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A Glimmer of Hope

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Yesterday's Pressing Questions thread was dominated by a discussion of the positive vs. negative outlook on the upcoming Sixers season. I was, and remain, in the negative camp, mainly because I don't see how the bigs can compete on the defensive end, nor on the glass. When you look at league-wide results from last season, however, it does seem as though it's possible.

The Oklahoma City Thunder finished the 09-10 season with a defensive efficiency rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 104.6, good for 9th in the league. Here's a look at the bigs they used, and the minutes each played, and that players defensive rebounding rate in parens:

  • Jeff Green: 3,043 min. (13.9% DRR)
  • Nick Collison: 1,557 min. (16.7% DRR)
  • Nenad Krstic: 1,741 min. (16.0% DRR)
  • Serge Ibaka: 1,323 min. (21.9% DRR)
  • DJ White: 102 min. (14.2% DRR)
  • Eton Thomas: 321 min. (16% DRR)
  • BJ Mullens: 54 min. (14.5% DRR)

The Thunder were 18th in the league in defensive rebounding rate, which actually seems like an exceptionally high number considering Ibaka was the only capable rebounder among their front court rotation, and he only played 1,323 minutes. Durant (17.9% at SF), Sefolosha (14.8% at SG) and Westbrook (10.3% at PG) all picked up some of the defensive rebounding slack, but not enough to make OKC even an average rebounding team.

The Sixers could use this exact same model to mitigate their defensive rebounding woes. Iguodala had a very impressive 16.8% last year from SG (26% of his minutes were played at the two) and SF. Jrue's DRR was 9.1% last season. Turner was an excellent rebounder from the perimeter in college, so there's no reason to believe he couldn't contribute as much as Sefolosha this season. Brand, Hawes, Thad and Smith all pretty much fall in line with OKC's front court, minus Ibaka. Speights wasn't quite as good as Serge, but he was in the ballpark.

Defensive rebounding, however, is only part of the battle and the key to OKC's defense wasn't a gang approach to defensive rebounding, it was how they overcame being a below-average defensive rebounding team. Saying the Sixers have a chance of matching the poor rebounding OKC demonstrated last season doesn't mean a whole lot.

The question then becomes, how did OKC succeed on the defensive end without cleaning up the defensive glass? The answer isn't obvious. From watching them, I'd say Sefolosha and Westbrook are both plus defenders on the perimeter. According to 82games.com, it was really Durant and Sefolosha who excelled in shutting down their men, no other regular held his man to less than average production. Their big men were all below average. From a cursory look at player performance, they really shouldn't have been a good defensive team, let alone top ten. You have to take a closer look to figure out how they did it, what they excelled at.

Four statistical categories tell the story. (1) Blocks. Ibaka is really their only bonafide shot blocker, but they got contributions from several players. Enough to lead the league in blocks per game. (2) Three-point percentage allowed. They held opponents to only 34% from distance, good for third in the league. (3) Overall field goal percentage. They allowed 44.8% from the field, 7th in the league. (4) They made defensive plays. HoopData defines defensive plays as blocks, steals and charges drawn. OKC averaged 15.8 defensive plays per game, best in the league.

Even after looking all these numbers up, it's still hard to quantify what the Thunder did this past season, let alone hope the Sixers can replicate it. The Sixers were just behind the Thunder in two of the four categories listed above last season, blocks and defensive plays. Unfortunately, their best (and possibly only) shot blocker is gone now. Even with Dalembert, they were a worse defensive rebounding team than the Thunder. In his absence, it's going to be extremely hard to simply match OKC's production in that area, which is nothing to write home about.

In the other two categories, field goal percentage allowed and three-point percentage allowed, the Sixers were positively dreadful last season. This is where Doug Collins is going to earn his money, in my opinion. Eddie Jordan was possibly the worst defensive coach I've ever seen. You can expect an uptick, possibly a dramatic uptick in those two categories. Less switching, better defensive personnel on the floor (arguably, considering they're never going to have an able bodied defender at the five), accounting for shooters on the perimeter. I can definitely see a drastic improvement in both of these categories, but will they jump from #21 (FG% against) and #30 (3PT% against) into the top ten? I don't see that happening.

The positive to take out of this is that a team with similar personnel was able to not only compete defensively, but hang their hat on their defense last season. The downside is that the Thunder's performance last season seems to be more of an aberration than a model to follow.

Here's my main concern, though. Last season, we had the makings of a fine defensive team and a coach who had no idea what to do with it. This season, we've got a coach who can teach defense, but he doesn't have the pieces to make it work.

Thoughts in the comments, as usual.

 
by Brian on Jun 26 2010
Tags: Basketball | Defense | Offseason | Oklahoma City Thunder | Sixers |