

One small small play against Orlando showed all you need to know about what the Sixers are getting from Jason Richardson. While being tightly guarded by J.J. Redick, Richardson was curling off screens throughout the lane looking to get an open jump shot. When he came off the final one, Redick took just a half step the wrong way, anticipating Richardson was going to the outside. As soon as he felt that, Richardson curled to the basket, got a pass and buried a shoulder to create more space from Redick. He made a difficult driving layup.

Jodie Meeks just wasn't big enough to make that kind of move. It was three-pointer or nothing for him. While Meeks' presence created the coveted floor spacing Collins wanted, his threat was singular. Not only can Richardson drain the three, but he also can be physical getting into the lane.

When the Sixers dealt Andre Iguodala, the position was immediately occupied by Evan Turner. Losing Iguodala meant losing a very good defensive player and one who was better offensively than many wanted to think. Turner's biggest obstacle is Turner himself. He has worked tirelessly to make himself better, and he has made strides. But sometimes you have to wonder, by his body language, whether he doesn't feel he's made them quick enough. His game is best when he lets it come to him. He will grab at least six rebounds a game just by playing 25 to 30 minutes. He'll get close to four assists because of the vastly improved roster. His scoring will come when he's not trying so hard to do it. He can post Iguodala numbers offensively, though there is a drop-off at the other end.

To compare last season's big men with this year's (minus Bynum), you have to do it as a whole. During the playoffs, Lavoy Allen was the team's most dependable big man. He did a wonderful job defensively against Kevin Garnett, proved that he is unshakable and reliable. If it wasn't he at center, it was either Elton Brand or Hawes. Thad Young provided spark at the four off the bench, but was often undersized and overmatched at the other end.

Now Young can shuffle between the "three" and "four" spots. Hawes, when paired with a banger such as Brown or Allen, should be able to score and pass effectively. Allen is a year older, wiser and better. He is a tremendous upgrade over himself of last season, and rookie Arnett Moultrie could lend some productive minutes. Forget about Brown being the first-pick bust, he's now just a huge body who can bang for Collins when needed.

The biggest plus to this year's team, though, is the bench. While it was a strong point for Collins last season with Young and Lou Williams, it is markedly better now. Nick Young and Dorell Wright can pretty much do everything Williams did last season, when he led the team in scoring, at 14.9 points. And the biggest thing is they can do it much more easily. At just over 6 feet, Williams had to work his tail off just to get shots. Wright (6-7) and Young (6-8) can simply shoot over people and more accurately than Williams. Give Maalik Wayns some minutes at the point, with his speed and quickness, and you add another element that wasn't there last season.

Bynum will return, and, with him, the Sixers instantaneously become way better than last season. But even without him, this group is already vastly improved from a season ago.


Contact Bob Cooney at cooneyb@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @BobCooney76. For more Sixers coverage, read his blog at philly.com/Sixerville.

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