When Brett Brown took over as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, he knew the road ahead would be vicious. Apart from Thaddeus Young and maybe Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia's roster lacked any players who were even marginally above average.
His point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, was a rookie and no players on the entire roster would be older than 25. This was a team built to lose—some might say intentionally—so Brown did what any smart coach would do and implemented an offensive identity that's easy to grasp, a joy to play and would give this over-matched Sixers team a shot in the dark at actually winning some games every now and then.
The Sixers went from being one of the 10 slowest teams in the league last year to its stand alone fastest this season, according to NBA.com/Stats.
That’s the first and most important fact you need to know about how Brown transformed this team’s stylistic infrastructure. They love running every chance they get and the type of shots they’re after are different from the ones hunted last season.
The Sixers were the league’s 26th best offense last year. According to NBA.com/Stats, they attempted a league-high 2400 mid-range jumpers and 449 corner-threes, which was slightly above league average. Only 13.1 percent of their points were scored from the free-throw line (dead last), and 20.9 percent of their total field goal attempts came behind the three-point arc—only the Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls were lower.
Philadelphia’s head coach at the time, Doug Collins, had fingerprints all over most possessions. There was very little freedom. They played a slower, time-honored style that led to inefficient attempts and painful development.
The offense was stale bread.
Under Brown, Philadelphia is obsessed with entering their offense—whether that be pick-and-rolls, swift post-ups involving Hawes or layups off a speedy rim rum—as quickly as possible. The first open look almost always coincides with the first shot attempt.
According to 82Games.com, 46 percent of Philadelphia’s shots take place within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. Last season it was 39 percent.
Only the Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons are averaging fewer mid-range jump shots per game, according to NBA.com/Stats. And they’re right at league average with just over a quarter of their overall field goal attempts coming behind the three-point line.
Inside their increased commitment to the three-point line is how they’ve used Hawes. Last season he attempted 87 threes in 82 games. Through his first 21 games this season, Hawes has already reached that number and he's making 44.8 percent of them.
It spreads to how Philadelphia uses the roll man on their quick pick-and-roll action. According to mySynergySports, the Sixers have already attempted 31 three-pointers when the roll man pops out for a shot. Last season that number was 35 and only 10 of them went in. This year they’ve made 16.
Here's an example against the Charlotte Bobcats.
Facing a Hawes and Evan Turner side pick-and-roll, the Bobcats attempt to ice the play by dropping Hawes' man down to corral Turner. Now unguarded, Hawes pops outside beyond the three-point line and—after some unnecessary dribbling theatrics—Turner hits him for the open shot.
Despite all the philosophical simplifications, Philadelphia’s offense hasn’t been any more effective than it was last season. They’re still ranked 26th offensively, serving as a harsh reminder that talent is still a vital ingredient in the NBA and scheme can only get you so far.
Several Sixers, like Turner and Hawes, are having career campaigns, but the team is still severely lacking on overall skill. Here's a look at how, regardless of their ultimately incurable deficiency, Brown's team puts defenses on their heels.
Tony Wroten—all but 20 years old—is pushing the ball in transition. Two of his teammates are running up the court but are still (way) behind the three-point line, which forces two of Minnesota's defenders to be wary of allowing a wide open shot from the perimeter.
(Not that Corey Brewer or Kevin Love are elite rim protectors, but they're still human bodies that could mitigate a drive into the paint.)
Wroten sees the basket, analyzes Minnesota's defense—which was forced to switch in transition (with Ricky Rubio picking up Evan Turner in the corner)—and knows he's much quicker than Kevin Martin. So he attacks.
Wroten hits Martin with a Euro-step and scores at the rim. It was the easiest, smartest thing he could have done, slashing towards the basket with only a minus-defender in his path and nobody behind him to help.
The Sixers are all about getting up the court as quickly as possible. Oftentimes they'll either go into a quick pick-and-roll to test the defense's basic execution, or create some sort of open look off a post-up.
Here are examples of each.
First we have Wroten and Hawes running a high pick-and-roll in transition against the Los Angeles Clippers. As Clippers center DeAndre Jordan begins to hedge—done in an attempt to momentarily pause Philadelphia's oncoming attack—Hawes simply slides towards the middle of the court where he's hit with a quick dump off.
Now wide open and with several options at his disposal, Hawes opts to shoot the wide open mid-range jumper. Given the mismatch he would've had in front of him and Jared Dudley's overeager help off Turner to his right, there were better alternatives than the shot Hawes took.
But Philadelphia loves taking the first open shot available and Hawes was open.
The clip above comes seconds after Clippers guard Willie Green nailed a three from the corner. Does that hinder Philadelphia's pace? Not in the slightest. It takes them four (!) seconds to get Hawes in a post-up.
Once he catches it, Young sets a back pick on Wroten's man and Hawes passes it out for the open three. It's an uncomplicated sequence and one the Sixers go to time and time again.
Attacking defenses before they can get back and set up in the half-court is a strategic improvement from last year. The offense is now straightforward and smart.
Given the players on board, Brett Brown has no other choice.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.