The Philadelphia 76ers are supposed to be in a rebuilding phase, but so far it's hard to tell where exactly the tear-down ends and the rebuild begins.
In the one season and (nearly) two offseasons since Sam Hinkie took over as general manager, they have shipped out many of their most notable players—Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young.
In their place, they've added Michael Carter-Williams, the most recent Rookie of the Year, and Nerlens Noel, one of the biggest question marks in last year's draft.
In this most recent draft, they selected the highly rated pair of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. However, the former is recovering from surgery and the latter is still under contract in Europe, meaning neither is likely to play a minute for the 76ers this season.
They have essentially turned a mediocre roster into one built around a mix of D-League talent and tantalizing question marks—with a surfeit of extra draft picks and financial flexibility on the side.
What the 76ers have done is create a wealth of future possibilities for themselves at the expense of their present. However, none of those possibilities have become certainties, and they probably won't anytime soon.
In the interim, it's essential that they continue to move things in a positive direction organizationally while they wait and hope for the roster's smattering of young talent to coalesce.
The 76ers are likely not going to be chasing a playoff berth this year, but they do have real and tangible goals to improve.
Continue Building the System
In the three seasons (2010-2013) during which Doug Collins led the 76ers, they were always among the league leaders in the percentage of field-goal attempts coming from mid-range jumpers.
Last season, their first under head coach Brett Brown, the 76ers made some dramatic changes to their shot-distribution patterns. Derek Bodner broke some of these down in a great piece for Liberty Ballers a few weeks ago:
The difference, whether because of Hinkie and Brett Brown drilling in an offensive philosophy to the players, because of the roster change, or both, was drastic. The Sixers cut their mid-range attempts virtually in half, from it making up 32% of their attempts (most in the league) down to 16.7% of their overall field goal attempts. That 16.7% would end up being the second fewest in the league.
(Related: It's probably easy to guess who had the fewest in the league, even without clicking on the link above. That would be the Houston Rockets, Hinkie's former team, at an incredible 9.4%. Just to display how ridiculous of a number that is, the Sixers were the only team in the league that had less than double the attempts of Houston: the Nuggetscame in 3rd at 18.9%).
Obviously, the shot-distribution patterns of the hypothetical juggernaut 76ers of the future will be highly influenced by the roster at the time.
For now, the organization has been teaching a process to help nudge its players toward the good habits of generalized offensive efficiency.
It also upped the tempo at which the team played, pushing its average pace from 93.3 possessions per game to 101.6—the fastest in the league. This allowed the 76ers to leverage their athleticism, getting out in transition and generating easy baskets against a disorganized defense.
At the other end of the floor, they began instilling a different set of defensive principles, applying swarming ball pressure and working hard to generate turnovers.
Although the results were fairly lousy—they allowed 107.5 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the league—many of their key players were increasingly consistent in their implementation of the team's defensive principles.
In just one season, Hinkie and Brown have laid out a road map for how this organization will play.
Changes will certainly be made as different talents and skill sets join the roster, but their basic tenets are solid: They play with pace, take good shots and play aggressive defense. As the young roster continues to grow, it's important that these things become ingrained not just as habits, but as instincts.
Develop Their Young Talent
This ultra-slow rebuild the Sixers are attempting will only come together if some of the young assets they accumulate pan out. Since they will be waiting on Saric and Embiid this year, the focus must be on Noel and Carter-Williams.
76ers Las Vegas Summer League coach Chad Iske spoke with reporters about the challenges for Noel after a game in July:
He’s active, he’s all over the place. He’s trying to do everything, he’s trying to do too much on both ends. The hard part is do you want to just settle him down or do you want him to play with that aggressiveness? I don’t want to give him too much and cloud him, and then he’s thinking instead of playing. I think we just have to get out there and find the happy balance between him being within our rules and him being himself.
This season is Noel's introduction to professional basketball, so expecting any sort of specific quality or quantity of impact is probably foolhardy. The goal this season is to get him on the floor, acclimated with speed of the NBA game and to start getting repetitions with the structural team processes we mentioned above.
Carter-Williams, on the other hand, has a year of experience under his belt and is ready to start sanding down some of his rough edges.
Although his per-game statistics—16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists—were impressive enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors, to a certain degree they were the product of playing a lot of minutes, at a fast pace, for a bad team.
He racked up points, rebounds and assists, but also turned the ball over 3.5 times per game, just barely kept his field-goal percentage above 40 percent and shot an abysmal 26.4 percent on three-pointers.
In short, he accumulated a wealth of counted statistics but didn't fare as well in the efficiency department.
In fact, as the chart below shows, he averaged fewer win shares per 48 minutes than any previous Rookie of the Year winner going back to 1984-1985:
According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Carter-Williams was ranked 138th in the league in points per possession as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, turning the ball over on nearly one-fifth of such possessions.
A lot of his problems were simple and correctable things, like leaving his feet to make a pass:
However, he also seemed much more hesitant in the pick-and-roll than in other offensive situations, particularly with regards to attacking the basket.
Carter-Williams drew a shooting foul on just 5.9 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions—remember we're only counting possessions where took a shot, made a turnover or drew a foul—compared to averages 13.2 percent on isolations or 10.9 percent in transition.
In isolations or transition, the task is simple: attack and keep the pressure on the defense. The various options available in the pick-and-roll, the intricacies of shooting, passing and moving multiple defenders to create the best scoring opportunity, seemed to put the pressure on Carter-Williams.
Here, he misses a wide-open passing lane to his rolling big man, opting for an awkward, one-footed runner instead:
On this possession, he makes the opposite choice, forcing a pass when there is no angle instead of attacking the sagging defense:
We see the same sort of timidity here, where he opts to shoot an awkward fadeaway instead of forcing the issue with Al Jefferson, a relatively poor defender at the rim:
It's clear that Brown and the 76ers' coaching staff have encouraged Carter-Williams to be decisive in the pick-and-roll, and that message has clearly gotten through. His problem is not hesitation so much as simply reading the situation wrong.
That is exacerbated by the fact that he doesn't seem confident in his ability to force the issue in the face of a big defender.
You can see from his shot chart that there is a lot of work to do in building his scoring efficiency:
Although his jump shooting may seem like the most glaring deficiency and an obvious place to start, I think figuring out how to throttle up his pick-and-roll attacks may be more important at this point.
Figuring out how to take advantage of a retreating big man—either drawing a foul or creating a better angle for a shot—seems like it would pay more offensive dividends since he spends so much time with the ball in his hands.
The 76ers don't appear in any rush to return to the league's upper echelon, preferring to take their time and make sure things are done in a sustainable way. But don't be fooled into thinking they are just waiting, killing time until luck strikes. They have a plan and they're putting things together piece by piece.
Just like any other team, they're hoping for forward motion this season.
However, their successes will be found around the margins—not in win totals and playoff seeds, but in the steady march of player development and an ever-increasing consistency in their style of play.
Unless otherwise noted, statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.