How the Philadelphia 76ers Ran Away from Being Terrible

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How the Philadelphia 76ers Ran Away from Being Terrible
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

"Tankadelphia" has been put on hold.

The Philadelphia 76ers—a team picked by some to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference—have surprised, not only with their record, but with their exciting play. Though the Sixers are only 6-10 on the season, they have notched quality wins over the likes of Miami and Houston, and they are just one game back of the Atlantic Division lead.

The Sixers have won their games by running opponents out of the gym. They currently lead the NBA with an average of 99.5 possessions per game, the highest mark since the 2009-10 Golden State Warriors.

The foundations of the Sixers' fast-paced approach were laid in the offseason by new head coach Brett Brown and his offseason fitness regimen. Sixers guard Tony Wroten explained Brown's unusual-for-the-NBA conditioning program, and its benefits, to Dei Lynam of CSN Philly:

In college, you run around and do a lot of conditioning. When I first got here, not only did the coach e-mail me about it but also the strength and conditioning coaches, what summer was going to be like and this is what we are going to do.

I knew they were serious. At the time, I was like what is this? This is like college, but Coach always says it is going to pay off in the long run and it has. We can run at the end of games. We are still pacing, so working on it in the summer helped a lot.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Given the youth on the Sixers' roster, a run-and-gun style makes a great deal of sense. It's certainly a breath of fresh air after three stodgy years of Doug Collins' "23 seconds and a 18-footer" offense. And it just might help the 76ers win, not only now, but down the road.

 

Does Upping the Pace Increase a Team's Chance of Making the Playoffs?

In the NBA, talent wins. It's that simple, right?

But much of the beauty of watching basketball is the myriad ways in which teams can use strategy to squeeze every last win out of that talent. And part of that strategy involves the pace at which a team plays: some teams play faster, and some teams play slower.

A team's pace can be dictated by many factors: coaching style, the age and athleticism of the roster, even the environment. But does a certain pace of play give teams an advantage in terms of making the playoffs?

Eighteen of 30 teams make the playoffs in a given year; that's 53.3 percent. Do faster-paced teams make the playoffs more often than their slower opponents? Let's take a look at the playoff statistics from 2002-03 to 2012-13.

Playoff Apperances by Pace Factor Rankings: 2002-2013
Made Playoffs Missed Playoffs Percentage
Fastest 5 29 21 58%
6-25 97 103 48.5%
Slowest 5 34 16 68%

basketball-reference.com

A couple of thoughts on this chart.

  • It would seem that the slower teams have a clear advantage, which certainly passes the eye test. Over the years, many of the veteran, defensive-minded NBA contenders have succeeded by playing at a snail's pace. Either way, the teams at both extremes (fast and slow) have made the playoffs more often than the teams in the middle.
  • The team most consistently in the top five in pace? That would be the Denver Nuggets, who finished in the top five in nine out of 10 years. High-octane basketball has been a staple in Denver for decades now, as coaches try to win games by exploiting the high altitude in Denver by running opponents out of breath.
  • The Golden State Warriors play consistently fast, regardless of who is coaching them. In the past 10 seasons, the team has finished in the top five in pace under four coaches: Mike Montgomery, Don Nelson, Keith Smart and Mark Jackson.
  • Some teams switch extremes. The New York Knicks played the 2011-12 season at the fifth-fastest pace and the 2012-13 season at the fifth-slowest pace. Even the Gregg Popovich Spurs have evolved: They were consistently one of the slowest-paced teams in basketball a decade ago, but last season they reached the finals as the league's sixth-fastest team.

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Brown was an assistant coach under Popovich, so there's no guarantee he will continue this kind of tempo with future rosters. At the moment, he is doing what any good Popovich man would do: Maximize the talent on the roster by any means necessary.

 

Future Benefits

Already this season, the Sixers have drawn comparisons to the fictional Cleveland Indians squad from the film Major LeagueThey weren't built to win. Their management probably doesn't want them to win. There's no earthly reason they should win. But they win.

The Sixers haven't played particularly well since their blazing start, though; they're just 2-8 in their past 10 games. They probably don't have the chops to be a contender, even in the pathetic Eastern Conference. 

All of this begs the question: If the fast-paced play is helping the Sixers to a few extra wins, isn't it also hurting them in their quest to land a top pick in the 2014 NBA draft?

It's important to remember that Brown and Sixers management aren't just tanking this season in hopes of future draft riches. They are also trying to change a losing culture, regardless of where the ping-pong balls may land next summer. 

Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk makes a good point that, by emphasizing fitness to his young players, Brown is already creating a culture of responsibility and professionalism in Philadelphia:

Because new general manager Sam Hinkie has stocked his roster with young players, none of them have the cache to undermine Hinkie’s demands. If Brown had taken over a veteran team, its players might not be so accepting of a more rigorous regimen, and those complains would filter down to the few younger players.

If all goes well, when Philadelphia has quality veterans in a few years, getting into great shape will have become an organizational standard. Players like Michael Carter-Williams will explain to their younger teammates how much it helped them.

The 76ers aren't simply hoarding young players and twiddling their thumbs until the draft. They are being proactive in developing the players already on the rostersome of whom, like Carter-Williams, have the potential to be stars on the next great Sixers team. 

So forget the Major League jokes. The Philadelphia 76ers are now a well-run organization, from top to bottom. Everything they do has a purpose, both for this season and for the future.

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