2012 NBA Playoffs Primer: The Philadelphia 76ers, A Kingdom On Quicksand

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(Steve von Horn is a writer at the obscenely good BrewHoop and SBNation. Today he begins a series of playoff previews primed around ye old metrics (COUNT THE RINGZ). He’s got that ol’ HP style and a good mind for TEH METRIX that I thought would fit in nicely here. Welcome him as you would any Bucks fan, with a respectful confusion.- Ed.)


The Philadelphia 76ers are the most interesting team in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, but that’s not necessarily a compliment. They’ve eschewed the superstar model with a quiet gusto, but it has always seemed like a reluctant route in Philly. Early success in the 2011-12 season deadened Andre Iguodala trade deadline rumors for the first time in what feels like forever, but it would be quite a stretch to call him the clear-cut star of a squad led in scoring by its sixth man (Lou Williams) and most famous for its bench (the Night Shift).

It feels wrong to nit-pick a team that has ranked among the top-5 in efficiency differential (pace-adjusted) and margin of victory for the entire season, but there’s a reason Sixers are fading down the stretch. It’s likely the same reason why Philly is 11-18 against +.500 teams and the only team in the league yet to win (a) when their opponent scores 100+ points (0-7) or (b) any game decided by three points or less (0-4). While some might see balanced scoring and superior depth where others lament the absence of a superstar, everyone who takes a hard look at the Sixers has to spend a lot of time thinking about long two-point shots.

The long-two carries all sorts of baggage in NBA analysis, but the most divisive point — that taking long jumpshots is somehow a sign of being ‘soft’ — has no place in this discussion. You should abandon any such connection before reading on. The point being drilled home here is that mid-range jumpshots are among the most inefficient attempts in basketball and represent a serious limiting factor on offensive efficiency. It would be easy to just say ‘a team should ever take long twos’ and turn this story into some self-aggrandizing stand against the two-point jumpshot, but in the real world that class of shot is a necessary part of every NBA offense. Long-twos always happen, so it’s the rate of occurrence that really matters.

The theory behind limiting such shot on offense and forcing more of them on defense isn’t controversial at all. The goal is to turn possessions into points better than the opponent, and because shooting percentages drop the farther you move away from the rim, it makes perfect sense to that a two-point attempt from three feet is inherently a better than a two-point attempt from 15 feet. Both shots are worth the same amount of points, but the longer one goes in a lot less. Distance is the enemy of efficiency right up to the line on the floor where the rules award the offense an extra point for a made basket — the three-point line. To illustrate the logic of the concept, here is a breakdown of league-wide shooting averages from various floor segments normalized using eFG% on threes (information via NBA.com/Stats):

There’s significant collateral damage associated with jump shots as well. First of all, it’s hard to consistently earn free throw attempts, which are supposed to be, at a minimum, the safety net for any offense struggling to find the bottom of net — because defenders rarely foul players that catapult pull ups and spot ups from the perimeter. The second problem is that the in between shots are the least likely to be recovered as an offensive rebound, which further compounds the inefficiency. At the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Rajiv Maheswaran, Yu-Han Chang, Aaron Henehan and Samantha Danesis presented a wonderful research paper on how rebounding is affected by shot location, and Hardwood Paroxysm’s own Jared Dubin summed up the findings like this:

“According to their research, rebounds collected within two feet of the basket have a 40 percent chance of being an offensive rebound. The percentage chance that the rebound will be offensive drops down to 22 percent between 2 and 10 feet from the basket. Once the ball moves farther outside that range, however, the chance that the rebound will be offensive starts to rise back up, passing the 40 percent plateau again when the ball gets 22 to 26 feet from the basket upon being officially rebounded. As detailed by the researchers, this generally aligns with the expectation that most offensive rebounds are grabbed very close to the hoop (such as tip-ins) or are long rebounds.”

The only thing more stunning than the comprehensive weight of this evidence is how it applies to the Sixers. Let me explain.

The Kingdom. Philadelphia’s defense isn’t just good, it’s great. For all the attention paid to Tom Thibodeau on the Chicago Bulls for their defensive prowess, the fact remains that Doug Collins has quietly turned the Sixers into the NBA’s top defense. Nothing about their dominance is hidden in the shadows either. Philly plays the same slow-paced, physical brand of defense as the Bulls (they rank No. 30 and No. 29 in pace, respectively), and can match Chicago in every relevant defensive category.

Without a name-brand premier interior defender to anchor the paint, Philadelphia shuts opposing offenses down. According to Hoopdata.com, they allow the fewest points per contest in the NBA (87.8) and own the top mark in defensive efficiency (94.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) as well. If you’d like to take a look back, they were this good in January, February and March, too.

Here’s how they’ve done it. Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday cut off premium angles for penetration with their collective length and quickness, while Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen and (sometimes) Thaddeus Young work hard to push opposing big men off the block and out of the paint on post plays. When these defensive dynamics combine on pick-and-roll plays, the Sixers particularly shine. According to mySynergySports.com, Philadelphia is the fourth-best team in the NBA at defending pick-and-roll ball handlers (0.74 points per possession allowed), and the third-best at shutting down the roll man (0.89 ppp).

The whole defensive system works in harmony, and the network of carefully timely rotations and strategically surrendered soft spots achieves something close to perfection in the points prevention department. Doug Collins opened up to John Finger of CSN Philly about the core tenets of his defensive philosophy in January and he sounded like genius at the time.

“We don’t feel like contested two-point field goals will beat you. At the end of the day you’ll get beat in the paint, you’ll get beat with fast breaks and you’ll get beat behind the three-point line, but we just don’t feel like teams are going to beat you making contested two-point shots,” Collins explained. “Our whole philosophy is to try and make those teams make those shots against us. Sometimes it looks like, ‘Man, that guy is really open. Why didn’t someone rotate to him?’ Well, we’d much rather give a guy a long two rather than rotate over so they can make a pass to a guy for an open three.” 

Collins wasn’t just spouting off coach-speak, because the theory translates well to the court. An average NBA team takes exactly one-third of its shots from the 10-23 foot range, but the Sixers’ defense forces opponents into hoisting a league-high 39.1 percent of shots from that same distance (via Hoopdata.com). Long jumpers mean long odds on long-term success, so to borrow a line from The A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

The Quicksand. When Doug Collins confidently declares “we don’t feel like contested two-point field goals will beat you,” it sounds sincere. Heck, it even looks sincere if the focus remains on the defensive numbers. Unfortunately for Doug and the 76ers, there are two equally-weighted sides of the coin in basketball.

Philadelphia’s defensive unit would absolutely love to play against their offense. That’s the easiest way to put it. Guess which team takes the highest percentage of shots from the 10-23 foot range on offense. Okay, it’s actually the Charlotte Bobcats at 43.7 percent, but the Philadelphia 76ers devote the second-highest percentage of their offense to long twos (43.4 percent). All of the other collateral trends discussed above follow right in line. They are No. 17 in offensive efficiency, No. 26 in Offensive Rebound Rate and dead last in Free Throw Rate. That’s simply not how a successful playoff team runs its offense.

What are some possible solutions for the Sixers as they prepare for the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Here are a couple suggestions, and they should be treated like energy alternatives to fossil fuel, meaning no single option is the panacea, but every option offers the chance for incremental improvement:

1. Doug Collins should take the time to listen to…himself. Doug’s quote from above lays out the simple blueprint for better success on offense: “At the end of the day you’ll get beat in the paint, you’ll get beat with fast breaks and you’ll get beat behind the three-point line, but we just don’t feel like teams are going to beat you making contested two-point shots.” I wholeheartedly agree.

As Zach Lowe of SI.com has noted, Collins likes to run a popular set called “horns,” where an entry pass to a big man on either elbow initiates the offensive movement while the wings typically set a series of screens along the baseline and beyond the arc. Elton Brand is a nice player, but by consistently putting the ball into his hands along the free throw line extended, the offense is primed to settle for two-point looks more often. Consider this: the only players in the league who have attempted more shots than Elton Brand from 10-15 feet this season are Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki (via Hoopdata.com).

The problem for Collins is that the primary ball handlers on the perimeter have struggled to produce in traditional pick-and-roll sets. According to mySynergySports.com, Jrue Holiday ranks 27th in isolation scoring, but just 81st overall as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Iguodala (102nd in PnR) and Evan Turner (109th) suffer from the same deficiency. Lou Williams seems like the perfect man for the job, as he ranks No. 8 overall in the NBA as a pick-and-roll ball handler (0.98 ppp), so perhaps Collins can find the right back-court pairing to get Lou on the court and change the complexion of the offense for the better.

2. Get out in transition more often. In theory, it makes perfect sense for the Sixers to get out into the open floor more often. Holiday, Iguodala, Young, Williams and even Turner are good enough athletes to thrive in transition, and the defense is designed to force long jumpshots that get snagged by the defense at a high rate than any other attempt on the floor. Clean the glass and run! 

The perfect way to bring home the point of this entire article is with the following information (again according to mySynergySports.com) : Holiday, Iguodala, Turner and Williams all rank 112th or worse in transition efficiency, but even Jrue’s No. 193 mark (1.02 ppp) is still higher than Lou Williams 8th-overall PnR efficiency (0.98 ppp).

In other words, running more often certainly won’t hurt the offense. It’s not a coincidence that the league’s fastest team — George Karl’s Denver Nuggets — hold elite ranks for points in the paint and offensive efficiency. In fact, the Nuggets have almost made more shots in the restricted area (1162) than the Sixers have even attempted (1209) at the rim (information via NBA.com/Stats).

3.  Get a bit more creative with lineups to avoid overwhelming long-two tendencies. Aside from the suggestion to play Lou Williams more often just to increase his raw volume of pick-and-roll plays, there are a few other small adjustments that can be made.

Looking at three-man combinations among the 30 most-used lineups for the 76ers, it’s apparent that Jodie Meeks needs to be separated from Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday.

Conclusions: A Kingdom On Quicksand. After starting the season 20-10 and jumping out to a big lead Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, the Philadelphia 76ers hit the wall and now find themselves in a tight race for the division crown with the Boston Celtics. The Atlantic Division title could mean the difference between a winnable first round matchup against the Indiana Pacers/Atlanta Hawks and a dubious pairing against the Miami Heat/Chicago Bulls. If you get the feeling that the Sixers are sinking, it’s because they are.Maybe Lou Williams creates better opportunities for Meeks beyond the three-point line by breaking down the defense in PnR, or maybe defenders hedge picks differently with Brand and Holiday on the floor and deny Meeks proper openings for premium catch-and-shoot looks, but the key is that Collins could make small tweaks like this one to help the offense get back on track.

They’ve built a kingdom on the long-two point shot, which is something that worked well enough against the bad teams front-loaded into their schedule, but it’s not an effective way to beat quality opponents that are good enough to avoid the shots on offense and talented enough on defense to capitalize on Philly’s systemic mistakes. Keep in mind that Philly is just 11-18 against +.500 teams and 2-19 when trailing after the third quarter.

Undisciplined teams like the Charlotte Bobcats, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers are willing patsies in Doug Collins’ defense-oriented plan, but those teams won’t be in the playoff bracket. When compared to the NBA at-large, Philadelphia often looks like the smart team in the room. On most nights, Collins can simply say “we don’t feel like contested two-point field goals will beat you,” and still sound like a genius. However, the landscape is starting to change, and when compared to well-refined teams like the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic, the Sixers are suddenly the dummies taking all of the long twos and sinking into oblivion. They’ve slipped into the quicksand of inefficiency as better teams chip away at their defensive dominance and exploit their offensive addiction to sub-optimal attempts.  We are at the point where everything sounds great, but Philadelphia fans are justified in asking: “where is King Collins when you really need him?”

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