As the old saying goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same. The 76ers are changing that adage around a bit. For this season, which opens for the Sixers Monday in Portland, the theme is more like: The more things stay the same, the more they change.

For the better, they hope.

Strapped by the salary cap and strangled by the NBA lockout, which lasted 149 days, the Sixers were unable to pull off any free-agent signings or participate in any bartering.

So for this condensed 66-game season, they'll roll out nearly all the same players from last season, with the same coach and pretty much the same offensive and defensive philosophies.

And that's more than fine with them.

This NBA season is like no other; the Sixers' schedule often packs four games in 7 nights; they play three straight games from Jan. 9-11 and again April 16-18. The free-agent whirlwind is still taking place. Trades and rumored dealings are still the talk of the league. Some teams are still tinkering with their rosters and rotations and trying to fit newcomers into their scheme. All this and the NBA season is only a day away.

All the while, coach Doug Collins has been overseeing his practices with his familiar group the past 2 weeks, building upon last season's success in which his team compiled a 38-28 record in its final 66 games.

"I see a lot of improvement, even though it's the same guys. The cohesion is much better," said forward Elton Brand, last season's team leader in scoring, rebounding and blocks. "We know our plays and we're adding different sets to the sets we already have. Different plays, different nuances to the plays we already have. We wouldn't be able to build if we had all new guys.

"I like it. I like our team anyway, but standing pat, I think we have an advantage, because we all know the plays, we all know the defensive sets, we all know each other, we all know our roles and we all know how to play. Guys [throughout the league] just got signed. Guys are still getting signed. So they're not going to know what's going on and the season starts [tomorrow]. So I think we have a big advantage there."

Collins said earlier in the preseason that he was eager to observe how much better his younger players have gotten, how much responsibility they'll be able to shoulder and how much better they can make this team.

With a 21-year-old starting point guard (Jrue Holiday) and 10 players who are 25 or younger, a first glance would lead one to believe this is a year of transition. Not so. As much as Collins will evaluate what he has to build on for the future, he is very much focused on what this team can accomplish this season, looking to improve on last season's 41-41 record, which garnered them a seventh seed in the playoffs and a first-round meeting with the Miami Heat.

"We're going to have to play better this year to be a playoff team than we did last year because you have teams that are improved," Collins said. "We have to be a better team to be in the playoffs. We'd like to obviously move up. New York finished one game ahead of us, but they've improved their team. Atlanta finished three games ahead of us. Can you go from seven [seed] to five? Can you get up into that area where you can say you're a team that can eventually be a homecourt team in the first round?

"I think we're a better team. We're not sharp offensively right now, where I'd like to be with our turnovers. I really like our defense. We've got to do a better job rebounding the ball. I think we have a good feeling about playing with one another. We're not as sharp as where I'd like to be turnoverwise right now, and I think that it's early, and I think that a lot of guys get into bad habits in the offseason playing in pickup games. You sort of have to get that out of their system a little bit. That's a couple of areas that I'm concerned about. But we've got a great camaraderie.

"I really love the way our bigs are working with Nik [Vucevic, the team's first-round pick]. They really like him and they like his potential, and they're really doing a good job of every single day teaching him. I like that."

There is a lot to like about this team. The young roster means a boatload of fresh legs, which should be better at handling this head-spinning schedule than a more experienced group. Holiday is budding into a potential superstar, Evan Turner seems to have turned a corner in showing his overall skills, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams lead a bench that could be one of the most potent in the league, and Andre Iguodala still possesses a very good all-around game.

There certainly were growing pains last season as the group got used to a new coach; their point guard was in his first full season as a starter; and a 3-13 start included some of the most bizarre, giveaway losses.

A year of growth could help this team tremendously. They still have the mastermind in Collins, who appears to have a solution for every basketball riddle thrown his way. It will be a tough beginning, with the first five games on the road. But after that, they'll be home for 18 of the next 22 games.

No matter what twists and turns this turbulent season may present, the Sixers will know that they'll go through it together. The same way they all did with one another last season.

And they're OK with that.

"I just think we're more experienced and a year older," Turner said. "I think we learned a lot from that playoff appearance. We understand that some of the games that we lost were winnable games. I think we're in a confident situation. As long as we can come out and play together, we're fine."

5 KEYS FOR SIXERS

1. Jrue Holiday

Is it fair to put such pressure on a 21-year-old? Probably not, but Holiday is getting to be that good. He has that leadership quality on and off the court, not vocal but setting an example with his play. If he continues to hit his outside shot with consistency, as in the preseason, he could be in for a very big year.

2. Spencer Hawes

Last season was a tough one for Sixers fans to gauge Hawes as he was held back by an early-season injury that limited his play for almost the rest of the year. He is in great shape now and, as coach Doug Collins said, "When Spencer is playing well, we are a very good team." If he can rebound close to double digits and give the team 10 to 12 points a night, along with playing about 28 minutes, he is a big asset. Must stay out of foul trouble, though.

3. Andre Iguodala

Make no mistake, when he plays his all-around game, there is no one better on the team who can do so many things. Collins relies on him as his shut-down defender. Team needs him to score his 15 a game, not forcing anything on the offensive end. Still a very good passer and rebounder.

4. Strong bench play

Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams provided a huge lift off the bench last season, giving Collins an advantage night in and night out. Now a vastly improved Evan Turner is joining that group, along with rookie center Nikola Vucevic. Collins said he is looking for this group to be the best in the NBA, and it very well could be.

5. Weather the schedule

After last year's 3-13 start, Collins and his players know they can't begin slowly again. They'll need to come out of the first five games (all on the road) with good results, heading into a stretch of 18 of 22 at home. There's also a string of seven of eight on the road in February before finishing the season with six of the last seven away from home.

Read the Daily News' Sixers blog, Sixerville, at www.philly.com/Sixerville.

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