When Sam Hinkie was hired by the Philadelphia 76ers to oversee their roster rebuild as general manager, wholesale changes to the franchise’s basketball philosophy were both obvious and inevitable.
Hinkie eventually hired Brett Brown, a like-minded analytical coach who’d spent the past 11 years working inside the San Antonio Spurs organization, commonly known as basketball’s Pentagon.
The organizational hierarchy was in place, and so far we’ve seen some significant changes on the defensive end. Compared to the way former head coach Doug Collins did things, Philadelphia is now on the opposite side of the spectrum. Let’s look at a few ideas Brown has implemented, and how they differ from what was previously in place.
Doug Collins "Controlled" the Past
Last season, the Sixers flustered opponents with a defense that was both smart and disciplined. They had principles, allowing only 4.8 corner three-pointer attempts per game, good for fourth lowest in the league. And from those attempts, opponents knocked in just 35.6 percent, good for third lowest in the league.
Philadelphia also ended the season allowing the 10th-most mid-range jumpers, which is the exact shot any good defense loves to see the opposition settle on. They stayed at home and sagged on pick-and-rolls.
In terms of rim protection, they were above average at keeping scorers out of the restricted area (and downright dominant once they got there) despite not having an intimidating defensive center—like Andrew Bynum—roaming the paint.
According to NBA.com/Stats, Philadelphia’s opponents shot 60 percent in the restricted area last season, which was 0.01 percent higher than the Memphis Grizzlies—a team that boasted Marc Gasol, the Defensive Player of the Year.
Overall, they surrendered 103.0 points per 100 possessions and ranked 15th in the league. Average, but impressive for a team that won only 34 games and missed out on the playoffs.
Doug Collins tried his best with the talent he had by basing his offense around mid-range jump shots, dampening his team’s vulnerability in transition. Philadelphia was the 10th-slowest team in the league. For the most part, his strategy worked.
Philadelphia ended the season as the eighth-best transition defense in the NBA, according to mySynergySports. Collins had his defense “under control,” even if the cost was more efficient looks on offense.
Open Offense Creating Porous Defense
Flash forward to this year, and just about everything in Philadelphia is different, with the most significant change being how fast the team operates. This team leads the league in pace, and has done so nearly the entire season. They move quickly, firing shots from all over the court. How does that affect the defense? Being that the talent is lacking, it absolutely destroys them in transition.
According to mySynergySports, Philadelphia has the third-worst transition defense in the league. They’re loaded with young players who get lost running back on defense and surrender 18.1 fast break points per game, a league worst.
Their speedy offense also hurts in the turnover department, where the Sixers give up 19.7 points per game off turnovers on the other end. Only the Houston Rockets allow more.
In the half court, things are somewhat simple given the roster’s completely overwhelming inexperience. They pack the paint in an attempt to thwart shots at the rim, then rotate out to the three-point line. Unfortunately, those rotations are either way too late or never come at all.
Look at James Anderson's face in the picture above. As the ball is inbounded to his man from the baseline, for whatever reason he chooses to pay attention to a possible screen taking place at the elbow. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Plays like this aren't uncommon.
Michael Carter-Williams and Evan Turner often act as free safeties off the ball, doubling down in the post and diving into passing lanes. They’re active, but the constant gambling is a serious problem for Philadelphia’s defense beyond the arc.
Here's Turner over-helping on David Lee in the paint, leaving his man wide open in the corner for an open three. There have been dozens of plays just like it this season, and they've resulted in disaster.
The Sixers allow 8.6 corner-three attempts per game, almost double last year’s average and firmly planted as worst in the league. On threes that come above the break, only the Oklahoma City Thunder allow more attempts per game, and only the Brooklyn Nets allow more makes.
Here we have a mad scramble of embarrassing proportions, with two Sixers rushing to guard an open LeBron James behind the line. He simply waits for them to rush by, then launches a three.
It’s a serious problem, and most of the attempts come in transition, when opposing players find themselves super wide open to bomb away from behind the arc.
As of Dec. 6, the Sixers were giving up the fourth-most points per possession in the league. They don’t get back on defense, they can’t defend the three-point line, and they’re loaded with comparatively bad and young basketball players (nobody on the team is older than 25) who've been asked to fit into a super fast system that prioritizes offensive emanation.
Defense isn’t a priority in Philadelphia right now. But good defense also leads to consistency and winning. And this season, that isn’t what this team is all about.
Michael Pina is a contributor at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.