Until the 76ers are eliminated from the 2012 playoffs, the hoops community will debate whether they're "for real." That's what happens to teams who improve radically year over year without signing LeBron James or trading for Kevin Garnett. After putzing around with win totals in the high thirties and low forties pretty much since they lost to the Lakers in the 2001 Finals, the Sixers (the Lakers' hosts tonight in an early game tipping at 4:00 p.m. Pacific) are suddenly the arriviste power in the East. Their 17-7 record is fourth best in the league, and they outscore opponents by an average of over 10 points a game. Just last week they piled up W's over the Magic, Bulls and Hawks. All this despite no major changes to last year's roster. Impressive, impressive.
The explanation is dramatic only in its dullness. The Sixers have made healthy jumps on both sides of the floor, improving from 17th in offensive efficiency last season to seventh now and from seventh to first on D. Yes, that's first as in league best. Doug Collins has shaped a defense that forces more misses than anyone and takes pretty good care of the defensive glass. They're young and rangy and especially very deep. Their top nine guys in minutes played are all legit contributors. Not a worthless lump among them, which is obviously a fugitive concept for Laker fans used to wondering whether a three-man lineup of just Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol might work best.
In fact, the Sixers are the Lakers' structural near-opposite. The Lakers have a Big Three worthy of a title contender but nothing behind them. Philly, conversely, has no one you'd make an All-Star Game starter but waves of competent pros. If you threw together the players on both rosters and ranked them one through 30 or whatever, the Lakers might have the top three guys and the Sixers the next nine. It's a model reminiscent of the 2004 championship Pistons or last season's Nuggets, comparisons I'm sure many have made before I.
Their strengths on offense are fundamentals: holding onto the rock and knocking down shots. Philly's best in the NBA at not committing turnovers and the Lakers are worst at forcing them, so I'm setting the over/under on Sixer TO's tonight at 6½. The attack is guard- and wing-oriented. UCLA product and SoCal boy Jrue Holiday has the ball in his hands a lot, as does his backup Lou Williams. The latter is really the only shot-happy Sixer. When he's on the court he gobbles up the looks, but with that one exception Philly's a balanced operation. The top two Sixers in field-goal attempts (Holiday and Williams) combined have only about 40 more FGA's than Kobe Bryant alone.
It's weird, though: shot attempts are concentrated in the perimeter guys, but as a team they don't shoot a lot of threes. It's largely inside-the-arc stuff. At the same time, the 76ers get fewer looks at the rim than anyone. This is a group that shoots a great many midrange and long-distance twos, and if you want an indicator that Philly's success so far might not be easily sustainable, there you go. Even starting center Spencer Hawes prefers to work in the 16-to-23 foot range. Not incidentally, the Sixers don't generate many free-throw attempts. They also don't prioritize the offensive glass, choosing instead to get guys back in transition D.
At that end of the floor Doug Collins's squad is just solid in nearly every respect. They don't foul much, they run shooters off the three-point line (perhaps a counterproductive tactic when facing the Lakers), they force misses outside and inside the arc, and they're well above average when it comes to protecting their defensive glass. After a nice two-game run against the Timberwolves and Bobcats the Laker offense returned to its choppy self against the Nuggets and Jazz over the weekend. The Utah game was a dead-leg schedule loss, but no such excuse works tonight as they and the Sixers are coming in with equal rest. On Saturday night Philly went on the road and bagged an impressively thorough double-digit win over the Hawks. Tonight they start a super-interesting three-game home stand, with the Spurs visiting on Wednesday and the Clippers on Friday. That's three games' worth of good data for the "real or not?" debate.
As for the Lakers, they're getting into the heart of their Grammys trip. The Celtics await on Thursday night. They've yet to string together back-to-back road wins, which they'll obviously need to do at some point if they intend ever to make a move up the West standings. For now they're in the scrum of ten Western Conference teams separated by only 3½ games. They could rapidly climb a few rungs or just as fast fall below the playoff cut line. The West isn't very forgiving this year, as tends to be the case in most.
Injuries of significance: Elton Brand has a sprained right thumb and is questionable for tonight. He didn't play on Saturday, so Collins slotted second-round rookie Lavoy Allen into the starting lineup. If Brand's out again expect more minutes for Allen and for fellow rookie (and USC product) Nikola Vucevic. On the Lakers' side of the health ledger, Steve Blake remains out indefinitely but otherwise the boys are feeling hale and hearty. The Sixers are four-point favorites in this one, and don't ask me when the last time was they were favored over the Lake Show. I'm guessing it was in 2005, in this memorable game.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.