By John Smallwood
The expectations have changed, and rightfully so.
A year ago, the Sixers were coming off a disastrous season, and the hiring of Doug Collins looked like just the first step in a long rebuilding process.
And when the Sixers got off to that horrible 3-13 start, many fans began counting down to the 2011 NBA lottery and calculating how high a lottery pick the franchise would get.
But something began to click with Collins and his young charges. The Sixers won 38 of their final 66 games and reached the Eastern Conference playoffs.
They lost in five games to the Miami Heat, but said they gained valuable experience and confidence from the process.
To a player, the Sixers say they are ready to move a step up in the hierarchy of the Eastern Conference.
"The expectations are high," point guard Jrue Holiday said. "We're all excited. We all know that we ended the season well last year.
"I think the expectations we put on ourselves are higher than anybody's."
It's just coincidence that the NBA lockout shortened the 2011-12 season to 66 games, but if the Sixers can simply duplicate the record they had in their previous 66 games, they'll likely be in a much better playoff spot.
Winning 38 of 66 games is winning at a rate of 57.5 percent.
Last season, the Atlanta Hawks captured the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a winning percentage of .537.
If the East shakes out as expected, with the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics still at the top of the conference, getting the fourth or fifth seed is critical to a team looking to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
"I think the sky is the limit," guard Lou Williams said. "We really want to be a serious contender."
The Sixers must walk the talk to convince skeptics that they are a legitimate threat in the East.
The only additions to last season's roster are draft picks Nik Vucevic and Lavoy Allen.
That's not exactly the splash fans were looking for when it comes to challenging Miami, Chicago, Boston, Orlando and New York in the East.
If the Sixers are going to move to the next level, it will take stepped-up performances from such young players as Holiday, second-year swingman Evan Turner and recently re-signed forward Thaddeus Young and center Spencer Hawes.
The Sixers have two nice steadying veterans in Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, but neither is a franchise player.
Collins is betting that the overall improvement of a core of players who are 23 years old or younger will counter the effects of not having a true superstar.
"We have a lot of young players and my job is to try and make them as good as they can be," Collins said. "Can we develop a couple of All-Stars?"
I've said over and over that the short- and long-term success of the Sixers will revolve around whether Holiday and Turner, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, can become All-Star-caliber players.
The Sixers will be tested right away, as they open the season on a five-game swing against Western Conference opponents Portland, Phoenix, Utah, Golden State and New Orleans.
Portland and New Orleans made the playoffs last season but both have drastically different looks for 2011-12. The Blazers lost All-Star guard Brandon Roy to bad knees that forced his retirement at 27, and New Orleans just completed a trade that sent All-Star guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers.
On paper, these are not strong teams. It is not unreasonable to think the Sixers could be 4-1 coming into their home opener on Jan. 6 against the Detroit Pistons - no worse than 3-2.
"We've got to be ready to go," Collins said. "Portland is a totally different team. They are a speed team now.
"Then we see the Suns. Then we go to Utah, and we're going to see post-ups. Then it's Golden State in a back-to-back, and it's a speed game again.
"It's all kinds of different stuff we're going to be seeing, and we've got to be ready."
Last season, the Sixers were 38-28 in their final 66 games, finished 41-41 and were seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference. This season will be the same number of games - 66 - but packed into a 123-day grind. So, if they play at the same level at which they finished last year, they'll be 10 games over .500.
That could be the fourth or fifth seed in the East, putting them in a playoff series they might be favored to win.
"I think the condensed schedule will bode well for our team," Brand said. "We have a lot of young players with a lot of talent. They play every single day and play all day."