I've spent the past 13 games waiting for something to return. It was something unique, something potentially groundbreaking, it was something that could rally a fan base if properly executed. I've been waiting for the identity this team was slowly but surely carving out to return, but now I'm afraid it may be gone for good.
In order to properly mourn the loss, first we have to fully understand what the identity was, or what it had the potential to be. Essentially, there are two types of teams in the NBA, traditional half-court teams and running teams. This may be oversimplifying, but for the most part the traditional teams are defensive teams, the running teams play little-to-no defense. Half-court teams play at a slow pace, grinding out possessions on the defensive end then walking the ball up the floor. Running teams play at a fast pace, they look to push the ball at every opportunity to create number mismatches and easy scoring opportunities by beating their opponents down the floor. They induce quick shots from their opponents, either by creating an artificial flow to the game they feel obligated to keep up, through their porous defense or a combination of both.
The Sixers were on their way to taking the best of both worlds and creating a hybrid identity, a team that would grind out defensive possessions and use their ability to rebound, block shots and create turnovers to spark a deadly running game. Not only did they have the formula down in '07-'08, they had the perfect player to build it around, and a young core to run with him. Think about it for a second, a premier perimeter defender who can lock down the opposing team's best scorer, create turnovers, rebound the ball, beat his man down the floor if a leak out opportunity presents itself or just as deftly take the ball coast-to-coast and make the right pass in transition. You couldn't ask for a more ideal set of abilities in one player to build this type of team around than those found in 24-year-old Andre Iguodala.
It's a nice story, and it was fairly successful on the floor in '07-08 when an under-manned Sixers team took it to some of the best teams in the league, and if you look at the team's stats from that season, you'll see that it worked. They had the #8 team in the league in defensive efficiency. They were among the league leaders in fast break points while ranking only 20th in pace. They extended their defense and made teams work to get shots, they created turnovers and blocked shots to get into the open floor. Their young core then turned on the jets and turned those open floor opportunities into easy points.
The foundation was laid, but there were obviously pieces missing. They desperately needed two things: (1) Improved defensive rebounding. They rebounded at a 72% rate on the defensive end, thanks in large part to 1,554 minutes for Thad Young mostly at PF with a dismal 11.9% rebound rate, and a whopping 1,970 minutes for Willie Green with a 5.5% rebounding percentage. (2) A half-court offense. They needed someone or something they could rely on to provide efficient offense on the 59% of possessions where they were forced into the half-court game. The key was to add a piece, or pieces, which would enhance the things they already did well -- defend, block shots, offensive rebound -- as well as strengthen those key weaknesses. Enter Elton Brand. A guy who owned the glass his entire career, averaged 2.1 blocks/game for his career and most importantly, could provide a consistent offensive weapon when the offense was bogged down for whatever reason.
Forget about three-point shooting, while it was obviously a weakness, it wasn't the key piece to the puzzle. What they absolutely needed to make this system work was Elton Brand, in his prime and a coach who could integrate him into the team's identity, not change the team's identity to fit him.
Well, things didn't quite work out. Brand had accumulated a fair amount of rust in his year off due to injury. Cheeks for some reason decided slowing the game down to feed Brand was the best course of action for the team, then he panicked and put Willie Green into the starting lineup, then he got fired. When DiLeo took over, we saw a quick glimpse of what the team could do if they utilized Brand properly, but it only lasted about a game-and-a-half before Brand was lost for the season with a dislocated shoulder.
At that point, they fell back on their identity for the remainder of the season, but they still had those two weaknesses. When they got to the playoffs, they were laid bare by an efficient Orlando team after the Sixers got off to an improbable 2-1 start to the series.
Now, let's fast forward to this past summer. Andre Miller is let go, Eddie Jordan is brought in and Elton Brand returns. Miller was never a long-term solution at the point, and while his open-court vision and throw-ahead passes often keyed the running game, his on-the-ball defense also put a serious kink in the defensive plans. The Sixers made a perfect draft choice to augment their identity, a point guard who can guard the ball, rebound at a high rate and run the break. In short, they came out of the preseason with all the player pieces in place to pick up right where they left off in '07-08. It would take some time for Jrue Holiday to ascend to the starting PG spot, but they could make due with Lou Williams and utilize his speed and ability to break defenses down to key the running game and get easy baskets. The defense should've been improved merely by inserting a legitimate defender at the four, not to mention adding another shotblocker to the back line. Removing Willie Green from the lineup and shifting Thad to the three should've made them a very good defensive rebounding team.
The defense was never going to be perfect with Lou at the point, but with Jrue waiting in the wings and hopefully seeing decent time in his rookie season, they could field a stout defensive lineup across the board. They still had the athletes to run. They had a weapon they could use in the half court and they even had a legitimate threat from three they could add into the mix occasionally if defenses were sagging into the lane or aggressively doubling Brand. All the pieces were in place to move closer to the ideal of a defensive running team.
Somewhere between here and there it all fell apart. Defense became a secondary concern. The half-court offense didn't become more efficient, if anything, it's become more stodgy and it's playing away from the team's strengths. Relying on guys who aren't good jump shooters to hit long jumpers. The running game is still there (they're second in the league in fast break points), but it doesn't mean a whole lot when you can't get defensive stops. It doesn't mean a whole lot when you can't secure rebounds after you do manage to get a stop.
It's cliche to blame things solely on the coach, and we shouldn't do that in this case. Thad Young and Lou Williams should shoulder some of the blame, but honestly, the majority of the blame is on Eddie Jordan. It's on his defensive schemes, it's on him for choosing offensive lineups over defensive lineups. It's on him for making the team's focus, the team's barometer for success their ability to run the Princeton offense. If they had simply stuck to their guns and kept going with the identity that they created two years ago out of necessity, and used the PO as a crutch to prop up their weak half-court offense we'd still be on that path. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening.
If I had to pigeonhole this team with an identity right now, it would be a lot closer to those running teams who view defense only as a means to get the ball back as quickly as possible, points allowed be damned. The thing that frightens and saddens me is that I believe our coach would be perfectly happy with that identity if he could only get the PO to crank up its efficiency to the point where we could score with the mediocre teams and out-score the bad ones.
Here's the kicker, though. If Jordan keeps leading us down this road we don't have the roster to support the system. They're still built to defend and run, not out-shoot their opponents. If the franchise is buying in on this new identity, changes are going to have to be made or it's never going to work. They're going to have to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch, most likely.
The alternative is for Jordan to embrace the roster he has, play to its strengths rather than his system. Is it possible? Absolutely. Do I have any faith that he'll make the adjustment on his own? Absolutely not. If this is going to happen, I believe it's going to have to come down from above. Stefanski and DiLeo built this roster, they know it's strengths. We saw the dramatic turnaround when DiLeo took over last season, and it happened because he took off the chains and let the team be what it is. That team is still there. If you don't believe me, take a look at the tape from the second and third quarters of the Cavs game.
They didn't get their points by suddenly hitting all their mid-range jumpers. They got their points by getting stops, running the floor and relentlessly pushing the ball to the hoop. The exact same things we saw from this team the past two seasons. The things that excited me about the future of the franchise back in 2007. We also saw the evolution of the system, with Elton Brand scoring eight points on myriad moves around the hoop and short jumpers created by penetration and feeding the ball into the post in the third quarter alone.
The pieces are there, I'm sure of it. Jordan just needs to start using them in the right combination to do the right things.