Rich checks in this morning from his winter break with a closer look at the Sixers team defense. How are has Doug Collins turned this squad into a top-ten defense? Who is responsible for the drastic improvement, and what can they do on that end of the floor in upcoming games against the Bulls (tonight) and the Celtics (tomorrow)?
As you may have noticed, your Philadelphia 76ers have started to play some very good basketball, eight out of eleven to be specific. As Brian pointed out in a post yesterday, they've done it in different ways. Win some with offense, win others with defense, but make sure that you find one end of the floor to get it done. In the earlier X's and O's posts, we focused strictly on the Sixers' offense. As far as my rudimentary understanding of the numbers goes, the Sixers have been pretty much hit or miss offensively during this stretch. They really have had some excellent games (Charlotte and Cleveland come to mind) scoring the ball and others (Atlanta and the Lakers are examples) were bad. That inconsistency is to be expected when you have the Sixers' offensive personnel. Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes go hot and cold. Andre Iguodala isn't a consistent scorer. Jrue Holiday is a really talented young point guard trying to find his way. Lou Williams and Thad Young have great nights, and other times they kill the team. In my opinion, Elton Brand is the only guy whose offense I feel pretty confident of heading into most games. Simply put, there will be good and bad nights going forward. The positive, as Marc Stein alluded to in his power rankings, is that all of these guys are capable of having big efforts. The element of surprise has been a positive as other teams don't know who will carry the Sixers. At least that's what I'll go with right now while they're playing well.
For this post though, let's venture over to the other side of the ball. When the Sixers hired Doug Collins back in May, his reputation for improving a team's defense in the first season provided hope. Many of us didn't doubt that Collins had a good defensive mind. The major thing that we doubted was whether good defensive basketball was attainable with the 76ers personnel. Without getting too crazy in detail, the team had three relatively plus defensive players last season: Holiday, Iguodala, and Sam Dalembert. Brand also has good instincts on that end, but his lack of explosiveness and terrible defensive rebounding really limited him. After the team traded their anchor on that end (Dalembert) for a bad defensive player in Spencer Hawes, I became really skeptical of how Collins could work his magic on the team D. With the drafting of Evan Turner, many of us dreamed of the defensive possibilities of a "JTI" backcourt. Even though Turner has shown a willingness to defend and rebound the ball, his passive offense has held back his playing time, and we haven't seen the full effects of what those three can do.
Here's the crazy thing: Doug has the Sixers playing good defense. After a rough start to the season, Collins has this team in the top ten in defensive efficiency, a far cry from last year. During the recent winning streak, the team has played elite defense. Again, this has been hit or miss and in a small sample size, but at times they have played downright stifling D (The New Orleans game is still mind-blowing). From just watching the team, it looks pretty simple. Collins has a plan every night on what to do, and the team has been relatively executing it. The team is just well-prepared, and Collins makes adjustments during half time when the other team executes well in the first half. The team's rotations are crisper and less necessary. Sorry for writing what seems to be a love letter to Doug Collins, but I think you get my point: The guy has done a great job with this team's defense so far, and it has been really refreshing. Let's hope he can keep it up.
Looking at the Sixers defensive numbers, they are fairly simple in their approach. When you take into account the stat effective field goal percentage, or eFG, they are a top four defensive team. If you aren't familiar with the stat, it calculates field goal percentage and puts extra weight to threes, because threes happen to be worth more points. This makes sense too, because the Sixers three point defense has been great this year. Long story short, their opponents don't take a lot of threes, and they don't make a high percentage of the ones they do take. Collins has used his team's strength, namely his two great perimeter defenders, Iguodala and Jrue.
Allow me to go on a quick tangent here: I don't watch enough NBA basketball or trust the defensive stats available to definitively say he's the best, but Iguodala HAS to be at the very top when we rank the league's wing defenders. It might be the biggest problem with the national perception of his game. When I read that he's overrated, the same people often forget to talk for even one second about his defense, or mention that he's a 'good' defender in passing. It is just flat out lunacy, because the guy is great on that end of the floor (Ask Kobe). Say what you want about his offense, but don't undervalue his defense. If these people would watch a Sixers game, any Sixers game, just once, they'd probably see one of the games detailed here. Jrue is young and learning on that end of the floor, but he's capable of brilliance there. His main problem is his aggressiveness and tendency to pick up silly fouls reaching (Or as the great Bill Raftery calls them, "Nickle Dimers"). Anyway you look at it, these two play a ton of minutes, and they do a great job of pressuring the ball. This has really helped take away the three point line, and it helped them stay competitive even when they were losing early.
Now when you look at true shooting percentage, which also is eFG plus free throws, the team drops off a bit. This also makes sense because of the thin front line. Even with Hawes playing better recently, the Sixers send their opponents to the line a lot. It's alright, that's a trade off I'll take when you take into account their three point defense. Running out and challenging shooters leaves open driving lanes too. Heck, they even rebound the ball pretty well defensively, with help from their guards. Jrue (PG) is a good rebounder from his position, even though I like it better when he gets the outlet passes. Turner is the second best shooting guard rebounder in the league per 48 minutes already, and he has great instincts. Iguodala's numbers there aren't great for his position, but he also has to guard the best guy. We all know he can clean the glass too. I made fun of the "rebound by committee" approach suggested by many in the offseason, but so far I have been wrong.
I wanted to use some video to show what the team is doing on that end, but I didn't realize that League Pass Broadband doesn't work for local markets. Now that I am home on break from school, the archive of the games are blacked out, which I find strange and can't do anything about.
Instead of video, let's take a look at the next two games against upper echelon Eastern Conference teams in Chicago and Boston. Both teams have taken big hits in the injury department with Joakim Noah and Rajon Rondo (whose minutes are so poorly handled IMO) both out with injuries. How can we take advantage of these injuries and defend these teams quickly.
In the Chicago game, we might matchup with them alright because their three big weapons on offense will be guarded by our best three defenders. For them, the ball is always in the hands of Derrick Rose. Rose is a dynamic scorer who also makes decisions for the Bulls. Nobody in the league can really stay in front of him, so Jrue has got to try and make him work for his points. Rose has taken a lot of shots to put up his impressive point totals, so it's doable. Rose to me isn't the same kind of threat Rondo is when you back off him because he's not a great playmaker, though he does get over 8 assists a game. Honestly, Jrue just has to be smart, and don't bail him out with reaching. Rose doesn't draw as many fouls as he probably should because he's so talented and tries to make the spectacular shot. Just keep him in front and hope he's not knocking down floaters. He's shooting 40 percent from three now, which makes him ridiculously scary, but we'll live with that if he's making them.
As for the rest of the guys, Carlos Boozer is playing well since he came back. EB and him are very similar offensive players in that they work outside-in, so EB should try to push him a little out of his comfort zone to where he doesn't feel great about shooting those rainbow jumpers. It's really a mismatch on both ends for the offensive guy there. Tell Iguodala that he's got Luol Deng, nothing more than that. Keith Bogans stinks and can't shoot threes, and Jodie should be helping Jrue like crazy with Rose. When Ronnie Brewer is in, ditto. Korver presents some problems, and Jrue is going to have to be great on Rose there. The Sixers really caught a huge break with Noah out, because he would have given Hawes fits and the Bulls extra possessions. If Jrue does a relatively good job on Rose, it's possible to defend this team.
The defense was bad in the heartbreaking loss to Boston a week and a half ago. Now they don't have Rondo, and Nate Robinson will have to play heavy minutes. Jrue's role completely changes in this game because he can pressure the hell out of Nate, and in the half-court he becomes a helper. Meeks has to run around with Allen and Iggy has Pierce. Nothing changes up front either. Without Rondo, Jrue needs to try and make Nate a scorer. If Nate is taking a lot of shots and not getting the other Celtics involved, we have a much better chance to win there. Not too confident about that one though, to be honest.
This stretch will show us if the Sixers are for real. If they can defend like they have recently, I can promise they'll be competitive.