Friday, February 10, 2012

Why do the 76ers have the 4th-best Win % in the NBA?

I know a lot about the NBA. Too much, some would say. I know that Brandon Jennings of YOUR…Milwaukee Bucks shooting 44% this year is way higher than his career average. I know that Portland’s Luke Babbit was traded to the Timberwolves for Martell Webster in 2009. I know that Chandler Parsons of YOUR…Houston Rockets is an extremely versatile small forward, capable of shooting, passing and rebounding with equal proficiency.

YOUR…2011-2012 Philadelphia 76ers have the 4th best winning percentage in the league. They only trail Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls and LeBron James’, Dwyane Wade’s and Chris Bosh’s Miami Heat. The red, white and blue juggernaut from eastern Pennsylvania is here, with perennial All-Stars Spencer Hawes, Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday and Jodie Meeks leading the way. Wait...who are these guys?

Collins in his playing days.
Somehow, some way, the Philadelphia 76ers are dominating one team after the next, with home wins over Indiana, Atlanta Orlando, Chicago and the Lakers, and roadies over Atlanta and Phoenix. They are doing this with newly-minted All-Star Andre Iguodala playing below his career averages offensively, and with Lou Williams as their leading 15.5 points a game. Spencer Hawes leads the team in rebounds with 8.3 per contest, and Iguodala is the top assist man, at 5.2 a game...a half dime more than point guard Jrue Holiday. It's a team filled with nobodies and has-beens. The starting lineup would make even the casual NBA fan shrug, and the program-director at ESPN turn the page faster than a WNBA Conference Final. The NBA has always been a league driven by the superstar, and rightfully so; it always seems that the barometer of a team's success will thrive or wane at the whims of a LeBron, a Kobe, a Michael or a Magic. Without a superstar or even a certifiable All-Star, how are the Sixers doing this? In a nutshell, it's because coach Doug Collins has gotten all of his players to play to the top of his limited potential.

Looking at their career averages, starters Jodie Meeks, Jrue Holiday and Spencer Hawes and rotation players Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner are all having the best seasons of their young professional lives. Only Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand (who hasn't played at an All-Star level since suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2007) are playing below established career numbers.

Digging deeper into who each individual player is, and what skill set he has, it's easy to see that what these players all have in common. Coach Doug Collins has discovered what exactly each man on his squad does best, and has found a way to harness that particular talent.

For example, Jodie Meeks is a shooter and a scorer. During his time at a pre-Coach Calipari University of Kentucky, Meeks was the Wildcats' number one offensive option. He was free to take the ball and shoot where he wanted - just like any talented college 2-guard. But in the NBA, defenses closed in on him, and at 6-4, Meeks found it more difficult to find his shot.

Doug Collins recognized Meeks' strengths and shortcomings, and distilled what exactly would make him an effective NBA player. And what would make him an effective player, was to be the designated shooter from distance. Meeks routinely and lithely moves around the perimeter like a squirrel on a telephone wire, ready to catch and shoot passes from penetrators Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday. He leads the Sixers with 115 3-pointers attempted, which accounts for about 64% of his total shots taken for the season. To put that in perspective, not even famed three-point assassin Ray Allen shoots that high of a percentage of three point shots in his field goal attempts (46%). Luckily for Meeks, Collins and the Sixers, Meeks his hitting on 44% from beyond the arc.

Meeks is just one example though of how Coach Collins is becoming a MacGuyver to his group of Sixer inanimate objects and turning them into a full-automated weapon. Knowing that Jrue Holiday is not yet (or perhaps not ever going to be) the floor general that he needs, he often has Iguodala, a gifted passer, set up the offense at the top of the key. This leaves Holiday open as a shooter, a skill which he is much more adept at. In turn, Iguodala's assists per game lead the team and Holiday's three point shooting averages is at a career-high level. Evan Turner, the 2nd pick in the 2010 draft, struggled his first year in Philly and played far below the perhaps unfair ceiling set in front of him. Collins recognized that despite the promise of NBA-readiness attached to a 2nd overall pick, and especially the expectation of offensive production that is supposed to come from a shooting guard, Turner wasn't quite there yet. So Doug put him on the second unit, next to scoring machine Lou Williams. Playing in the same rotation as Williams, the notion of Turner as a devastating offensive option has fallen by the wayside, as the 6-6 guard can now focus on rebounding, defending and lastly, developing his shot that so many thought would come naturally to him in the league.

While those are all small, but powerful examples of how Doug Collins is getting the most talent out of otherwise pedestrian ballers, what is most impressive about the coach and his team is how he's gotten them to all buy into his system and defend. Simply put, they have the best defense in the league.

Defense wins championships. It might not win this particular Sixers team a title, but the saying still stands. The Sixers rank in the top five in these defense-oriented categories: points allowed, field goal percentage allowed, three-point field goal percentage, opponents points per shot and defensive efficiency. Though they routinely will get pushed around in the paint, their perimeter defense features some of the most devastating lockdown wingmen in the game. At 6-3, 6-7 and 6-8, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala customarily have the length and strength advantage over anyone in front of them. They play smart, heady basketball, evidenced by their killer D, and yet they commit the 3rd least amount of fouls in the league.

The reason why the Sixers are winning is pretty simple - they play fundamentally sound basketball. They have 15 men on the squad and no one is really more important than the other. Doug Collins has found the best role for each player, and they all seem to do whatever is asked of them to perfection. They scrap on defense, stay within themselves and do not often over-reach in regards to making silly fouls and allowing the other team to shoot free throws (they allow the 4th least amount of attempts per game). Collins has gotten them to make great decisions with the ball, as evidenced by their league leading assist to turnover ratio (2.1 per game - Chicago distantly follows them at 1.6). Any man with the ball hits the open shooter, and he's rewarded with an assist. Simple. This is what basketball should be. I'm sure that every coach in the league (well...almost every coach) preaches the same hoop ideals that your coach did in grade school all the way up to the college level - take care of the ball, rebound, defend, hustle and never give up on any possession. If Doug Collins was doing his job any better, then he'd have to legally chance his name to Gene Hackman. This Sixers team should have every game recorded and shown to high school squads across the country. They are the epitome of team ball, and how much a group of limited players can achieve if they simply adhere to the fundamentals of the game.

That all being said, this is the best they can be. Nearly every guy on that squad is maxing out his ability. Can Spencer Hawes be better than this? Can Lou Williams be better than this? Is this everything you ever thought Jrue Holiday would be? The answer is yes, yes and yes. The NBA is still a star-driven league. It's the superstar that can drag the bloated corpse of a team with mortal rotation players past the tough, physical defenses that come along with a playoff basketball. When the focus is there from teams with better overall talent, the probability is that opposing teams will manage to do what the Sixers have done over a 66-game stretch - focus, scrap, hustle and defend. Make good decisions with the rock and max out everyone's potential. When other teams find a way to do what the Sixers have done, and how Doug Collins is doing it, the advantage that Philly has worked so hard to achieve will turn into just another nice story. They'll start to face teams with more proficient front court scoring in the form of Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer, who will abuse the undersized trio of Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand and Nikola Vucevic. The Sixers' early schedule has been tremendously easy, with 7 games against the Pistons, Hornets, Bobcats and Wizards, the four worst teams in the league. Playing against Miami, Chicago or even Orlando and Atlanta won't be nearly as easy.

This Sixers team has been a monument to team basketball. They should get much more attention nationally for what they've done so far. But unfortunately, this is an untenable model going forward in today's NBA. Without a star to push them over the top, they might win a playoff series, but will just stay fodder for the Rose, LeBron or Wade driven teams in the East. Until then, I'll just watch Lou Williams light it up...for 15 points a game.

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