If you had told me the Sixers would be 10 games over .500 at any point during the 2011-2012 season back in the summer, I would've bet my life on the catalyst being Jrue making a major leap in his third season. Well, they're ten games over, so let's take a look at how much of that has to do with Jrue's development.
If you recall, Statman checked in with a statistical breakdown of where Jrue stood against the other starting point guards in the league over the summer. Definitely check it out if you have a minute.
Getting back to the initial thought for this post. The Sixers have gotten where they are right now, in the simplest terms, by essentially keeping their offense efficiency static while the rest of the league has regressed, and greatly improving their defense. Last season, they finished 17th in the league in points-scored-per-100 possessions with 106.7. This season, they're 7th in the league at 106.2. On the defensive end, they allowed 105.0 last season, good for 7th. This year, they've dropped that number all the way down to 96.1, which leads the league by 0.7 points. League average has dropped by 4.3 points, the Sixers have improved by 8.9 points.
When you boil the numbers down like this, you really wouldn't expect an improvement from Jrue on the offensive end, unless someone else fell off a cliff and his improvement was merely balancing things out, and you'd probably be correct in that assumption. Jrue was basically an average to slightly-below-average point guard on the offensive end last season as a 20-year-old point guard playing in what is quickly becoming a point guard-heavy league. Through 29 games this season, he remains basically average. There's a definitive pattern to his stats, which is somewhat alarming and also somewhat expected given the team's general direction on the offensive end. His assists are down, and so are his turnovers. His jumper is improved, but he's taking more of them. His free throw rate is down, and it was low to begin with. If Jrue keeps playing this game, he's always going to be slightly on either side of being an average offensive point guard. Most of us had higher hopes for him, and he's still only 21, but whatever leap we were hoping for hasn't happened to this point of this season, at least it hasn't happened on the offensive end.
On defense, however, it has happened, and it's happened in a big way. Last season, the Sixers were a better team with Jrue on the floor by about 4.3 points/100 possessions, but the edge was gained on the offensive end. They scored 7.6 points/100p more with him on the floor, but actually allowed 3.3 fewer points/100p when he was on the bench. When you looked at the defensive metrics available from Synergy, he allowed 0.9 points-per-play, 14th among starting PGs and 0.1 better than average. According to 82games.com, his opponent PER (the production of the player he was guarding, with 15.0 supposedly weighted to be average) was 19.0, good for 28th among starting PGs. Essentially, according to that metric, Jrue's opponent average a near All-Star level performance against him for the entire season. Every one of these numbers has taken a dramatic turn this season.
In points-allowed-per-play, from Synergy, Jrue is at 0.72 this year. First among starting PGs (Rondo is second at 0.73, the next closest is Conley at 0.76). When you look at his on/off numbers, the improvement is even more stark. With Jrue on the floor, the Sixers are allowing 92.64 points/100 possessions, with Jrue on the bench, they're allowing 103.06. A difference of 10.42 points (remember, last season they were worse by 3.3 points). There's also another nugget to be gleaned from the on/off stats. Last season, the team was much, much worse offensively when Jrue went to the bench. This year, they's slightly better. 106.33 with Jrue on the floor, 106.42 with Jrue on the bench. So over last season, we're talking about a drop by 2 points for lineups with Jrue in them, and an improvement of nearly 6 points by the units when he's on the bench. And again, it all comes out to the team being essentially on par in offensive efficiency with last year's squad. His opponent PER is 13.7 (though 82games.com's data hasn't been updated in nearly two weeks).
When you look at the numbers, and even just from watching all the games you should've been able to pick this up, the turnaround has been in large part due to a leap Jrue made, it just wasn't the leap we'd been expecting (or maybe hoping for). His offense has remained static, or perhaps regressed a bit in certain areas, while his defense has improved dramatically. His improvement isn't the only catalyst for the team's dramatic improvement on that end of the floor. Thad deserves a lot of credit as well, and some of the credit should go to Jeffrey Kessler, David Stern and Billy Hunter for dragging their feet in the negotiating room. The lockout, limited preseason time and condensed schedule have all contributed to a league-wide drop in offensive efficiency, but the Sixers have improved by almost twice the league-wide dropoff.
As for Jrue's offensive stagnation, Derek Bodner and I touched on this a little bit in our last SixersBeat episode, and Jrue kind of drove the point home in this interview with Tom Moore. Doug Collins has made limiting turnovers the focal point of the team's offense. There's solid math behind it, a 20-foot jumper is worth more points than a turnover on the offensive end, and "live ball" turnovers translate into easy points for the other team in transition. The Sixers are taking care of the ball at a record-setting pace so far this season, and keeping the turnovers low is inflating their offensive efficiency somehwat, while also helping them on the other end of the floor. Earlier in the season, Collins yanked Jrue from a couple of games when he was loose with the ball, and as you heard in the video from Tom Moore, the mantra is for Holiday to avoid trying for the home run play. Just take the bunt single, keep the ball safe, and hustle back on defense, make or miss.
It's simplistic to think this turnover-phobic offensive philosophy is singularly responsible for Jrue's flat year-over-year numbers, but it's equally dense to say it's having no impact. Jrue is playing a safe game at the point. Sometimes that manifests itself in not trying to fit a pass into a tight space to a big man for a dunk, other times it results in a 20-foot jumper off the dribble rather than a drive into traffic that could result in a trip to the line (or a turnover). There's no way to quantify the impact this style of play has on Jrue, but it does have some impact. It's certainly debatable whether or not Jrue would be producing better numbers if he was in a system which gave him more freedom, just like it's debatable whether or not he'd be producing better numbers if he was on a team with less depth. The Sixers not only have nine guys who can score in double figures every night, but they have four guys who regularly hand out five or more assists. It's not a situation that's conducive to creating a "star" which obviously doesn't mean Jrue can't become a star within it, or that he can't do more with the opportunities he's currently getting, but at the same time, this team is winning. They're playing great basketball with him either comfortably fitting into this role, or being pigeon-holed into it, and really that's all that matters.
It's hard to say where Jrue will wind up, and it's even harder to say whether playing in this type of system, surrounded by this type of team will help him reach his ceiling or hold him back from ever taking his game to the next level, whatever that level may be. It's certainly hard to argue against a young point guard learning the value of taking care of the ball. At the same time, what use is vision from a playmaker if he's discouraged from making the tough passes that might lead to a dunk, but could also lead to a turnover? And speaking of those passes that might lead to dunks, how about the passes he does make that turn into missed layups because he's playing with a bevy of bigs who can't finish?
Make no mistake, though, what we've seen from Jrue on the offensive end is disappointing no matter the reasons or excuses for it. With the way his jumper has improved, the way he can pull up off the dribble to drain the jumper from anywhere on the floor, and how he can use his dribble to get in the lane, he absolutely should be able to get more shots at the rim and more trips to the line without turning the ball over. At times, it might be OK to settle for the long two instead of forcing a pass to a big on the inside who may or may not be able to finish, but it's far less acceptable to be settling for those jumpers when the alternative is a drive that may open up a kick for an open three, an easy shot at the rim or a pair of freebies at the line. In the past two games, Jrue has gotten to the line 14 times. That's the trend we need to see continue over the rest of this season. If he's gun shy to make certain passes, fine, but he can't be gun shy about driving. That's on him. And finally, treading water on the offensive end from last year to this year has been an accomplishment considering what's happened across the league, but it can't be the goal. Iguodala is what he is. Lou, Turner, Thad, Brand, they're all doing what they do within their roles, but their roles are limited. Jrue leads the team in minutes, he's got the ball in his hands more often than not and he's got all the tools you need to make plays. If this offense is going to take a step forward, the responsibility lies squarely on Jrue's shoulders. He's lifted the defense up to lofty grounds, now we need to see him do the same for the offense.
A couple of fun things I came across during the research for this post (data pulled from basketballvalue.com, it does not include numbers from the Cleveland game):
- With Iguodala and Jrue on the floor together: 714 minutes, OFR 102.78, DFR 90.31, DIF 12.47
- With one or the other, but not both on the floor: 399 minutes, OFR 112.55, DFR 99.86, DIF 12.68
- With neither AI9 or JH on the floor: 141 minutes, OFR 105.64, DFR 108.33, DIF -2.69
- Jrue, Meeks, Iguodala at 1,2,3: 424 minutes, OFR 101, DFR 86.98, DIF 14.03
- Jrue, Turner, Iguodala at 1,2,3: 118 minutes, OFR 102.36, DFR 87.39, DIF 14.97
- Jrue, Lou Williams, Iguodala at 1,2,3: 143 minutes, OFR 107.98, DFR 100.75, DIF 7.24
- Lou, Meeks, Turner at 1,2,3: 80 minutes, OFR 106.09, DFR 113.15, DIF -7.05
- Lou, Meeks at the 1,2: 182 minutes, OFR 110.06, DFR 109.49, DIF 0.56
Probably some unexpected numbers in there. Interesting that most lineups with Jrue and Iguodala don't perform very well offensively unless Lou is in between them, but overall they're nearly unstoppable, no matter who the third wheel is.
Thoughts in the comments, as usual. My preview for tonight's battle with the Bobcats will land some time in the early afternoon.