Princeton Report: Sixers' Offense Slumping Before A.I.'s Arrival

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2009

DALLAS - NOVEMBER 30:  Guard Andre Iguodala #9 of the Philadelphia 76ers rebounds against Dirk Nowitzki #41 and Jason Kidd #2 of the Dallas Mavericks on November 30, 2009 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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With Allen Iverson's triumphant return to a Sixers uniform coming just one week ago from tonight, I wanted to take a minute to break down the good and the bad of the Sixers' offense in the first quarter of the season, pre-Iverson.

In case media opinion of Iverson quickly sours in Philadelphia... just remember, the team certainly wasn't on a long winning streak when he signed with the team.

The Sixers took the league by storm by jumping out to a stunning 5-15 record. They've clearly established their place near the top of the Eastern Conference...lottery teams. Before Iverson suited up against Denver, the Sixers had lost nine straight games. (They've since managed to run that dubious streak to 12 straight losses.)

So, what's gone wrong for the Sixers so far? (Besides two-month injuries to their two young, upcoming stars, Lou Williams and Marresse Speights, and a complete inability to adapt to Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense, of course.)

Well, that lack of adaptation to Jordan's offense is a good place to start.

In the preseason, Jordan admitted that his version of the Princeton offense—a passing-based, high-motion offense  that often requires all five players to rotate to three or four spots on the court in a possession—would take some time for the Sixers to learn. He predicted that the team would start feeling comfortable with the offense around Thanksgiving.

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"We're not quite there, yet," he said. "We knew it would be a process to get to a level where we're really clicking. When that happens, it's going to be a beautiful thing to be a part of, and I know that."

Well...that comment came on Oct. 30, before the Sixers' home-opening win against the Milwaukee Bucks.  

And we're past Thanksgiving, with no noticeable uptick in offense. What's happened in the month and a half since?

Don't underestimate the impact of the injuries to second-year forward Marreese Speights, and fifth-year starting point guard Lou Williams.  

Speights had been the best player per minute on the team before going down with a partial tear of his MCL, and rumors had been flying about a potential starting lineup switch with Speights and Elton Brand.

And any time a team loses its starting point guard (Williams) for two months, it's likely going to struggle, especially if that team plugs in a 19-year-old rookie who didn't play the point during his one year in college. Keep in mind that before breaking his jaw, Williams ranked second on the team in assists, averaging 5.1 dimes per game, and he led the team in scoring for three straight games right before his injury.

Why have the remaining players struggled so much to adapt?

"It's been hard, I'm not going to lie," said small forward Thaddeus Young, after the Sixers' 102-97 loss to Memphis back on Nov. 20. "We'll have certain plays where we're supposed to make a cut and set a screen here, or set a screen there, maybe receive a flare screen after you pass the ball. It's a lot to try to remember on one play. It's going to take time."

Young's comments should hopefully shed some light on the psychology behind the adaptation to the Princeton—namely, it takes a good bit of time to learn the offense and become comfortable with it. Jordan's asking the players to routinely run plays they've never run before.

Statistically, the Sixers' numbers on offense are...well, offensive.

The team ranks near the bottom of the league in basically any statistical measure you can find. John Hollinger at ESPN ranks them 20th in offensive efficiency, projecting that the Sixers would score 102.8 points per 100 possessions. Basketball-Reference.com also ranks them 20th in the NBA, although they project the Sixers to score 105.6 points/100 possessions. Strike one.

Defensively, the numbers are even worse—Basketball-Reference.com and Hollinger both rank them 29th in the league, only ahead of the Toronto Raptors. Strike two.

The Sixers shoot a .489 effective field goal percentage (a statistic that compensates for three-point shooting, using the formula [FG + 0.5 *3P/FGA] ), while they allow their opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of .530 percent.  

Aaaand... strike three! You're outta here, Philly! (That was the playoffs talking. If Philly keeps this kind of play up, they'll be lottery bound, not playoff bound.)

Not surprisingly, Basketball-Reference.com and 82games.com both rank the Sixers as one of the slowest teams in the league pace-wise, as the Sixers average 91 possessions per game.  

Unlike the futile offensive effectiveness numbers, the slow pace should be expected, given that players running the Princeton offense often try to milk the shot clock.

The team looks for an open man and/or the best shot on every possession; a team running the Princeton should typically look like the direct opposite of Mike D'Antoni's Seven Seconds or Less offense that he ran during his time in Phoenix.

This doesn't mean that the team will be boring necessarily—when run correctly, the Princeton generates mismatches and backdoor cuts that make the offense look unstoppable—it just means that the Sixers must maximize each possession, given that they'll be generating less possessions than an average NBA team.

And this is where the Sixers' offense has struggled so far. Wasted possessions have turned into the Sixers' albatross in the first quarter of the season.  

Assist me?

A team that runs the Princeton absolutely cannot rank in the bottom half in the league in assists...but the Sixers find themselves right there, in 20th with 19.5 assists/game (compared to Utah's league leading 25.3 assists/game).

For a team that (theoretically) prides itself on passing, making the smart play, and maximizing the available talents, devolving into a one-on-one offense spells trouble for the Sixers.  

Jordan includes some isolation plays in his offense by design (thanks to his time in Washington with Gilbert Arenas), which theoretically plays to Iverson's strengths. But before Iverson, only Williams showed a consistent ability to take advantage of his quickness and break down his defender one-on-one.

But those isolation plays need to fall into the hands of the backcourt, with Williams, Iverson and Iguodala...not the front court of Sam Dalembert and Elton Brand.

Big man troubles

In fact, Dalembert (and the center position, in general) has been the weakest link for the Sixers thus far.  

Considering that the Princeton offense relies on high basketball IQ, and that Sammy still can't seem to understand that he's about as offensively challenged as Shaquille O'Neal from the free throw line, the two seem to be fundamentally at odds.

82games.com breaks the team down by position and reveals a startling .456 effective field goal percentage for the center spot on the Sixers (compared to the opponents' centers averaging .575 percent from the floor).

Seeing as the center should be the player who knocks down the most close shots (and his iFG of 44 percent reflects that nearly half of his shots come from close range), shooting anywhere below .500 is tragically terrible.

The center position for the Sixers has averaged 15.9 PER (a statistical measure developed by Hollinger to determine a player's effectiveness on a per-minute basis)...while opposing teams' centers have averaged 21.7.  

A six point difference in PER suggests that a number of the Sixers' losses have been derived from a stark contrast in front court talent.  

With the center position only averaging 2.3 assists per game, with 3.2 turnovers, the Sixers' opponents have clearly found ways to take advantage of big man matchups against Dalembert.

The power forward position hasn't been much better for the Sixers, on an assist/turnover ratio basis. The Sixers' PFs have racked up a whopping 1.6 assists per game, while turning the ball over an average of 2.7 times.   

While the front courts of their opponents also sport a less-than-1.0 AST/TO ratio (opponents' power forwards average 2.8 assists and 3.1 turnovers. Centers average 2.3 assists and 2.8 turnovers), their numbers are much more in line with the league averages...and their effective shooting percentages of .525 and .575 respectively more than make up for their AST/TO deficiencies.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, they can't say the same.

Looking forward

All hope is not lost for the Sixers. (All hope to trade Dalembert, on the other hand, might need to wait until next season's trade deadline, when he becomes a 7-foot, $13 million expiring contract.)

The team hasn't been blown out of many games in their current 12-game losing streak. They're simply breaking down defensively in crucial, end-of-game situations, allowing teams to score easy, back-breaking buckets.

Against both the Pistons and the Rockets in this past week, the Sixers found themselves in the game until the very last minute. All hope is not lost.

The Sixers must re-focus themselves on playing team basketball and maximizing each possession if they stand a chance to right their ship, though. (And never letting Sammy shoot, unless he's less than five feet from the basket and wide open.)

"I don’t think we’re not mad enough," said Iguodala after Friday's most recent loss to the Houston Rockets. "We’ve got to go out there and be angry. There comes a point where we’ve got to get down to the nitty gritty and just go out there and win."

If the Sixers can mix the right amount of smarts and emotion, the team could easily turn around this 12-game losing streak.

If not? Start the "When will Iverson throw his first tantrum?" countdown. 

Quick shots:

—The Sixers allow a higher assist rate to their opponents on all shots than they register offensively. (Sixers' assists: 67 percent on jumpers, 43 percent on close shots, 63 percent on dunks; opponents' assists: 69 percent on jumpers, 49 percent on close shots, 67 percent on dunks.)  

—The Sixers assist percentage increases incrementally the more they use the shot clock. (Using 0-10 secs on shot clock = 49 percent assists, 11-15 secs = 54 percent assists, 16-20 secs = 57 percent assists, 21-24 secs = 60 percent assists).  

Not quite sure what that statistic indicates, besides the fact that on the surface, it'd appear that the Princeton offense is actually taking hold. The longer they hold the ball, the more likely it is that they get their teammates involved.  

—On a related note, the Sixers' effective field goal percentage drops dramatically the more they use the shot clock. If they get a shot off in the first 10 seconds, they're shooting a solid .556 percent; if they wait to use the whole shot clock, their effective shooting percentage plummets to a pathetic .414. (And it's even worse in 16-20 secs range: .406 percent effective shooting!!)

—Defensively, the Sixers lag most in the 11-15 second shot clock range—opponents are shooting .527 percent and getting assists on 71 percent of those baskets.

—One positive offensive note: the Sixers are averaging 8.5 steals/game compared to their opponents' 6.9 steals/game.  Winning any part of the turnover battle is a good start.