Last season, the Philadelphia 76ers offense was a disaster.
By the time April mercifully rolled around, the team had played 82 games while scoring an average of 99.5 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-worst mark in the league and the team's third-worst mark of the last 13 seasons.
The problem was a system with a decided lack of flow that usually winnowed their options on each possession down to an isolation or a high pick-and-roll that ended in a contested jump shot. They lived on those mid-range jump shots, and it ended up destroying their spacing, dragging extra defenders to within helping distance of both interior and perimeter scorers.
But the architect of that system, Doug Collins, is gone, and Brett Brown, a longtime Spurs assistant, has taken his place. Having spent the better part of his career in San Antonio, steeping in offensive movement and misdirection, Brown is the perfect candidate to remake this Sixers offense with a focus on efficiency.
In fact, through just two preseason games, we've already started to see some innovative and well-executed sets that have had a decidedly different feel to them.
This play, from the Sixers' loss to the Thunder on Tuesday, had all the elements of creativity and manufactured defensive confusion that we're used to seeing from a typical Spurs' possessions.
As James Anderson caught the ball on the wing, all four of his teammates were in motion. Spencer Hawes came towards the strong-side block, looking to post up. Thad Young looked to be clearing through down the lane, heading for the opposite corner. At the same time, Michael Carter-Williams was moving to set a pin-down screen on Evan Turner's man, allowing him to come free up top.
But as Carter-Williams came to set that screen, Turner headed in the opposite direction, cutting towards the basket and occupying both defenders.
It appeared that this is where the action of the play was heading, but the Thunder defenders were well-positioned, and there wasn't a passing angle available for Anderson.
However, all of this action was just misdirection. As Turner cleared through along the baseline, Young stepped over to set a pin-down screen for Carter-Williams. Both defenders had been paying attention to Turner, and they actually ran into each other as they tried to recover to their respective assignments.
Meanwhile, Young's defender, Serge Ibaka, was hanging back to guard against a drive to the rim. The screen was almost unnecessary as Carter-Williams popped out to the three-point line.
As Carter-Williams caught the ball on the wing, there wasn't a defender within 10 feet of him, providing him with plenty of space to take his time and set up for the shot.
Here's what the possession looked like in real time.
This next example is less about creativity than it is about execution and spacing, but it still stands as a stark contrast to what the Sixers offense often looked like last year.
As the play began, Carter-Williams had the ball up top, and Young was heading toward him, setting up for a high pick-and-roll. But the key here was how well spaced the floor was, with shooters in both corners and Hawes stationed on the baseline.
Carter-Williams went early, rejecting the screen before Young arrived and pulling both defenders with him, leaving a wide open lane for Young to roll to the basket.
The fantastic spacing here made this an incredibly difficult adjustment for the defense.
Oklahoma City's Jeremy Lamb ended up coming off Anderson in the corner, but he knew that he was leaving a shooter, so he arrived late and made nothing but a half-hearted wave as Young blew past him. This meant that Ibaka had to step up as well, leaving both Hawes and Anderson uncovered.
By the time Young hit the middle of the floor, the Thunder defense had collapsed entirely. He ended up dumping it off to Hawes for the layup but could have just as easily kicked it out to either corner for a wide open look at a three-pointer.
Here is what the play looked like in real time.
This season is a massive rebuild for the Sixers, not just with regards to their roster but also to their playbook and the general way they go about their business at both ends of the floor.
They will likely find themselves somewhere in the bottom half of the league standings, but seeing them run these sorts of creative and precise sets so early in the preseason is, at the very least, cause for optimism.