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Daily Babble, Sixers Style, Part II: Talking Philly Hoops With Passion and Pride's Jon Burkett

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With the Celtics heading into Philadelphia tonight and the 76ers playing excellent basketball of late, the time seems right to take a closer look at hoops in the City of Brotherly Love. Though I shared my thoughts on the Sixers in the first part of today's Babble, it never hurts to hear from another voice and perspective, especially when that voice happens to be an insightful and entertaining one.  At Passion and Pride, Jon Burkett serves as one of the blogosphere's most informed voices on the Sixers.  He is also tremendously dedicated to his role as Most Valuable Network's Director of Operations and a great guy whom I am proud to call a friend thanks to our months spent working closely together in my days as his Assistant Basketball Director at MVN.  Recently, Jon spent some time chatting with me about the current state of the surprising Sixers:

SW: Having gone 12-3 in their last 15 games, the upstart Sixers have vaulted themselves into the thick of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. With that jump have come the beginnings of rumblings around the league about the job done by coach Mo Cheeks this season. During the slow start earlier in the season, you published several "Memo to Mo" columns, including a particularly scathing critique after a loss to the Hornets way back in November. How have your feelings toward Cheeks changed with the recent turn-around, and how much credit do you think he deserves for the recent success this team has found?

JB:  One thing that I always felt Mo had going for him was an even-keeled, positive approach. Obviously, the young guys have responded to Mo's laid-back style. At times, I felt he was a little too laid back. I think the biggest difference has been the play of Andre Miller, the coach on the floor. He started out the season poorly, but got better throughout the year and really played exceptional ball in February. So, Mo gets credit for the young guys (and particularly Thaddeus Young), while the veterans have earned some credit for themselves by leading the way.

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SW: One of the Sixers' two biggest strengths this season has been their defense, as they currently sit at ninth in the league in defensive efficiency. Good defensive teams often start with a dominant presence on the interior, and Samuel Dalembert has long been putting up the gaudy blocks and boards numbers to make that look to be the case on paper. By the same token, SportsCenter anchors have long reminded us that games aren't played on paper; they are played inside of television sets. You and I have chatted before about Dalembert's numbers being misleading, as he has had trouble in seasons past with regard to his positioning and footwork and the fact that he often gets out-muscled by other bigs and is forced to rely too much on his jumping ability as a result. How has Sam's defense progressed this season? What changes have you seen in his defensive game? Is he the catalyst for the team's improvements on the defensive end of the floor? If not, who is?

JB: It really is amazing the difference this team has shown defensively and they continue to get better on that end.  What  stabilized the defense was Sam Dalembert's discipline.  He's done a much better job of staying on the floor and staying out of foul trouble.  The Haitian Sensation can be dominant in spurts, but he's in better shape mentally and physically this year and the results speak for themselves.

Another player who has stepped up and provided a defensive presence on this team has been rookie Thaddeus Young. He has shown the poise to guard the game's best forwards and hold his own, while scoring the ball in limited opportunities despite not getting any plays called for him. Young's versatility and athleticism have yielded dividends much faster than anyone would have thought. Young can match up with anyone and hold his own. He is a great defensive player and pairs well with Andre Iguodala.

At the same time, this team is much better on the defensive glass this year with Reggie Evans 8 rebounds a game, playing around 24 minutes a contest. It's no contest when you compare his numbers to that of last year's starter - Steven Hunter. [SW's note: Hunter averaged 4.8 boards in 22.1 minutes per game last season.]

SW:  The Sixers have four promising players aged 23 or younger on their roster this season. Who is your favorite of the bunch?

JB:  Thaddeus! First of all, you've got to love the name. He's the only "Thaddeus" in the league, and the guy will do anything you ask of him. I'm just waiting for the Sixers to ask him to score, because he's got a great shooting touch and can take his man inside or outside. Young will be a cross between Rudy Gay and Tayshaun Prince.

SW:  Another relatively young player who has quickly become one of this team's veterans is 24-year-old budding star Andre Iguodala.  What is the most underrated part of AI2's game?

JB:  I would have to say his passing ability. He's such an unselfish player that it works against him with all the people who want him to be the go-to guy. To pinpoint one area of his game is to leave out his greatest strength in being an all-around player. He rebounds, defends, scores, passes and handles the rock.

SW:  As I discussed in my column this morning, the true test of the Sixers' fortitude is likely to come in the back half of March. Of their 11 games for the rest of the month, eight will come against Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Phoenix, Orlando, San Antonio and Denver.  What do you expect from the Sixers for the rest of the month?

JB:  I would expect them to continue to play above-.500 ball. The Spurs game is at home, and while I wouldn't expect a win, I don't expect a blowout by any means. With games at Boston, at Detroit, at Orlando and at Cleveland - these games will be treated as playoff atmospheres by a Sixers team that expects to face one of those four teams in the first round of the playoffs.

SW:  I have to admit, I'm still in shock that we're actually talking about the postseason for your boys from the City of Brotherly Love. But as long as we are, who would be the most favorable match-up for the Sixers in the first round?

JB:  I want no parts of Detroit. The Pistons have owned the Sixers since Larry Brown jumped town. The Cavs would be a good matchup for the Sixers, with Iguodala playing his best games against LeBron James. I wouldn't mind seeing that. Dwight Howard has wreaked havoc on the Sixers, although I sense that the Sixers are beginning to solve them with Thaddeus Young helping out on Turkoglu and Lewis. They actually played the Magic three times in February, finally taking the last matchup on Feb. 27. But the team I really want to see -- call me crazy -- is Boston. With both the Celtics and Sixers getting back to the playoffs this year, it would be a great story to renew the old rivalry and go to battle in a playoff series. I would take the great teams of the '80s over any team this year as an NBA champion.

SW:  With no trips to the playoffs since 2005, the Sixers haven't exactly been setting Pennsylvania on fire over the past few years. Furthermore, with the Phillies beginning to get legitimately competitive (NL East champs in 2007) again and the Eagles always causing their own brand of drama, Philadelphia has spent the last few seasons becoming more of a baseball-football town than ever before. Now that the Sixers are suddenly hot again, what is the feeling around town about this team these days? Are folks hopping on the bandwagon yet, or is there still a ways to go?

JB:  Folks are slow to get on board. The team is still in rebuilding mode, so to do that while also being in playoff position is a bit baffling. Welcome to the Eastern Conference, I guess. With Andre Iguodala heading into free agency this summer and Andre Miller surviving the trade deadline, fans are a little leery to make a commitment when they aren't sure what the commitment level is from the organization. Once they see the commitment to winning (retaining Miller and Iguodala, bringing in a power forward this summer like Elton Brand), you'll see fans jump on board.

SW:  Got a score prediction for tonight's contest?

JB:  I would love to say that the Sixers stay hot and knock off the Celtics, but I see them getting win number 50 here. Ray Allen should come out firing and have a big game. It should be a great game and hopefully a great learning experience for the upstart Sixers come playoff time.

Thanks to Jon for taking the time to chat and provide us such thorough answers, and here's hoping his prediction for tonight's contest is right on the money!