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By Dan Majka

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Before the season got underway, 76ers’ coach Doug Collins stressed the importance of his team getting off to a fast start. With a lockout-shortened campaign, it would be vital to avoid digging another early season hole for themselves.

His players got the message.

Last season, the Sixers began the Collins era with a dismal 3-13 mark and were at the bottom of the Atlantic division. This year, through the first 16 games, Philadelphia is 11-5 and in first place.

One big reason for the turnaround is the play of the defense. During the poor stretch at the beginning of last season, opponents scored 100-points or more in eight of the 13 losses. This year, the Sixers have allowed only four teams to reach triple-digits in scoring, all in defeat.

The 76ers are ranked 7th in the league in total team defense, allowing a little more than 88-points-per game.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the Sixers offense which is ranked 3rd overall in the NBA. The team averages just under 100-points a contest. Since dropping their season opener in Portland, they’ve not lost a game when reaching the century mark in scoring.

The much improved play of big man Spencer Hawes has been another significant part of the team’s early season success. At just over seven-feet tall, Hawes adds a dominant presence at center that the Sixers have lacked for a long time. He has missed the last three games with a strained left Achilles, but when on the court, Hawes has shown why he was a first-round pick of the Sacramento Kings back in 2007. He leads the team in rebounding while averaging over 10-points a game.

But the Sixers are anything but a one-man show. In fact, their depth is what makes them so dangerous.

Without that one superstar to lean on, the 76ers continue to get the job done as a unit. Seven players are averaging double-digits in scoring, including Lou Williams, who leads the team with 15.5 points-per-game.

With the contributions of Williams, Thaddeus Young, and even rookie Nikola Vucevic, the Sixers’ bench is every bit as reliable as the starting five.

Continuity has also been a key. Of the 13-man roster, only Vucevic and fellow rookie Lavoy Allen were not with the Sixers last season. Other teams around the league added new faces, but with an abbreviated training camp and preseason, there was little time to gel. The Sixers, meantime, were content on building off of last season’s success with the same group. It appears to have paid dividends.

Now, with Saturday night’s loss to the Miami Heat behind them, it would appear the Sixers have a great opportunity to build on their impressive start. Their next four opponents (Washington, New Jersey, Charlotte, and Detroit) are either at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, combining for just 14 wins total.

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