76ers are the surprise of the East in the NBA 76ers are the surprise of the East in the NBA
When the lockout-delayed NBA season finally began, most experts figured the revamped New York Knicks — before everyone had heard of Jeremy Lin —... 76ers are the surprise of the East in the NBA

When the lockout-delayed NBA season finally began, most experts figured the revamped New York Knicks — before everyone had heard of Jeremy Lin — or the aging Boston Celtics would challenge the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

Turns out the Knicks and Celtics have been staring up at the surprising Philadelphia 76ers in the Atlantic Division standings throughout the first half of the shortened, 66-game season.

Despite heading into the All-Star break on a five-game losing streak, the Sixers (20-14) still lead the Atlantic and are fourth in the East, behind the Indiana Pacers, Bulls and Heat. The team’s success, combined with ticket price cuts instituted by the new owners, have boosted attendance and made the Sixers a hot ticket in Philly after years of mediocrity.

76ers attendance is up 11 percent over last season. They’re averaging 16,249 at the Wells Fargo Center, up from 14,751 last season. The new ownership group announced price reductions for more than 8,000 seats back in October, when fan discontent with the NBA was at its height in the dark days of the lockout. The 76ers’ average ticket price is $39.25, according to Team Marketing Report. That’s down more than 4 percent from last year, well below the NBA average of $48.48 and nowhere near their East Coast rivals, the Knicks ($117.47) and Celtics ($68.55).

New 76ers chief executive officer and co-owner Adam Aron recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the team is on pace to increase ticket sales by more than 20 percent.

“On thousands of seats each night, our ticket prices will be cut by 50 percent or more,” Aron said when announcing the decreases. “Simply stated, price will not be an obstacle in preventing Philadelphia sports fans from enjoying NBA basketball, in person. Our house is now your house.”

In addition to those cuts, the team is aggressively marketing in-season initiatives such as $10 seats in rows 8-15 of the mezzanine end sections, $59 baseline club level seats for select games and $60 family deals. Some include parking and others $20 vouchers for food or merchandise.

On the secondary market, last week Sixers tickets were eighth on search site SeatGeek.com’s ranking of NBA resale market ticket prices at $70.43.

Philadelphia ticket broker Jake Conaway, general manager of the Wanamaker Ticket Agency, told TicketNews that the Sixers’ quick first-half start has perked up demand.

“It’s certainly been uplifting to see them turn things around,” Conaway said. “Sales have been very good. Some games aren’t going to bring anybody in, like the Nets. Overall, they’ve been a great draw, much better than in recent years.”

The Sixers lead their division despite having only one All-Star, forward Andre Iguodala. Coach Doug Collins’ team is young and deep. Only four players are over 30, including one starter, forward Elton Brand, who is 32. Six players average double figures in scoring, led by guard Lou Williams off the bench at 15.7 points a game.

Philly has won with the league’s No. 1-ranked defense. They’ve held opponents to an NBA-low 87.5 points per game. They began February with eye-opening home victories over the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’ve had a lot of people coming in looking for Sixers tickets,” Conaway said. “In fact, we’ve had more people coming in looking for Sixers tickets than Flyers tickets and that’s a switch.” The Philadelphia Flyers, a perennial playoff contender, are currently fifth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

After making a first-round playoff exit with a .500 team in three of the previous four seasons, the Sixers, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2003, are hoping for a deep postseason run. Their fans haven’t seen one since another over-achieving 76ers team, led by Allen Iverson and coached by Larry Brown, fell to the Lakers in the NBA Finals in 2001.

After hosting All-Star Kevin Durant and the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, March features home games against the Bulls, Celtics (twice), Knicks and Heat. That should test whether Philly’s season continues to surprise the experts.

“It’ll be disappointing if they at least don’t win the Atlantic Division and get some first-round [playoff] home games,” Conaway said. “If they can keep it together into the playoffs, make a long playoff run, the town will be fired up for them again. They can play with anybody.”