Sixers at the Break — Or — “It Was All Good Just a Week Ago”
On February 17th, my Dad and I, both partial 76ers Season Ticket holders since 2000, attended our 6th game of what had been our most memorable season since 2001 when they reached the NBA Finals against the Lakers. The Sixers entered the game at 20-10, coming off a blow-out loss to the Magic in Orlando, but still relishing playing the role of Rocky to its Philadelphia viewers who had suddenly fallen head over heels for the gritty, over achieving squad that would play on national television for the first time in what felt like forever. We sat in the Cure Auto Insurance Bar and discussed ways that you could tell the lifers apart from the newly initiated bandwagon fans as they filed in to the previously secretive, and only area of the Wells Fargo Center that allows entrance a half hour earlier than the admission gates. I tweeted almost two hours before the game that the crowd was absolutely ridiculous and my Dad and I almost wished for the sorry Sixers of years past as the newbies wearing freshly pressed and purchased Lou Williams tees bumped into us from all angles. The energy and passion of the fans in the arena transferred over to the team in the first half and the hot shooting Sixers took a 51-37 lead into the break. At half, we hoped for 100 points at the end of the game so that we could pick up our free Big Mac from McDonald’s the next day. But, as the game concluded, it felt like the Mavs, and the rest of the NBA had figured out the “Secret Sauce” to the Sixers recipe of success so far this season. The 76ers managed only 8 points in the 3rd quarter (3 coming from Lou Williams at the buzzer), 24 total for the half, while allowing just as many to Dirk Nowitzki in a second straight embarrassing loss, 82-75 to the Mavs. It was just one game. But, it was a bad one game. Suddenly a “Dickensian” season of great expectations had become one of tempered expectations.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Sixers. Let’s be honest Sixers fans, at the inception of the season, few of has held lofty expectations for a team that had not won a playoff series since the 2002-2003 season when Larry Brown captained the inevitably sinking ship. I’d be lying if I said that I foresaw the Sixers leading the division by 3 games over the Knicks at the All-Star break. So this year’s version of the Sixers has over achieved, even taking in to account the 5 game losing streak to finish out the first half of the abbreviated NBA schedule. Their 20-14 record this year and 58-42 record since the 3-13 start to last season have the Sixers winning at a 58% winning clip, good enough to correlate into 48 wins over an 82 game season. We’ve seen 7 “coaches” waltz through Philly since that 2003 season, so, uh, yes, I’ll pick up what the 76ers are laying down thus far. Far and away the biggest positive of his year’s team is the stifling defense the hustle heavy squad has displayed. The Sixers lead the league in scoring defense, allowing just 87.5 points per game. They’re extremely aggressive on ball defenders and close out on help defense. They yield hoops on only 42% of their shots (32% from behind the arc), are a top 10 team in forcing steals, and lead the league in assist to turnover ratio. This 76ers defense has created easy baskets in transition and the break at a rate of 15 points per game and is responsible for getting the crowd hyped for a team that has played most of its first half games in the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center. At home, the Sixers have given the famished fans something to chew on, going 13-6, and playing a trademarked brand of Doug Collins ball that allows us into the game and out of our seats to #showyaluv. So, what happened to the team that allowed us to see that the bandwagon wheels were starting to show signs of wear? Let’s perform some diagnostic tests to find out.
Anyone of us that has enjoyed success at work has at some point come to the epiphany that our achievements are usually a result of implementing the simplest of strategies. It is just that type of strategy that Doug Collins has implored his team to utilize in order to cook up a recipe of success. Specifically, D-Up, eliminate turnovers on the offensive side of the ball and create easy opportunities through transition and getting to the line. For a team that lacks a true NBA superstar or shooter, these ingredients are an absolute necessity if the Sixers hope to leave any building with a W. The only problem with a simple plan is that it’s just that; simple. It’s this simplicity that has allowed most of the NBA to determine D.C.’s special brew for the “Secret Sauce” and come up with game plans to keep the Sixers starving offensively as of late.
Through the first 24 games of the season the 76ers averaged 94 points a game. In the last 10, their points per game average has dropped almost 7 points to 87.5 per. Their shooting percentage for the entire year is a little better than average at 45%, making them 18th in the league on the offensive side of the ball. Over the past ten games? They’re down to 41% from the field and their assist rate, a clear indicator of a team’s ability to get easy buckets, is down 2 a game, from 22 to 20. What’s more frustrating to us fans is that during this offensive drought, the defense has continued to shine. Despite the fact that recently Jrue Holliday has looked like he was created by God solely to give opponents the ball back, the team as a whole has not increased their turnover rate over this 10 game stretch either. The reason for the Sixers offensive struggles has been painfully obvious to all. Opposing teams have been able to K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Stupid) by reducing the amount of fast break opportunities for the 76ers by simply focusing on not turning the ball over and forcing them into playing a half court offense that makes them more uncomfortable than an Andy Reid press conference. If you’re a stat geek like PhILLadelph Sports Lifer is, take a look at the Sixers team analysis at 82games.com to get a clearer picture of the team’s half court woes. Almost 71 Sixer’s points per game are accounted for by either shots taken with 15 seconds or more left on the shot clock or at the charity stripe. What this tells us is that 76%, yes, 76% of their offensive output comes off of transition or break plays or by getting to the FT line! Of course, I would be remiss not to place a lot of the blame for the lack of offense in the half court on the loss of Spencer Hawes.
The name Spencer Hawes doesn’t exactly invoke memories of NBA glory days past. However, the 7 footer out of Washington has become the biggest missing link in the evolution of the Sixers offense. We’ve all seen and heard the stats involving Hawes’ presence in the line-up. The 76ers are 12-2 with him on the floor and 8-12 without. While the center certainly isn’t an All-Star, he does possess a certain NBA skill set that fits perfectly within the framework of the Sixer’s offense. When Hawes was contributing regularly, the offense flowed through him in the post or at the elbows. In the post he was efficient at receiving the ball on the block and either making a move to the hoop or forcing the late double and dishing to open perimeter shooters. From the elbows he could face up and shoot with enough consistency to force his defender to be drawn away from the key and extend the defense. In either case, he created easier opportunities in the half court for points beyond the arc or put backs on the offensive boards off of missed shots. The half court offense without Spence is about as efficient as a governmental agency, slowed down by the bureaucracy of one-on-one offense, the inability to pass to the post, run simple pick-&-rolls or avoid traps on the primary ball handler by splitting the double or passing over top of them. This fact became even more disheartening for fans when Hawes was recently placed in a walking boot after returning for just two lackluster performances. At this point of the season, the Sixers have played more games without Hawes in the line-up (20) than with (14), forcing PhILLadelph Sports Lifer to ask the question: What Hawes-less line-up should Collins put on the floor to get the Sixers out of their Philly Phunk?
I’ve asked before why Coach Collins hasn’t experimented more with placing starting units on the floor that included players from the aptly named Night Shift. The starting squad of Holliday, Meeks, Igoudala, Allen, and Brand doesn’t exactly inspire fear in the hearts of the opposition. Recently, Battie has replaced the injury prone E.B. in the line-up, inducing giddiness from the opposition rather than the desired effect D.C. had hoped for. Again examining the stats from 82games.com Top 5 Floor Man Units per 48 minutes, the numbers show that the most effective and offensively efficient line-ups include two key members of the bench. Of the top 5, Top 5 Units, four place Thad Young in the line-up and three position Lou Williams as a clearly superior option to Jodie Meeks. In fact, even including units with Spencer Hawes, Meeks was present in only 1 of the top 7 line-ups. Examining the role of the post player, we find that Elton Brand was involved in only two of the top 5 Hawe-less units with the surprisingly offensively talented Nik Vucevic earning just as many minutes as his elder (and I do mean elder) statesman. As we would expect, Holliday, the only true point guard the Sixers have in the rotation, and Iggy, the most overrated-underrated player in the league (All-Star? Please Stop), are a part of most of the Top 5 Floor Man Units. Flushing these statistics out further, we see further evidence that a new regime may be in order for the 76ers. 82games.com also provides in-depth statistics of “Clutch Stats”. The rankings for these statistics are calculated by including player stats from the 4th quarter of games or overtime with less than 5 minutes left in the game and neither team ahead by more than 5 points. The #1 ranked player in the league? Come on, you knew it wasn’t the Fake A.I. Nope. Lou Williams. If you extrapolate Sweet Lou’s stats from these results over the course of 48 minutes, he would average a plus/minus of +24, 50% shooting percentage, 89% from the line off of 20 attempts per game, 6 boards, 2 dimes, 2 steals, and 56 points per game! Embarrassingly enough, of the 163 players included in the rankings, Iguodala placed 134th, meaning that 82% of the NBA is more effective in the clutch than A.I.9. Can we now stop asking who should take the last shot for the Sixers down the stretch in close games? Maybe the #Night Shift should start working daylight hours.
Looking forward to the second half of the Sixers season, at first glance, the NBA scheduling God’s seemed to have looked unfavorably upon the Sixers. This has led many local Philly pundits to posit that the once promising 76ers season was doomed. After all, the second half of the year is the time when most of the teams in the watered down league stop just collecting game checks and begin to put forth some measure of effort. The Sixers play 32 games after the break, with 18 of these games being played on the road and 10 of these 18 games scheduled for the last month of the season leading up to the playoffs. There is a ray of light however, that should shine upon Sixers fans hoping to recapture the magic present during the unexpected Sixers first half run. Of the 32 final games, 20 are against opponents that currently have records of .500 or below. Even more promising for the Sixers is that of the last 14 games in April that seem to signal the impending end of the Sixers, 10 will be played against these same sub .500 teams. During the first half, the Sixers were able to pad their division lead by beating teams with mediocre or worse records, going 14-3 against these opponents. Barring further injuries, the 76ers should maintain that same level of effectiveness against these middling squads and hold firm against the barrage of games on the road.
If we remember a time prior to the start of this improbable Sixers season we should be able to put our level of expectations in check and finally see the Sixers for what they are. As currently constructed, they are not the Heat and they not the Bulls. They are almost exactly what we expected them to be before the bandwagon started its seldom used engine. They are a team lacking the talent necessary to seriously contend with the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, but still a team with grit, a team with heart and an over achieving team that plays with passion. In essence, they are Philly. Isn’t that why we loved them in the first place?
- Spencer Hawes Injury Update, Sixers President: ‘I Don’t See Any Way He’s Going To Play These Four Games’ (philly.sbnation.com)
- You: Philadelphia 76ers: Grading the Sixers’ Hot Start to 2011-12 (bleacherreport.com)