Fixing the Sixers

May 23, 2010

Last week, the Philadelphia 76ers received some good fortune as they won the lottery for the 2nd pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Good fortune is not something the 76ers have had much of lately.

Two seasons ago, the Sixers looked like a team on the rise.  They had a  young core of players and an exciting run-and-gun style.  Fueled by their transition game, the Sixers made the playoffs for two consecutive years.  According to General Manager Ed Stefanski, the team was coming along according to plan and was on its way towards a title.

Last season, things didn’t seem to go according to any plan whatsoever as the Sixers suffered through a miserable 27-55 season.

Part of the problem has been Stefanski’s insistence in making the Sixers into a halfcourt-based team.  To a point, I understand the logic.  In 2007-2008, the Sixers lost in the first round of the playoffs because once the pace of the game slowed in the playoffs (which it almost always does), their transition offense was much less effective.  Teams that are successful in the playoffs generally need to have an effective halfcourt offense, and the Sixers did not.  They didn’t have a strong low post presence, they didn’t shoot well from outside, and they didn’t have a go-to scorer.

To counter this, Stefanski signed power forward Elton Brand.  This signing deserves a blog of it’s own, but I won’t rip the move too much because I thought it was a good idea at the time

Unfortunately, Brand wasn’t fully recovered from an achilles tendon injury, and the Sixers had trouble integrating his  game into their fastbreaking style.  When Brand was on the court, they seemed determined to work him into the offense to the detriment of the other players.  This ceased to be an issue halfway throughout the season when Brand suffered another injury and in his absence, the Sixers reverted to their transition game and qualified for the playoffs. 

Stefanski was still determined to make the Sixers into more of a halfcourt-based team.  The team needed a new coach, and Stefanski hired his old friend Eddie Jordan. Jordan had moderate success in Washington a few years earlier, but most people didn’t think this was a good choice.  Jordan was known for running the Princeton style offense, and said that he planned to utilize it in Philadelphia.  However, the Sixers’ personnel didn’t seem to be a good fit for the Princeton offense.

Another key decision was allowing point guard Andre Miller to leave as a free agent.  Already burdened with a few high salaries, they didn’t want to pay a lot of money to Miller who they didn’t see as part of their long term future, and who they claimed was on a slow decline.  Instead, they went with former backup Lou Williams.  While not a bad player, he doesn’t appear to be a true point guard which is one thing that the Princeton offense requires to be effective. 

The ensuing season was a disaster.  The Princeton offense never seemed to click with the team, and eventually it was scrapped.  In emphasizing his new offense, Jordan seemed to neglect worrying about defense, and the team suffered in that area as well. 

Worse, the Sixers had lost their fastbreaking identity which is what had made the team successful in the first place.  They rarely looked to run, and without Miller leading them, they weren’t very good at it when they did.  One key to a good transition game is having a point guard who can control the offense.  The Suns are so effective in transition because Steve Nash is running things.  While Miller might not be a elite point guard, he was very good at running the fast break, and the Sixers definitely missed him.

All of the young players who had seemed so promising took a step backwards:  Andre Iguodala proved that he can’t be the focal point of an offense, and doesn’t shoot well enough to play guard; Thaddeus Young’s shot abandoned him, and he rebounded poorly; Lou Williams played decently, but was not a successful point guard; Mareese Speights showed no inclination to play defense.

Elton Brand might have been the biggest disappointment of all.  His play was inconsistent (somewhat understandable coming off two straight injury shortened seasons) but Jordan’s treatment of him didn’t seem to help him find a rythym either.  Sometimes he was a starter.  Sometimes he came off the bench.  Sometimes he was their go-to guy in the 4th quarter.  Other times, he didn’t play in the 4th.  And while he showed occassional flashes of his old ability, he certainly was far from a star.  His frustration with his play and the coach became obvious as the season progressed.

Towards season end, as it became clear that the team was going nowhere and that Jordan was a lame duck, the players simply tuned him out.

To replace Jordan, the Sixers hired Doug Collins.  Collins is an experienced NBA coach, and is known as a disciplinarian, which is probably what the team needs.

So now that they have their coach in place, what can be done to get the Sixers back on track? 

To start, Collins has to set up a steady rotation.  Part of the problem with last year’s team was that players often didn’t know what their roles were.  Guys would go from riding the bench for weeks at a time to then playing heavy minutes in the fourth quarter without much explanation.  It often seemed that Jordan simply tried every combination in hopes that something would work.

Here would be my rotation:

At point guard, last year’s first round draft pick Jrue Holiday was one of the bright spots of the past season.  While he might not be a star, he looked to be a viable NBA starter, and a piece that you can build with.

With the #2 pick in the draft, the Sixers are expected to draft shooting guard Evan Turner.  Turner was one of the best players in college basketball, and should be a good fit at shooting guard.  Some say that his game is too similar to Iguodala’s, but from what I’ve read, Turner has more of a guard’s mentality than Iguodala.

At small forward, I would start Iguodala.  Once considered a rising star in the league, he has suffered a little bit in the past two seasons serving as the team’s offensive focal point.  And while he isn’t someone you can build an offense around, he is a very talented player, contributing in all areas of the game.  If he can stay at his natural small forward position, that should help him tremendously.

Many people want to trade him because of his large contract.  They feel that he is paid like a top star when really he is best suited to be a secondary player.  While this may be a burden on the Sixers’ current salary cap, it’s not like they were going to be pursuing any top free agents anyway, so I’m not too concerned for now.

At power forward, they have to go with Brand.  Despite probably no longer being the force that he was a few seasons ago, he is their most skilled low post player.  With his contract, there’s no way to get rid of him anyway, so they might as well try to utilize him.  And now that he is supposedly fully recovered from his injuries, he  will hopefully play better.

At center, I suppose that Samuel Dalembert is their best option.  Sammy has been the target of Sixers’ fans scorn due to his ridiculous contract (notice a trend?) and inconsistent play.  However, he’s the team’s only real defensive and shot blocking presence at a power position, so he does serve a purpose.

That lineup should be solid defensively.  Holiday looked like he was capable of defending most point guards last year, and Iguodala has shown the ability to be an excellent perimeter defender.  Dalembert – when not in foul trouble – can anchor the interior defense, and Turner was known as a solid defensive player in college.  The only weakness is Brand, and there is mild hope that since he was a decent defender pre-injury that he can regain that form.

As for the bench…

I’m still a fan of Lou Williams if used as a sixth man off the bench.  He can come in the game and play either guard position and provide bursts of offense.  Because he’s a “tweener” guard, you wouldn’t want him as a long term solution at either guard position, but as a backup, he should be an asset.

I’d also keep Jason Kapono in the rotation.  He’s the only Sixer who can actually shoot consistently well from the outside.  He’s somewhat limited in that he can’t create his own shot, and he isn’t a good defender, but it’s nice to be able to provide at least an outside threat to keep defenses honest.  He was buried on the Sixers bench for most of last season, but played well when given the chance down the stretch.

The first big man off the bench should be Mareese Speights.  As a rookie two seasons ago, Speights looked like a future star with scoring ability.  Last year, hampered by injuries and inconsistent playing time, his game suffered.  If he can improve his effort on the defensive end, he could be a future starter.

The biggest problem with bringing those three off the bench is that while they may add offensive capability, they are all defensive liabilities.  If this proves to be too much of a problem, the Sixers can always use either guard Willie Green or swingman Rodney Carney.  They have both been effective players over short periods of time in the past.

That should be the main rotation for next season which means that the odd man out is Thaddeus Young.  Two years ago, he looked like a steal of a Sixers draft pick.  Last year it became clear that he is too much of a “tweener” forward.  He has moved between both small and power forward for the past two seasons, and has done some good things at both positions, but has also shown some major weaknesses.  He isn’t quick enough to defend most small forwards, and doesn’t really shoot well enough either.  He doesn’t rebound or have the bulk needed to play power forward.

Basically, it comes down to whether they’re better off with Iguodala or Young.  While Young is younger and cheaper, Iguodala is a better fit at small forward and brings more to the table.  With his youth and price tag, Young should be a tradeable asset for the Sixers. 

Based on that rotation, what should the Sixers game plan be?

I would try to get back to the transition game that was so successful two years ago.  They need to look to run at every opportunity, since that is what their personnel is best suited for.  Hopefully Holiday continues to improve and can begin to run things as effectively as Miller once did.

Some may say that Brand’s presence eliminates the Sixers ability to run since he’s not a fast player and clogs up the middle.  But he shouldn’t need to slow them down.  After all, fast breaks usually only involve two or three players.  And if he can improve at throwing outlet passes, he might actually become an asset for their transition game.  And as they’ve learned, the fastbreak isn’t always going to be there.  When a running opportunity is not available, then they should run the offense through Brand (or Speights) in the post.

The team clearly needs some more pieces, and for future success, they’ll need their young players to develop.  But for the upcoming season, if the Sixers go with the rotation and philosophy I have laid out, they can at least get back to the playoffs, and possibly make even advance.


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