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Fast-starting Sixers climb to fourth

Patient maturity. That's not a very snappy slogan, but it best describes the 76ers' slow, steady blossoming.

The patience was necessary after the Sixers lost 13 of their first 16 games last season. Suddenly, fans and analysts were thinking up trade scenarios involving versatile but expensive swingman Andre Iguodala, and questioning whether then-59-year-old Doug Collins was the right fit after a seven-year absence from coaching.

But the Sixers eventually clawed back to 41-41, returning to the playoffs after a year away. When quick decisions needed to be made after the lockout, Philadelphia went all-in on last year's roster, re-signing sixth man Thaddeus Young and refusing to use the amnesty clause on 32-year-old power forward Elton Brand (two years and $35.2 million left on his contract entering the season).

That investment in continuity -- patient maturity -- is paying off. Relying on a rotation of players who are all 25 or younger except the 27-year-old Iguodala and Brand, the 76ers have the NBA's most efficient defense and fourth-ranked offense en route their best start (6-2) since 2000-01. With a five-game winning streak, Philadelphia has jumped to fourth in the Power Rankings, joining Utah, Phoenix and New York among this week's biggest risers.

(All stats and records are through Monday, Jan. 9 unless otherwise noted.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Miami Heat
Last Week: 1
The unlikely triple-overtime victory at Atlanta couldn't have had better short-term and probably long-term ramifications. Most obvious, the Heat avenged their only loss while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sat with injuries. But the game also restored much-needed luster to forward Chris Bosh (a game-high 33 points, 14 rebounds and a last-second three-pointer to force overtime), so long diminished as a distant third in the pecking order that maybe even he forgot what he could do as the top option. It gave a boost of confidence to the occasionally rattled Mario Chalmers (29 points, a game-best plus-24 in 49:09), who is being pushed hard by rookie point guard Norris Cole. And it offered the most prominent evidence to date for why it was so smart to sign Shane Battier. The heady vet is shooting just 32.4 percent while busting his tail to fit in, but his excellent defense against Joe Johnson included a block of a layup that forced the third OT.
 
2Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 2
Chicago's great advantage is having two units that are both steeped in the principles of transitioning between help defense and straight man-to-man coverage. Each player is a like a cog that meshes and slides with brutal efficiency, moving with an implacable dispatch reminiscent of hotel maids stripping and remaking beds right after checkout. On Monday, the Bulls throttled the Pistons when the second unit was on the floor most often, in the second and fourth quarters, allowing a mere 22 points combined in those periods. Combine that ability to stifle with the NBA's most dynamic point guard, Derrick Rose, and a premier pick-and-pop shooter, Carlos Boozer, who has rediscovered his rhythm this season, and the Bulls have a potent recipe for success.
 
3Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 3
Backup point guard Eric Maynor's season-ending torn ACL would be more dreadful for the Thunder if James Harden hadn't carried his Manu Ginobili-like performance in last year's playoffs into this regular season. Harden has the best court vision and highest assist-to-turnover ratio (2.47 to 1, with 37 assists and 15 turnovers) among the team's top-10 players. The third-year guard is adept at drawing the foul when pressured and thrives in clutch situations. As the leader of the second unit (and heavy Sixth Man Award favorite), he'll be a constant bailout option and source of reassurance for Maynor's replacement, rookie Reggie Jackson.
 
4Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 9
The four-win week in the midst of a favorable part of the schedule included eight- and nine-assist performances from Jrue Holiday; two strong games from rookie center Nicola Vucevic; Lou Williams maintaining his season-long streak of scoring in double digits (he leads the team with 16.6 points); and a magnificent defense yielding an average of just 78.5 points.
 
5Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 7
Amid all the justified hubbub over Portland's faster pace, LaMarcus Aldridge's versatility in being able to both bang his way for points in the paint and get out on the break remains crucial to the Blazers' success. The latest example occurred late in the third quarter against Cleveland on Sunday, when a Cavs run cut Portland's lead to four. Aldridge backed down defensive stopper Anderson Varejao with a series of bumps until he was able to toss in a little jump hook; the Blazers' big man then ran the floor well enough to draw three fouls and convert six free throws, nearly single-handedly generating what would be a 12-0 spurt that essentially decided the game. Less than two years ago, Aldridge was regarded as a thin, finesse-oriented "stretch" power forward. Now he joins LeBron James and Blake Griffin as the only top-10 scorers who haven't supplemented their point totals with three-point shooting.
 
6Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 6
Just because Kobe Bryant has begun to bury a higher percentage of the shots he keeps jacking up with that injured right wrist doesn't mean it has become a wiser strategy for the Lakers. I admire the man's guts and respect his talent, but his judgment and ego remain questionable. Even after averaging 33 points in the last four games, Kobe's true shooting percentage (which takes into account two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws) remains fourth among the five starters, ahead of only Derek Fisher. Dinged up and 33 years old, he leads the NBA in total minutes, with teammate Pau Gasol just one minute behind. Yet less than a sixth of the way through this jam-packed season, the Lakers are only 6-4. If this stubborn display of grit and will power continues all season, Kobe will become either a hero or a martyr while turning the rest of the team too much into bystanders.
 
7Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 5
To those who wonder how the Hawks can beat the Heat and Bulls at or close to full strength yet fall to Houston and Miami without LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, consider Atlanta's shot selection, and who is doing the shooting. For example, jumpers from 16-23 feet are generally considered the lowest percentage shot in the game. Through Sunday, the Hawks were third in attempts from that distance and 29th in accuracy, according to Hoopdata. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, in particular, are shooting more of them and sinking fewer compared to last season. Meanwhile, Al Horford is way too unselfish. In the triple-OT loss to Miami, Johnson shot 7-for-20, Smith 6-for-17, Jeff Teague 1-for-12 and Marvin Williams 2-for-10. Horford, the team leader in shooting percentage again, was 5-for-7. But shot attempts aside, as the best player on a team desperate for leadership, it is past time for Horford to become more vocal and aggressive, even if it is at odds with his temperament.
 
8Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 8
It is a tiny sample size, but the numbers indicate that Blake Griffin has really hurt the Clippers on defense. According to Basketball Value, the Clippers are yielding 12.9 more points per 100 possessions when he is on the court compared to when he sits. Even factoring in his plus-10 performance in Saturday's win over the Bucks, the Clippers are a mere plus-3 in the 219 minutes Griffin has played and plus-17 in the 69 minutes he has been out. One reason is that the team yields more offensive rebounds with Griffin in the lineup. Although the early disparity from Griffin's defense is likely to come down as the season unfolds, he and the Clippers would do well to block out the hype and start boxing out opponents if they want to be serious about contending for a ring.
 
9San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 11
No one should be surprised that the Spurs have been tenacious despite Manu Ginobili's absence. They trounced Dallas and outlasted Denver in a shootout to improve to 6-0 at home, and even after falling to Oklahoma City on Sunday to remain winless on the road, they lead the NBA in offensive efficiency. On paper, San Antonio doesn't look like it has the size or athleticism to defend the paint at a championship level. But the systematic team discipline in place since coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan arrived continues to maximize the talent on hand. Yes, through Sunday opponents were converting 68.8 percent at the rim, fifth best in the NBA. But, even without a big shot-blocking presence, San Antonio was permitting the fewest attempts at that distance until the Thunder cut loose for 20-of-28 shooting Sunday.
 
10Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 4
Early success despite a rugged schedule probably caused some complacency in the last week. The Nuggets trailed the undermanned Hornets for most of the game in New Orleans before rallying for their fourth straight win. But on the second night of the back-to-back, they chose to run and gun in San Antonio and came up short. Next, on Monday, the Nuggets came home and were pasted by those same Hornets, scoring just 81 points (they were averaging 104), committing 17 turnovers and allowing New Orleans to shoot 52 percent. It also didn't help that Nene missed three games with a foot injury and was ineffective when he returned Monday.
 
11Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 10
The assumption coming into this season was that of the Pacers' two 6-8 swingmen starters, Danny Granger would provide more of an offensive boost and Paul George would be more valuable on defense. But the inverse has been true so far. George has converted 57.1 percent from three-point range while Granger is shooting only 30.7 percent overall. On defense, however, Granger has been the most effective member of the eight-man rotation. The Pacers allow 10.75 fewer points per 100 possessions when he is on the court compared to when he sits, per Basketball Value.
 
12Orlando Magic
Last Week: 13
While scoring across the NBA is down rather significantly, the Magic's points-per-possession efficiency remains almost exactly the same on both offense and defense compared to last season. That gives Orlando a higher offensive ranking (from 14th to seventh) and a lower defensive ranking (from third to an uncharacteristically medicore 14th). As for that offense, Jason Richardson is 15-of-29 (51.7 percent) in his last two games after making 5-for-22 (22.7 percent) in his previous three, while Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis are shooting below 37 percent overall.
 
13New York Knicks
Last Week: 18
While the Knicks wait on Baron Davis, rookie Iman Shumpert is barging to the rescue as an emergency point guard, supplanting the cold-shooting, sore-shouldered Toney Douglas. Shumpert, who likes to shoot and is a so-so ball-handler, is hardly a prototypical point guard. But he has the panache to run the offense for a talent-laden team facing high expectations in the nation's largest media market, even when he is slightly out of his depth. Perhaps more important, the Knicks regained some equilibrium on defense after getting torched for 118 points by the Bobcats last week. The agility, communication skills and overall leadership of Tyson Chandler in this realm is apparent. The team should continue to improve defensively -- provided that Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire don't slack.
 
14Utah Jazz
Last Week: 26
Utah Jazz (5-3)
It was an impressive week for the Jazz, who have won four in a row and five of six without neglecting the rebuilding project that needs to be their priority. Eleven players are averaging at least 12 minutes, including core second-year players Gordon Hayward (27.1) and Derrick Favors (22.8) and rookies Enes Kanter (14.0) and Alec Burks (12.3). They are winning the close ones (3-0 in games decided by five points or fewer) and have a front-line quartet -- starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in addition to Favors and Kanter -- that has combined to rank second in the NBA in blocks and isn't afraid to bang, especially the two youngsters. Veteran swingman Josh Howard is likewise providing a physical presence and a knack for getting to the free-throw line (a team-high 34 attempts, converting 91.2 percent), costing 24-year-old C.J. Miles minutes in a contract year.
 
15Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 16
The team's core -- Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom and Brendan Haywood -- is most to blame for the stumble out of the gate. Bench players like Delonte West, Vince Carter and Ian Mahinmi have provided a crucial lift. Nobody expects Nowitzki to keep clanging away at 43.8 percent (including 4-of-20 from three-point range), and Odom won't stay mired at 29.2 percent. In other words, sooner or later, Dallas will score, even with Kidd temporarily on the shelf with a bad back. But Tyson Chandler is no longer around to compensate for the Mavs' glaring lack of foot speed on defense.
 
16Boston Celtics
Last Week: 15
It must have been unsettling for the Celtics to be beaten decisively at their own game, at home no less, by the young, upstart Pacers on Friday. Indiana sealed off penetration, harassed Paul Pierce into 4-of-17 shooting and boxed out for a plus-13 (47-34) on the boards. Only a snail's pace and Ray Allen's 4-of-5 three-point shooting kept the score a reasonable 87-74. The harsh truth is that the Celtics have a very thin bench. Only six players got more than 13 minutes against the Pacers, and by most any statistical measure, the drop-off is steep after Pierce, Allen, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett. Perhaps more concerning for the team's identity is that after five straight years in the top five in defensive efficiency, Boston ranks 21st early this season. Yes, some of that is left over from its ugly early efforts against New York and Miami without Pierce, but the defense should hardly have been tested since then. Between the Miami and Indiana games, all four of the Celtics' opponents (including the winless Wizards twice) are among the six least-efficient offenses.
 
17Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 24
The Suns' rout of the Blazers on Friday might qualify as the biggest shocker of the season and reinforces the point that any offense operated by an aging Steve Nash can be as finicky yet as awe-inspiring as a vintage Ferrari. His bruised ribs presumably healed, the 16-year veteran (who will turn 38 next month) shot 69.2 percent (27-for-39) and dialed up 47 assists against 12 turnovers in his last four games, three of them victories. Not coincidentally, Nash's favorite pick-and-roll partner, Marcin Gortat, shed the splint on his thumb and shot 15-for-18 (83.3 percent) in the last two games. Gortat also teamed with Grant Hill to lead a defense that held Portland and Milwaukee below 44 percent. In fact, the Suns' defense efficiency is ranked just as highly (12th) as their offense.
 
18Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 19
You have to admire the Grizzlies, who responded to the estimated six-to-eight-week loss of Zach Randolph -- the meat-and-potatoes of their low-post offensive identity -- by scoring a whopping 72 points in the paint in a win over Sacramento and then outmuscling host Minnesota for another victory. Just as impressive, the Grizzlies hung tough against two of the league's most imposing front lines in Utah and the Lakers before succumbing, helped out by a ball-hawking defense that is tied for first steals after leading that category last season. Memphis also has found a short-term replacement for Randolph. After using undersized Sam Young and Dante Cunningham, Memphis traded for legit 6-10 power forward Marreese Speights, who played the bulk of the minutes at the position and finished with 17 points and seven rebounds against the Lakers.
 
19Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 21
No coach has changed the culture of his team more effectively this season than Dwane Casey. During the previous two years, the Raptors were an uncommonly soft team that finished last in defensive efficiency. Casey, an architect of the Mavs' championship defense last season, immediately focused on toughening Toronto's resistance near the basket, and the results couldn't be more dramatic. Last season, the Raptors yielded an NBA-high 47.4 points in the paint per game. This season, with mostly the same personnel, Toronto has whacked nearly 17 points off its average, giving up a league-low 30.7 in the paint, according to TeamRankings. Even Andrea Bargnani, the subject of scorn for his defensive indifference in the past, has bought in to Casey's system. The latest example of its effectiveness occurred in a victory against Minnesota on Monday, when the Raptors broke Kevin Love's streak of eight 20-point games to start the season by holding him without a field goal after the first quarter.
 
20Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 20
So far, it appears that the Cavs neatly staggered their two first-round picks in last year's draft. Top choice Kyrie Irving is, as hoped, NBA-ready as a teenager, with good size (6-3), above-average speed, an ability to score from outside or get to the rim, and better-than-advertised court vision. He's already had three games with at least six assists and another three with at least 20 points, and he's averaging only 26.8 minutes. Right now, however, he seems to be a below-average defender. Meanwhile, No. 4 pick Tristan Thompson is more raw and inconsistent but has shown flashes that he could be a force and create matchup problems as a combo forward.
 
21Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 14
Between the high-flying rookie tandem of Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams and Kevin Love's cracking the top seven in scoring, the Wolves' offensive future is bright indeed. But one gaping hole is the absence of a reliable low-post scorer. Love, who reigns on put-backs and three-pointers, was flummoxed by the undersized Sam Young of Memphis and especially by the long and lean Amir Johnson of Toronto on post-ups in recent games, and an inferior Cavs front line pushed around Minnesota. Right now, the best, or at least most frequent, back-to-the-basket option is Darko Milicic. Gulp.
 
22Houston Rockets
Last Week: 12
In a brutal week, the Rockets played both L.A. teams and the Thunder twice in a five-day span, losing all four. With the changeover from Rick Adelman to new coach Kevin McHale in a short training camp, along with the departure of bulwark center Chuck Hayes, the Rockets rank last in defensive efficiency. Opponents are shooting a league-high 49.2 percent (and no worse than 52.5 percent during the Rockets' 0-5 road start), mostly because Houston has trouble stopping teams in the paint. On offense, point guard Goran Dragic had 19 assists and only two turnovers filling in for the injured Kyle Lowry during the home-and-home matchup with Oklahoma City. But in crunch time Saturday, Dragic short-armed a makable jumper and then turned the ball over to seal the Thunder sweep. Meanwhile, his backcourt mate, Kevin Martin, who has drawn at least seven free-throw attempts per game every year since becoming a regular starter in 2006-07, is suddenly getting fewer than half that (3.4).
 
23New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 27
Injuries have been pervasive, most prominently to ace shooting guard Eric Gordon, easily the team's most talented scorer, and small forward Trevor Ariza, its best perimeter defender. But coach Monty Williams is a Gregg Popovich disciple and defensive-oriented strategist who knows how to remain competitive with depleted talent. The Hornets have been competitive in their losses and own quality wins against Boston and at Denver. If the roster is healthy, there is a good blend of scoring and defense among the guards -- Gordon, Greivis Vasquez, Jarrett Jack and Marco Belinelli -- and the talented front line includes Carl Landry and Chris Kaman in addition to defenders such Emeka Okafor and swingmen Ariza and Al-Farouq Aminu.
 
24Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 17
The road trip from hell finally ended on Sunday with a blowout defeat in Phoenix. The Bucks were steadily ground into submission in five straight losses, the last four without their best player and defensive anchor, Andrew Bogut, who left the team and traveled to Australia for personal reasons. Meanwhile, injuries hit Mike Dunleavy (so what else is new?), Beno Udrih and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. On the bright side, Bogut is expected to rejoin Milwaukee this week, and Stephen Jackson, who has a 43.1 true shooting percentage, can't help but improve.
 
25Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 23
It's a race to the bottom between the Kings and Wizards for the NBA's lowest team basketball IQ. Playing at home Sunday, in its second game under new coach Keith Smart, Sacramento had the Magic in a worst-case scenario -- Dwight Howard in game-long foul trouble and Ryan Anderson stone-cold from the field -- and was clueless about how to cinch the victory. Regardless of lineup, the players had no sense of when to push or be patient with the pace, ignored advantageous matchups, exercised terrible shot selection, committed needless, silly fouls and mixed in enough raw skill and eye-opening highlights to maintain hope and heighten the dysfunction. The previous night, Smart had dinner with DeMarcus Cousins, whose behavior wore out Smart's predecessor, the fired Paul Westphal. Cousins said they mostly talked about "life." Well, life gets harder now, with eight of the next nine games on the road.
 
26Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 22
The Pistons have cracked 90 points just once, in a 96-88 victory against Indiana. Unfortunately, the lackluster performances of Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince and (to a lesser extent) Jonas Jerebko right after they were awarded large contracts is an ongoing pattern and problem for management (see Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Jason Maxiell for prior examples). But the front office found a gem in Greg Monroe, a smooth, poised, versatile big man who is playing as if the NBA game has slowed down considerably for him in his second season. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and only one turnover in 32 minutes in Monday's loss to Chicago.
 
27Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 25
Under new coach Mark Jackson, the Warriors have dropped to 21st in pace after ranking in the top five the previous six years. The problem is that this more deliberate style has actually hurt their offensive efficiency (down from 12th to 22nd compared to last season), shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, while only marginally improving their defensive efficiency ranking (up to 25th from 26th). And while Monta Ellis has earned huzzahs for his marked bump in assists -- he has assisted on more than 41 percent of the Warriors' baskets while in the game, more than double his career average, and is keeping his turnovers below career norms -- his shooting percentage has plummeted to 41.8. The slower pace and recent absence of backcourt mate Stephen Curry may be a double whammy.
 
28Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 28
Charlotte has the least amount of star power in the league, but it continues to scrap. After the Bobcats' convincing win and narrow loss in two games in New York over the last week, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni doesn't want to see them again anytime soon. Seven Charlotte players average double figures in scoring, not including its best athlete, forward Tyrus Thomas, who returned from an ankle sprain three games ago. Among the crowd vying for minutes in the frontcourt, two acquisitions from the Thunder, D.J. White and Byron Mullens, are starting to emerge.
 
29New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 29
Injuries have caused coach Avery Johnson to juggle positions and lineups. According to Basketball Value, the most frequently used five-man unit has logged only 40.75 minutes together, setting the standard for instability. Deron Williams has played shooting guard beside Sundiata Gaines and Jordan Farmar and run the point with Anthony Morrow, rookie Marshon Brooks and DeShawn Stevenson sharing the backcourt at various times. Williams is hitting only 34.7 percent from the field and 27.7 percent from three-point range, and he has just 1.68 assists for every turnover (compared to his career mark of 2.97 to 1). He is also so obviously the best player on the team -- especially the way he anticipates plays at both ends of the court -- that the front office has to hope he is a patient man. In one recent frustrating moment, Williams led Brooks with a perfect bounce pass that would have set up a layup Monday against Atlanta, but the rookie suddenly turned his head away to become oblivious to the feed.
 
30Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
JaVale McGee will turn 24 next week. He's blocked 393 shots in 222 games over his three-plus seasons, including an NBA-best 24 this season. He is a career 52.2 percent shooter and is just two rebounds away from averaging a double-double through eight games. Yet the Wizards are winless and McGee is certainly one of the many reasons why. He frequently falls asleep on defense, gets burned for layups on basic inbounds passes, hasn't grasped the rudiments of help rotations and has trouble focusing on any aspect of the game for very long. He is one of the reasons so few observers blame coach Flip Saunders for the team's dysfunction. McGee has most of the tools required to blossom into a star and enough deficiencies to become a footnote if he doesn't address them. And he is not the only one on the Wizards' high-risk, high-reward roster.
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