It's simplistic to say, "The Sixers have been killed by the three," especially recently. I've tried to figure out why this is the case, but I think it's also important to understand what, exactly is happening, from a statistical standpoint. After the jump, we'll take a look at the past five games through a very specific statistical filter, I'm hoping it will shed some light.
I started with the premise that the Sixers are true to their word when they say they try to use the free throw line to even out their glaring weakness in three point shooting. Theoretically, an advantage from the line can overcome an advantage from three. Look at it this way, both teams have 30 field goals, the Sixers have 2 threes, their opponent has 8, the Sixers have made 12 free throws, their opponent has made 6. The score is 74-74.
It's a wonderful theory, or maybe excuse, for the team to rely on since they know they can't shoot from downtown to save their lives. The purpose of this exercise is to not only test the theory, but to also see how they put it to use.
Let's start with the Nets' loss. What we're tracking here is the score differential, free throws made differential and three pointers made differential, minute-by-minute, throughout the game. For example, at the end of the game (48th minute) the Sixers had made 5 more free throws than the Nets (pink line), scored 2 fewer points (blue line) and hit 9 fewer three pointers (yellow line).
From the graph above, you can see that the theory seems to have worked pretty well in the Nets game. It would've worked better if the Sixers had hit a respectable percentage from the line, but as you can see, throughout the game the pink line gradually moves up in nearly direct proportion to the pink line moving down. They were effectively using the foul line to combat the three point line. Unfortunately, the Nets made a severe late push in three-point differential, the last one putting them over the hump.
Now, let's take a look at a win. Here's the chart for the game against the Wizards, a 106-98 win.
This game probably isn't the best example to look at, simply because Washington is nearly as bad as the Sixers from three, and it shows in the chart. This is pretty much what you can expect from the Sixers whenever they keep the three-point differential at or near zero. Of course, accomplishing that is much easier said than done.
With the Knicks game, we start to see an extremely troublesome trend. The Sixers turned a blowout into a squeaker.
The Sixers built their huge lead on the back of an impressive free-throw differential. They were +13 in free throws made in the first half when they stretched their lead to 19 points. Then as high as +18 before the bottom fell out in the second half. After the half, the Knicks just destroyed the Sixers from three and pushed the differential to -8. Oddly, the game was stabilized when Royal Ivey hit a three. The Sixers converted from the line to put the game away and pad the FT differential at the very end. Keep a close eye on the yellow line, especially after the half as we go through the final two games in the series.
Up next is the heart-breaking loss to the Magic.
They built a quick lead on the back of a FT advantage, then I have no idea how they maintained it. They went two quarters without extending their FT advantage while Orlando methodically pulled away from them in 3PT dif. Eventually, it caught up to them in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, this is what kills this team more often than not. No matter how far ahead they are, the opposing team always, ALWAYS, has a chance to come back with the three. If they can avoid fouling, it's only a matter of time. Orlando figured that out and broke our hearts.
Finally, let's take a look at a game the Sixers just never had a chance in. New Orleans methodically picked them apart last night.
When the Sixers held brief advantages in FT dif and 3PT dif, they fell behind by a ton because David West was torching them. From that point on, New Orleans kept piling up the threes and did not send the Sixers to the line. It's a miracle this one wasn't a blow out.
So, a five-game stretch which saw the Sixers go 2-3, losing two games to teams with a better record, 1 to a team with a worse record, and beating two bad teams. Their offensive philosophy was put to the test against the Nets, but they came up about a 100th of a second short. The Wizards were simply out-classed. The Knicks very nearly turned the tables in the second half with a barrage of threes. Orlando survived a lackluster start and put the Sixers away with threes late and New Orleans took their time and never really let the Sixers into the game.
This is a small sample-size, but from these results, does the Free Throws vs. Three Pointers strategy seem like it has potential? I understand that it may be this current roster's best hope, but it certainly hasn't served them well over the past 5 games. I mean, for a team that shoots free throws, collectively, at 74.3%, does relying on them to save you seem like a good idea?
Here's some extra credit reading. Tom Moore has a piece on Coach DiLeo saying the coaches have discussed changing the starting lineup. Enough talk, just do it already.