Kate Fagan attempted to tackle the Sixers "closing" issues in her Sunday column yesterday. In some respects, she had solid points, in others, she missed the mark completely. Unfortunately, I don't think there are really any concrete answers. It's either a simplistic, "they're too young," or "they aren't very good." Or it's this ethereal logic that can basically be summed up by, "they don't have it." Somewhere in the middle lies the answer, if there is one.
First, let's tackle Kate Fagan's piece. The part where she's spot-on is all about setting screens. This is something I've noticed the entire season. For some anecdotal proof, think back. When was the last time the Sixers were called for a moving screen? Has it happened at all this season? Maybe once or twice? There's a reason for that. You can't get whistled for a moving screen if you never make contact. Fagan gives Elton Brand a pass in this regard, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why. He might be the biggest culprit of setting these alleged screens.
Viewed through the lens of late-game ineptitude, I think the weak screens are more of a symptom than the problem. The problem we're talking about here is crisp execution. Not just phantom screens, but setting your man up for a hard cut, cutting through the lane with a purpose, keeping the floor spaced on the weak side, not drifting. These are all keys not only in late-game situations, but they are keys to running an efficient offense in the half court at any time. It just so happens that when the rubber meets the road in late/close game situations, teams are forced into the half court more often than not. Which leads us back to the question of why the Sixers can be efficient in the half court for long stretches of the game, just not in those key possessions at the end of games.
For me, it comes down to running two different offenses. We've got the standard offense which starts with a point guard. Then we've got the late-game offense, which starts with isolation for a combo guard. The standard offense employs several simple plays. The pick-and-roll, the pick-and-pop, down screens for shooters, post-ups for mismatches, and dribble penetration by our point guard, either for a shot in the lane, a dump-off or a kick-out for an open jumper.
The late-game offense consists of our combo guard dribbling the ball, then either driving the lane hoping for contact, taking a tough, fall-away jumper, or pump-faking a couple times, hoping to entice his defender to foul him on a jump shot attempt.
We've gone over this thousands of times. Anyone who has watched a game this season is a first-hand witness. It's not always Lou Williams, though he's the most frequent offender, sometimes it's Iguodala. The sad fact is that it's almost never Jrue.
Which makes this section of Kate Fagan's column troubling:
Holiday can't keep playing the game's final five minutes like he plays the game's first five minutes. Doing that is called pickup basketball, and even then guys usually take extra precaution on game point, especially if a team is waiting for next.
First of all, Jrue doesn't play the last five minutes of the game like the first five. Not even close. In the first five minutes of the game, Jrue is the point guard. He's running the offense, making the decisions. In the last five, he's standing in the corner watching someone else make the decisions. He's an afterthought who rarely, if ever gets a shot, and if he does, it's with the shot clock winding down. Jrue isn't making bad decisions at the end of games. He isn't making any decisions at all. He's completely marginalized.
The truly disturbing thing here is that she's throwing stones at Jrue for the crimes Lou Williams is committing. And you know what? It wouldn't even be fair to throw them at Lou Williams, because he's just the trigger man. Doug Collins is the one who turns these games into pickup games at the local YMCA when he throws his offense out the window and lets Lou Williams go one-on-one to decide the game.
There's another large portion of the column that contains a good deal of faulty logic. Basically, Fagan says the Sixers can't finish games because they have too many AAU guys on the team. Guys who didn't cut their teeth in college. And this weakness is their fault because of who they drafted. She mentions the Jrue Holiday over Ty Lawson pick in particular, which is kind of ironic. The one game Jrue was allowed to "close" this season came in Denver, against Lawson. While Lawson was chucking up terrible shots down the stretch and turning the ball over, Jrue took the game over and closed out the win for the Sixers. Soon thereafter, Lou came back from the birth of his daughter, and was given the keys to the car again to run the late-game offense.
Fagan's talk about the draft got me thinking, though. A couple questions: (1) Have the Sixers taken less experienced guys in their past couple drafts? Would it have made a difference if they hadn't? (2) Is this a problem that's specific to the Sixers? I mean, with a few rare exceptions, players with any talent are one-and-done in college these days. There are very few four-year players. The best you can hope for is to get a guy who came out of a good program with a good coach for his one, maybe two seasons, no?
So let's take a look at the last four drafts for the Sixers.
- 2007 - Thad Young or Al Thornton. Thad was clearly younger, clearly an "AAU" player. Thornton was the "seasoned" guy with three years of college under his belt and also almost five years older than Thad. The Sixers took Thad. Right choice or wrong choice?
- 2008 - Marreese Speights vs. Darrell Arthur. Both Speights and Arthur had played for national championship teams. Both played two years in college. Speights is actually older than Arthur, but I guess the case can be made that Arthur was more NBA-ready, if that means anything. Roy Hibbert went immediately after Speights in the draft, I suppose you could make a case that he would've been a more "seasoned" choice, but he didn't have any more experience than Speights or Arthur. PF was also a position of need at the time.
- 2009 - Jrue Holiday or Ty Lawson. Lawson played three years at North Carolina, and he's three years older than Jrue. If you were looking for experience, he'd clearly be the choice. He's had success running against backups with a talented roster around him. Jrue has had success actually running the show, and he's still three years younger.
- 2010 - Evan Turner vs. Derrick Favors. I find it odd that Fagan talked at length about how the Sixers have chosen the freak athletes over the more accomplished (older) players, and how that's what's put them in this position, without even mentioning the fact that they did the exact opposite in this summer's draft.
When you get right down to it, the Sixers aren't any more affected by the AAU culture than any other team. It's a league-wide epidemic that players don't get seasoned in college. For the most part, if you spend three or four years in college it means you weren't much of a prospect after your first two. If it's truly an experience thing for the Sixers, it's a result of what's happened since they got to the NBA. Thad Young has had four coaches in four seasons, with a full year of Eddie Jordan mixed in there. Speights has had four coaches in three seasons, with a full year of EFJ. Jrue had a full season of EFJ jerking him around, in an idiotic offensive system. Iguodala has had five coaches in seven years, including a year of EFJ damage. If these players are behind the curve in terms of experience, it has nothing to do with how much time they spent in college relative to the rest of the league. It could have something to do with the year(s) of lost development in an unstable situation in Philly.
Then again, it may just have to do with talent and meshing skill sets. Who knows?