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Can the 76ers compete for a title?

The 76ers manhandled the Bulls last night, 98-82. In the process, they quieted, if only for a night, non-believers that have pointed out their weak schedule (yours truly included).

The game with Chicago was the Sixers' eighth against a team currently with a winning record. It was their fourth win in such games, and their biggest margin of victory (16).

Considering the Bulls' dominance early on -- though not so much lately, losing their last three games against winning teams -- you could call Philly's romp a statement win.

But where do the Sixers fall when it comes to the NBA's legitimate championship contenders? How have their numbers stacked up in the eight games they have played against winning teams? And historically, how long has it been since a team built like Philly on offense won a title?

Let's go in reverse order, and try to come up with an answer to the first question by figuring out the second two.

I went back to the 1990-91 season to look at a trio key statistics from NBA champions:

- Leading regular season scorer for the champ
- Points allowed per game, and their rank in the league
- League scoring average

The thought was that the Sixers would be outliers in each category. After looking back, that was the case.

22 games into the season, Philadelphia does not have a go-to scorer. Duh. We know how dangerous Lou Williams is when he gets hot, we know Thaddeus Young has had a handful of breakout games on offense, and we know that Jodie Meeks, Jrue Holiday, Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala are all capable of putting up 20 in a night.

In terms of points per game, Williams is leading the way one-third of the way through the season, averaging 15.3 a night. Holiday is second (14.4), Iggy third (13.1), and Young fourth (12.3). Since the beginning of the Jordan-Bulls reign, we haven't seen a title contender with that type of scoring-by-committee. In fact, of the 21 champs since the 1990-91 season:

- 14 teams were led by a scorer who averaged over 25 points per game.
- Five teams were led by a scorer who averaged between 20 and 25 points per game.
- And just two, the 2007-08 Celtics (Paul Pierce, 19.6 points per game) and the 2003-04 Pistons (Richard Hamilton, 17.6 points per game) were led by scorers who averaged less than 20 points per game. Both Boston and Detroit, though, had multiple scorers that finished averaging more points per game than the Sixers' leading scorer this year: Pierce, Kevin Garnett (18.8) and Ray Allen (17.4) for the Celts, and Hamilton and Chauncey Billups (16.9) for the Pistons.

The complete breakdown, including the Sixers:

Year Team Leading scorer
2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers Lou Williams (15.3)
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki (23.0)
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (27.0)
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (26.8)
2007-08 Boston Celtics Paul Pierce (19.6)
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan (20.0)
2005-06 Miami Heat Dwyane Wade (27.2)
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan (20.3)
2003-04 Detroit Pistons Richard Hamilton (17.6)
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan (23.3)
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal (27.2)
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal (28.7)
1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal (29.7)
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan (21.7)
1997-98 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (28.7)
1996-97 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (29.6)
1995-96 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (30.4)
1994-95 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon (27.8)
1993-94 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon (27.3)
1992-93 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (32.6)
1991-92 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (30.1)
1990-91 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (31.5)

I'm not saying it can't be done, but since the 1990s, it hasn't been done without a real primetime scorer. Could Williams become that guy? I'm not sure.

Could Philly do it with their defense instead? Maybe.

The Sixers are leading the league in points allowed per game, averaging 85.9 a night. In same timeframe as above, only four times has an NBA champion allowed less than 90 points per game. And just two of them -- the 2004-05 and 2006-07 Spurs -- led the league in defense. The list:

Year Team Points allowed per game Rank
2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers 85.9 1/30
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks 96.0 10/30
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers 97.0 9/30
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers 99.3 13/30
2007-08 Boston Celtics 90.3 2/30
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs 90.1 1/30
2005-06 Miami Heat 96.0 14/30
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs 88.4 1/30
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 84.3 2/29
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs 90.4 3/29
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers 94.1 10/29
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers 97.2 23/29
1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers 92.3 6/29
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs 84.7 3/29
1997-98 Chicago Bulls 89.6 3/29
1996-97 Chicago Bulls 92.3 6/29
1995-96 Chicago Bulls 92.9 3/29
1994-95 Houston Rockets 101.4 14/27
1993-94 Houston Rockets 96.8 5/27
1992-93 Chicago Bulls 98.9 2/27
1991-92 Chicago Bulls 99.5 3/27
1990-91 Chicago Bulls 101.0 4/27

Is Philadelphia's suffocating defense a product of a league full of teams rusty from the lockout? Yes and no. Remember, they are ranked first in the league, so even if teams have been ugly on offense, the Sixers have made teams look ugliest. Let's put the points allowed per game in context, though, adding the league scoring average, and the team's points per game allowed as a percentage of that scoring average:

Year Team Points allowed per game League scoring average % of scoring average
2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers 85.9 94.5 90.9%
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks 96.0 99.6 96.4%
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers 97.0 100.4 96.6%
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers 99.3 100.0 99.3%
2007-08 Boston Celtics 90.3 99.9 90.4%
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs 90.1 98.7 91.3%
2005-06 Miami Heat 96.0 97.0 99.0%
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs 88.4 97.2 90.9%
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 84.3 93.4 90.3%
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs 90.4 95.1 95.1%
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers 94.1 95.5 98.5%
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers 97.2 94.8 102.5%
1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers 92.3 97.5 94.7%
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs 84.7 91.6 92.5%
1997-98 Chicago Bulls 89.6 95.6 93.7%
1996-97 Chicago Bulls 92.3 96.9 95.3%
1995-96 Chicago Bulls 92.9 99.5 93.4%
1994-95 Houston Rockets 101.4 101.4 100.0%
1993-94 Houston Rockets 96.8 101.5 95.4%
1992-93 Chicago Bulls 98.9 105.3 93.9%
1991-92 Chicago Bulls 99.5 105.3 94.5%
1990-91 Chicago Bulls 101.0 106.3 95.0%

You get a few things from this. First, not surprisingly, the NBA has seen a major dip in scoring average for the first time since the last shortened season in 1998-99. The league is averaging 5.1 points per game fewer this year than last year; similarly, in 1998-99, the league averaged 4.0 points per game fewer than the prior year.

Next, you see that four times in the last eight years has an NBA champion finished with a similar ratio as the Sixers of "points allowed per game : league scoring average." So does Philadelphia have the league's best defense this year? Very possible. But in terms of elite teams, they aren't necessairly on an historic pace of dominance.

I mentioned Philadelphia's weak schedule earlier on. According to John Hollinger, the Sixers' strength of schedule is .425, 29th in the league.

So let's divide the Sixers' season in two: Games against teams currently above-.500, and games against teams that currently have losing records.

Philly has dominated inferior opponents this year. In 14 games, the 76ers are 12-2 against teams below-.500. Moreover, they are averaging 99.2 points per game (their season average is 97.5 points per game), and allowing 81.9 points per game (season average of 85.9), a difference of 17.3 points.

On the other side, the Sixers have come back to earth. In eight games against winning teams, Philadelphia is 4-4. They're averaging just 94.5 points per game, and giving up 92.3 points per game, a differential of 2.2 points.

The three times the defense has broken down and opponents scored more than 100 points against the 76ers were all games against top teams, and all losses:  a 107-103 loss to Portland in their opener, a 108-104 overtime loss toe Denver in mid-January, and then an ugly 113-92 loss to Miami on Jan. 21. However, their last two games against winning teams have been impressive: they beat Orlando 74-69 on Monday, then the 16-point win against Chicago last night.

So where does all this leave us?

First off, while Philadelphia dominated Chicago last night and held Orlando to 69 two days prior, neither team has been overly impressive lately. The Bulls are 2-3 in their last five, and the problems in Orlando have been well-documented. So I'd be hesitant to write off the Sixers' first six games against winning teams, when they went 2-4, after the back-to-back wins.

I'm not totally sold on the ability of Philadelphia's defense to carry them to a championship, either. While it has been the league's best, as you saw above, it has been, in a way, on par with four of the league's last eight champions; all teams that had either one player average at least 20 points per game, or multiple players average over 16 points per game. The Sixers, of course, have neither.

Finally, remember that we haven't even mentioned the elephant in the room: the Miami Heat. Talent-wise, they blow the rest of the league out of the water. I'd venture to say that any other team winning the Finals this year would be a major upset. And as mentioned above, Miami beat Philadelphia by 21 in their lone meeting. If the 76ers hope to make it to the Finals, their road would be through South Beach.

It'd be silly to write off the 76ers' title hopes a) only because of historical context, b) with a relatively small sample size, and c) this early in the season. But one-third of the way through the schedule, it's pretty clear that if Philly ends up with the Larry O'Brien trophy, they'd be bucking a trend that has spanned over two decades.


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