When Doug Collins was hired to coach the Sixers, a lot of time was spent checking out his bona fides. Everywhere he'd been, he'd engineered big turnarounds in his first season, but he also had Michael Jordan and Grant Hill and the teams were ripe to be turned. He'd coached several top-ten defensive teams but that's not so hard when you have Jordan and Pippen on your roster. The biggest concern seemed to be how Collins' slow, plodding style would translate to this young, athletic roster. The answer is, it simply hasn't.
The slow pace hasn't translated, because the Sixers have been playing at a pretty brisk pace. Faster, in fact, than they played under Eddie Jordan last season. Faster than they've played in the past six seasons (relative to league-wide pace).
Here's a quick look at how Collins' teams ranked in pace (possessions/48 minutes) in each of his full seasons as a head coach in the league:
- Dead last
- Dead last
- 23rd of 25 teams
- 28th of 29 teams
- 28th of 29 teams
- 27th of 29 teams
- 26th of 29 teams
The Sixers are currently playing at the 10th-fastest pace in the league, 95.8 possessions per 48 minutes.
Now, before we throw a parade for Collins for being the first coach to finally realize this team needs to be in the open floor, we need to take a look at why the pace has increased. The Sixers weren't a slow team because they didn't run in the past couple years. They were slow because they (a) made opposing teams work hard for looks on the defensive end (b) got bogged down themselves when they were in the half-court, (c) grabbed a decent number of offensive rebounds and (d) didn't turn the ball over at an alarming rate.
Just from observation and a quick glance at the stats, I'd say they're still doing a decent job at a couple of these things. Elton Brand has been a monster on the offensive glass. They're using traps and zones to slow the opposing team's offense, with mixed results (though they're doing an excellent job of defending the three - opponents are shooting 30.7% from three against the Sixers, which is stellar).
The big changes, to me, have come in half-court offense and turnovers. One thing they've used this season, that I really can't remember seeing at all last year and rarely in the previous couple seasons, is a sort of delayed transition game. The ball is pushed up the floor by Jrue, or Turner, or whoever gets the ball, the break isn't really there, but the other guys hustle down the floor as well, especially Brand. Pushing the ball over half court quickly causes the defense to scramble back and get into position. They don't have a chance to set up properly, meaning Brand can either (a) establish position deep in the paint against his man or (b) beat his man down the floor and force someone else to cover him on the blocks. Several times this season, we've seen Brand get down the floor, seal whoever's guarding him, get the ball right away and convert. That's not technically a fast break, but it's early offense before the defense has a chance to take anything away. It's a quick, productive possession. Iguodala has done this a handful of times as well, and we've seen Jrue attack off the dribble a number of times while the defense was in that state of flux, catching their breath from having to hustle back to stop the break.
What I just described is heartening, and smart, but I'm not sure it really accounts for much of a boost in the overall pace of the game. It helps their scoring efficiency, certainly, but we're only talking about a play or two per game and a couple seconds saved on each. If we're looking at pace in a vacuum and trying to figure out the difference, the main contributor is turnovers. The Sixers are turning the ball over about 1.35 more times per game this season, which is kind of understandable, considering (a) their offense no longer consists of only high-percentage passes around the perimeter for low-percentage long jumpers and (b) they have a 20-year-old point guard and a rookie doing the majority of their ballhandling. I'd love to see their team TOVs/48 minutes down below 15 (it's currently at 15.79). So you've got a negative there, they're turning the ball over more.
The huge positive, though, is the turnovers they're forcing. Last season, they forced an average of 14.4 turnovers/48 minutes. This year, that number has jumped up to 17.1. Collins has them pressuring the ball - perhaps gambling more than they did - and creating the transition opportunities they need to pump up their offensive efficiency. He's done it with his rotations, to a degree, but it's also a mindset. Trapping, playing the passing lanes, being active with their hands. All these things are paying off.
Overall, I think Collins has done a good job so far. It's refreshing to see a coach change his methods to meet his roster and I'm hoping we continue to see it as the season wears on.