THE 76ERS have been submerged so long, you'd think they were Polynesian pearl divers instead of NBA players.

The last time the Sixers had a winning record during the regular season, they were 2-1 after a 141-127, overtime victory at New York on Oct. 31, 2009. Then reality set in and they finished 27-55 in the one-and-done season under coach Eddie Jordan, whose perpetual grimace and attempts to get his players to run the Princeton offense served as conclusive proof that it really isn't a good idea to try to force square pegs into round holes.

Former Sixers guard Doug Collins, brought in from the TNT broadcast booth seven seasons after his last coaching gig in Washington, changed the atmosphere and the system. But when the sort-of-new-look Sixers opened this season at 3-13, even the most hopeful of the team's fans had to wonder if the end result would be more of the same old, same old.

But the Sixers who got off to that thudding start, if not exactly on fire, come out of the All-Star break at least with some glowing embers that could be further stoked this week against three teams - Washington, Detroit and Cleveland - that are a collective 75 games under .500. Should Collins' young, enthusiastic squad, now 27-29, sweep those games, beginning with tomorrow night's hosting of the Wizards at the Wells Fargo Center, they could break water and breathe the rarified air of a winning record for the first time in nearly 16 months.

It isn't reason to start making plans for another parade down Broad Street, but, hey, Collins understands that the long road from here to there must be taken step-by-painstaking-step. But the journey doesn't seem quite so long or so arduous when the travelers are enjoying themselves. The Sixers are 51 days and 26 games away from the finish line of a regular season that increasingly looks as if it will lead to a playoff berth. As of now, they are the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Knicks and a game ahead of the Indiana Pacers, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot.

Few of the teams within hailing distance of the Sixers, though, have come as far or as fast as a team most everyone had left for dead after that 3-13 beginning.

"It's pretty amazing," Collins, upbeat as usual, said last evening after he put his team through a brisk workout at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "This team finished [its last 26 games] 5-21 last year. If you take our start, this team basically fought through an 8-34 stretch to win 24 of their last 40.

"That, to me, says a lot about who these guys are. They want to win, they're good about it, they know what's ahead of us and they know how exciting the next 51 days can be. I sense a real focus from these guys."

For Collins, the seeds of victory are planted on non-game days at PCOM, where a team without a single representative on the Eastern Conference All-Star roster is learning the benefits of coming together. That might come as a bit of a surprise to former Sixers standout Allen Iverson, who, questioned about his own less-than-stellar practice habits, sneeringly said, "You talking about practice. Not a game. Practice."

Well, yeah. Collins was talking about practice and how much progress he detects from the first halting steps taken by a team that had gone through three coaches (Maurice Cheeks, Tony DiLeo and Jordan) the past two seasons, each of whom demanded certain things. Change can be good, but constantly retooling on the run isn't normally a formula for sustained success.

"We did some drills today that we did in training camp," Collins said. "I was sitting with [general manager] Eddie Stefanski and I said, 'Look at the difference in our team doing these drills right now, [compared] to what we saw in October.' It was just amazing. As a coach, it gives you a good feeling."

During the dark days of that 3-13 start, the consensus of the ticket-holding pundits was that the only way for the Sixers to improve was to shed themselves of such high-salaried players as Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand for another team's expiring contracts, the better to clear up cap space for the next Doctor J or Moses Malone who might want to restore a faded tradition.

Now, with Iguodala reborn as a defensive stopper and a healthier Brand playing the best ball of his time in Philly, Collins said he, personally, is fine with what he has moving forward and that he does not expect a deal to be made by the Thursday trade deadline.

"I don't foresee anything going on," Collins said. "Rod [Thorn] and Eddie handle that stuff. I really don't get into the player-personnel aspect of it. But one thing about our guys - and I can see it in the locker room - is that there's a good feeling. Guys enjoy playing with one another. They're competitive. Now we're getting situations where guys are speaking up in practice. If things aren't going well, they start holding themselves accountable."

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