When Spencer Hawes accepted his qualifying offer, the Sixers officially returned everyone from last season's roster minus their starting shooting guard from opening night in 2010. If reports are to be believed, they'll have a new starting shooting guard on December 26th. Will internal improvement, a few new faces and a lineup change be enough to keep the Sixers moving in the right direction?
Kate Fagan laid out a simple formula for how the Sixers will improve upon last year's record. Basically, Turner will be better (+4 wins), Jrue won't make so many mistakes (+2 wins) and Thad will score 5 more points/game off the bench (+2 wins).
I don't really buy the logic, though I do believe an improvement is possible. Really, all the Sixers need to accomplish to finish better than .500 is to continue to play at the level they did last year without the horrendous start (or finish) to the regular season. If they can avoid the huge valleys, they'll be fine. The question is whether "fine" is good enough to go further than they did last year. The answer is probably no.
If they're going to make a leap this year, Thad's cumulative production could have something to do with it, but it's more about the role (and the minutes) he plays. The Sixers best lineup last season, by far, featured Thad at the four and Brand at the five. If Collins can get more minutes for that alignment, it'll probably mean more wins, assuming Brand can hold up with more minutes at the five. Short of giving Thad 30+ minutes, the only way he's going to score more points is if he gets more touches, and in order for that to happen, Lou is going to have to be less ball-dominant when he's running the second unit. On that count, I'm not optimistic.
More minutes and/or more touches for Thad isn't the big thing, for me, though. The key to this season, and any kind of marked improvement lies in the success of Jrue, Turner and Iguodala playing together. Defensively, I have little doubt. Those three will spend the entire season locking down players when they can, covering for weak interior defense to the best of their abilities the rest of the time, and picking up the slack on the boards for the bigs as well. The issues are going to come on the other end of the floor, and it's how they solve those issues that will define the success of the team, or I should say they'll define the ceiling for the team this year.
Each of the three is best with the ball in his hands. They can all probably play off the ball, but ideally, to get the most out of each, they'd be handling the ball, initiating offense and setting others up. A point-forward, a pure point and a ball-dominant shooting guard. That's what they've got. The point guard is the only one that's a threat from long range, the point-forward seems to grow more timid in terms of attacking the hoop every year and the ball-dominant shooting guard only seemed comfortable shooting jumpers that he couldn't hit last year. Not exactly a recipe for success.
So how will they change things? How will they break through the ceiling of their collective production of a year ago? Well, there's no easy answer, but I have an idea. First of all, get rid of the confusion. When you're in the half-court set, give the ball to Jrue. He initiates the offense 90% of the time, he gets them into their sets, he makes sure the hot hand is being fed and when all else fails, he breaks his man down off the dribble. First and foremost, this is his team. Get that straight from day one so it isn't an issue for the entire season.
To get Iguodala into the flow of things, I'd run a lot of small-on-small pick-and-rolls. Let him come up and set the high screen for Jrue, then cut to the hoop. I don't want to see him running off many down screens for elbow-extended jumpers. That's not his shot. Treat the half-court game like it's transition for AI9, get him the ball moving toward the hoop where he can use his handle and his athleticism to get into the lane. Use this movement to shake bigs for easy finishes, etc.
For Turner, I think you're going to have to play mismatches. He'll probably draw the weakest perimeter defender on the other team, at least in the beginning of the year, I'd run him off screens to set up isolations with some separation at the top of the key, let him get the ball there with his dribble and then send a screen from a big or just let him use his dribble to find a shot or an open man.
That's an extremely simplified plan, which basically boils down to letting each player play to his strengths, and avoid his weaknesses, but I think it's going to be vital. Last season, Collins did an excellent job of running simple plays to get Thad and Brand the ball in spot where they could attack. A spot where they were comfortable and effective. This year, he needs to do a better job of doing the same for the smalls.
If you want to just skip the strategy and look at results, here's a number that needs to improve drastically for the team to up its offensive efficiency. Jrue, Turner and Iguodala combined to average 9.6 free throw attempts per 36 minutes last season, they also averaged 12 jumpers from 16-23 feet per 40 minutes. At a minimum, they need to flip flop those numbers. These guys can't settle for jumpers and they need to get to the line. In fact, if Jrue is going to make any kind up leap at all, he's going to need to almost double his free throw rate (it was 2.6/36min last season).
If those guys are slashing and attacking, the whistles will come. If they're passive, they just don't shoot or make enough threes to power any kind of efficient offense.
Of course, there is another alternative, and that's Jodie Meeks. Turner is in the lead for the position right now, I guess it's his to lose, and if the offense sputters, if these guys are confused and hesitant because they don't know who's show it really is, or they're settling for too many long twos, Meeks will be back in there in the blink of an eye. Collins is comfortable with Meeks, and it's easier to define roles when he's at the two between Iguodala and Jrue. JTI can work, it can succeed, and it can move this team forward, but it's going to take a deft hand from Collins to get them all into position to make the most of their abilities.