At first, they were a curiosity, a team of no names who began the season well. Time passed … and they kept winning. A third of the way into this truncated season, the Philadelphia 76ers are 17-7 and lead the Atlantic Division by three-and-a-half games.
In some ways their success is unorthodox; their leading scorer comes off the bench. Yet they have six players who average at least 10 points per game, and two more over 9.0.
The Sixers are winning not only with balanced scoring, but with youth, the league's best defence and surprising depth. They also have bought in to the high-energy brand of basketball preferred by Doug Collins, the coach.
Most contending teams build around two or three players; the 76ers seem to get significant contributions from 10.
They are winning converts.
"No question, when you think of top teams in the league, you have to think about Philly," said Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade. "They will put a lot of pressure on you and come to play hard every night."
They have benefited from one of the league's easiest early schedules; tougher challenges await. After defeating the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, they were blown out by 20, at home, by the Heat.
The Atlanta Hawks got out to a strong start last season but faded. The 76ers may go that route, but they doubt it.
"I think we have a good young team," Rod Thorn, the Sixers' president, told Sports Illustrated. "We embody a lot of traits you like to see in a team. We play hard. … We can have one of eight guys be our leading scorer. We don't have any bad apples, either, guys who are too selfish, or guys who don't have the team as their first priority."
Lou Williams does not start but leads the 76ers in scoring at 15.1 points per game. The biggest game for any of them this season was when Jodie Meeks scored 26 last month against the Washington Wizards. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James average more than 26 all by themselves.
The key contributors Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Nik Vucevic, Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes are all 23 or younger, yet together they continue to make it work; they lead the league in point differential at 10.25 per game.
The 76ers may yet be a step below the league's elite. But they are a team no one would want to meet in a seven-game play-off series.