Sixers' development starts off court
Philadelphia Sixers players went to L.A. to work out together during the lockout
Their development on the court started off the court, learning to trust one another
They are 12-6, face their biggest tests next week against Orlando, Chicago, Miami
PHILADELPHIA -- They lifted weights every morning and played basketball at UCLA each afternoon. Every night but one there was a team dinner. "Even though we're teammates, you don't spend a lot of time with each other because you have groups," said 76ers power forward Elton Brand, referring to the way older and younger NBA players usually split off into groups. "But we were all together. It was really a fun experience."
It was August, when the owners and players were hardly negotiating. The lockout created a polarizing NBA environment that detached players from their teams. That's why Brand's idea of inviting his teammates to join him in Los Angeles for a week-long camp has had such a powerful impact on the 76ers. Throughout their week together they reminded each other to be ready for the end of the lockout, to build on their strong 2010-11 finish whenever the new season began.
The labor negotiations were so divisive that many players were discouraged from investing in their teams, but the 76ers' players had a different view. They weren't meeting over the summer on behalf of their franchise. They were thinking of each other.
"When you build something outside the court, I think it helps with criticism," said Andre Iguodala. "We all know each other and we can joke with each other off the court. And we can talk about each other in each others' faces. So you build that trust among each other, where you have a situation with a guy, it's easy to approach him. It's normal."
The camp helped position Philadelphia for its surprising 12-6 start and an early four-game lead in the Atlantic. But the real test is on the way. Starting Monday, the Sixers will spend 10 days playing the Bulls, Heat, Hawks, Lakers, Spurs and Clippers.
Along the way they'll be hoping for the return of injured centers Nikola Vucevic (their first-round pick) and Spencer Hawes, who was contributing 10.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 26.9 minutes before he suffered a strained Achilles. Most important to seeing them through the fortnight is the Sixers' insistent belief that their individual stats don't define them. "There's no question stars drive the popularity of our league," said coach Doug Collins. "The teams that are on TV, there's a star playing in that particular game and that's what we sell and promote. I think it is important to have good teams in the league -- teams that don't necessarily revolve around one particular guy, but need a bunch of guys to play well together. I use a little thing with our guys -- if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together."
Going into last season, the Sixers were predicted to finish among the NBA's worst lottery teams. By merging around Collins, they've won 50 of their last 84 games in the regular season, sandwiched around a highly competitive five-game loss in the first round to eventual conference champion Miami. That postseason experienced showed emerging performers, like point guard Jrue Holiday, that they could play with the best, but also that they must raise their games in order to win deep into the playoffs.
"It was like another side to this game," said Holiday. "The regular season is long, it's hard, but once you get to the playoffs -- it was like a different life. It's exciting and it's something every year you want to experience.''
That goal requires togetherness, and no team is expressing unity like Philadelphia. They are No. 1 in the NBA in points differential (10.9), yet no Sixer is scoring more than 16 points per game. They have seven players averaging in double-figures, and leading scorer Lou Williams (15.5) comes off the bench. Brand, their most expensive player at $17.1 million this season, is their No. 5 scorer at 11.1 points, yet he provides invaluable leadership and a post presence. "No 20-and-10 season feels as good as winning," said Brand, the former Clipper. "I'm not saying it's 100 percent smooth. We have little ups and downs like any team. But overall the character of the guys is what defines this team."
It is working because of Iguodala, who enables Williams and Holiday (14.7 points) to outscore him while he plays to his all-around strengths (13.2 points, 4.6 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 1.9 steals). Iguodala is a complementary star in the mode of a smaller Kevin Garnett -- a player who isn't a high-volume scorer because he is forming his game around the needs of the team. His large contract created expectations that he would replace Allen Iverson, and his current salary will always generate trade rumors. But he demonstrated his value by winning a gold medal while starting for Team USA at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey, and he was all-in when the Sixers met last summer amid conjecture that he would be dealt after the lockout.
"I get all the credit, he never gets credit for anything, but he was right there for calling guys, setting up flights, getting hotels," said Brand. "I didn't know if he would show up to anything; he was there at everything. He was on top of it. He embraced it."
At 27 Iguodala has been through a variety of circumstances in Philadelphia between the changes in coaches, management -- the Sixers are now led by president Rod Thorn -- and ownership, with the sale of the team to a nine-person group led by Joshua Harris.
"It's a gift and a curse," said Iguodala of his experiences. "It's almost like you have to prove yourself every year, or your role is changing. You really can't find any consistency. In that area you've got to overcome it and at the same time it helps you build through the hard times and to stay positive, stay with the team."
Throughout the changes in the franchise the Sixers have drafted well and developed its young players around Iguodala. The 6-foot-1 Williams looks like his generation's Jason Terry, a scorer who grows annually as a playmaker. Holiday has the size, at 6-4, and athleticism to be a star. Thaddeus Young was a Sixth Man candidate last season and Evan Turner, the 6-7 swingman who was the No. 2 pick last year, is improving steadily along the lines of Iguodala. "I think I can be a great all-around player with more time, more touches and more experiences," he said confidently. "I'll be a big-time player. It's going to be brighter days and I have a feeling it's coming."
The Sixers were looking forward to the arrival of difficult opponents. Their January schedule of 13 home games provided them with an opportunity to establish themselves while other teams were struggling. "Our guys were ready to go," said Thorn. "Once you build up a good record, your guys expect to win.''
"Our guys like each other, they like being around each other and playing with one another," said Collins. Now they intend to prove that relationships matter.
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