I'm a realist: The majority of this preseason has been negative. Yeah, it started out well because we all were thrilled to have a new coach. The way Doug Collins handled the media and more importantly the upgrade he seems to be over Eddie Jordan just from his quotes had many of us excited initially. After a less than stellar preseason, the tide seems to have turned quickly around here. There are many reasons why any 76ers fan could have their doubts after this preseason.
First off, our number two overall pick hasn't exactly lit the world on fire, though I think we need to let him play a season before we make any rash decisions. Second, finally watching the interior defense is tough, because it may be worse than we thought. Third, our point guard of the future came out of the gates slow, though he's picked it up in a big way recently. Fourth, the coach actually seems to be sick after thinking about ways to help the team win. Alright, that's enough of the bad stuff. I have to make a confession: I'm really an optimist. Even through all the bad, I've liked one thing I saw in the three preseason games I was able to watch (and even then, one was over a grainy feed): The 'cluster' offense installed by Doug Collins.
As someone who likes the X's and O's of basketball more than most, I pay close attention to what the Sixers are doing out on the floor. Last year, I was very intrigued to see Eddie Jordan's Princeton System and how it helped the team. I was skeptical for good reason, but Jordan had good offensive teams in Washington, so I had an open mind. Obviously, we all know how that turned out: Um, not well. In my mind the big problem with the 'PO,' as we all called it, was that the Sixers couldn't run it consistently. There were some games where I saw some good cuts, reads, etc. being made by the Sixers, but it wasn't often on back-to-back nights. To me, the PO relied too much on the individual isolation talents of its players, which was not what we brought Jordan in for, though the 'Chalk Talk' session had the front office convinced otherwise. Having Andre Iguodala take a man one-on-one late in the shot-clock is not the same as having 2006 Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler at your disposal. In their two playoff appearances, the Sixers had trouble creating shots, but Jordan couldn't fix that in addition to ruining the defense. I personally think Jordan did draw up some good plays in his interviews. I'm just not sure how he did it.
In comes Doug Collins, and his focus is defense, which I agree with. The question for me is, "What will he run offensively?" I keep reading about this cluster offense, and really it's not too clear what it is. For full disclosure, I'm not a person who thinks that we need a half-court offense because it's a necessary thing to have. This team is undoubtedly better when they are running, either off a turnover or a rebound. The preseason seems to be evidence of that. I just hope they have something that they can get quality looks out of in the half-court when the defense gets back and is able to get set. Here is what I like about it:
- Floor spacing - We were promised this with the PO, but I hated how far out on the floor the guards were in initiating the offense. Now it seems like Collins is keeping the spacing, but moving the guards to the three-point line, where they are a threat to at least score or penetrate. There is more ball-pressure the closer you get, but now the defense has to respect the ball handler. I feel that Duke (even though we all hate them), is a great example of a team who spaces the floor well in college. Considering Collins' relationship with Coach K (and the fact that his son is on the staff), he definitely understands that this is key.
- Ability to freelance - The system has some set plays, but it looks to me like a two-out set (one guard and a big on the perimeter) with three guys on the baseline (the other big on the block and the two other guys spaced out to the corners), which resembles a flex set. I feel like Collins has the players run to their designed spots, and if that creates a mismatch they can take advantage by running isolation or a pick and roll. Whether a guy like EB beats his man down the floor and is played by a guard or an opportunity for a corner pick and roll with Iguodala and EB presents itself, the players seem to be able to do this freely, which I like. They often seem to run a delayed fast break, which could be effective for guys like Lou and Speights. Out of the early offense, Kapono and Battie ran a two man game to free up Kapono for a three early in the Knicks game.
- Post-up Isolation sets - Early in the Knicks game, the Sixers freed up Iguodala off of a simple screen action and got him the ball facing up fifteen feet away from the hoop. They did this twice, and he scored off an offensive rebound on the first possession after a strong drive. The second was a missed 15 footer, but it was a spot where he can be more aggressive as he gets comfortable there. Later on in the quarter, Battie freed Jrue with a screen, and he punished the smaller Toney Douglas for a three-point play. Jrue and Iguodala sadly may be our post game this year, so it's not a bad move to utilize them.
- Cluster screens - This is the play where a player off the ball basically runs off two very close screens on the block. There are two guys who I love for this play: 1. Kapono - If his quick release continues, it could free him up. 2. Lou - Giving Lou a chance to make a play has not always been a good thing, but he seems willing to make the reads. Counter to the guards, the big men seem to be ready to shoot jumpers, and Lou made some nice reads coming off the screens in the Boston game, albeit against their scrubs. If they are going to shoot jumpers, I'd rather them be in rhythm off good ball movement.
Sorry for all the coach speak, but see if you can find some of those aspects next time. Anyway, in the NBA, good isolation players are huge for a team's offense. Unfortunately, the Sixers don't really have those guys right now, so they have to rely on team play. A couple of things worry me about the offense I have talked about. The first is that the second team (beyond the starters and Lou) doesn't really run it. If a guy like Speights could embrace the offense, there would be a ton of good shots for him. The second is that I watched it in preseason against two undermanned teams. Those two points go hand in hand because against better teams you can't just run isos and expect to win. There needs to be options for you offensively.
I just hope they don't abandon the it, because a good offense is something they could run in crunch time of a close game instead of just one basic pick and roll or isolation. The offense is something I enjoy to watch to get me through the season, so give it a shot at some point if you find yourself desperate. I don't know if the defense will ever be up to par, but if they get in a comfort zone offensively, who knows, there may even be some close games this year.