Hollinger's Team Forecast: Philadelphia 76ers
In its first year post-Allen Iverson, Philadelphia started 5-13 and seemed headed for the first of many years of drudgery at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Though the worst excesses of the Billy King era were no longer around, the Sixers were saddled with long-term contracts for middling players like Kyle Korver, Willie Green, and Sam Dalembert, and for the first time in ages had no major stars to build around. Playing before sparse crowds, the franchise seemed adrift.
W-L: 40-42 (Pythagorean W-L: 42-40)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.0 (20th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.4 (10th)
Pace Factor: 93.1 (20th)
Highest PER: Andre Iguodala (19.05)
The Sixers fired King at that point, which in retrospect seems a bit unfair -- a lot of his moves began bearing fruit immediately afterward. Andre Miller, the main player acquired in the Iverson deal, recovered after a slow start to post the best season of his career. Young draft choices like Louis Williams, Thaddeus Young and Jason Smith began producing to solidify what looked like a very iffy second unit. Even Green and Dalembert played better, though still not justifying their contracts.
Kick-starting the turnaround was King's replacement, Ed Stefanski. The former second-in-command in New Jersey convinced coach Maurice Cheeks to play his youngsters more, allowing players like Young, Williams and Smith to see the light of day. Their presence energized an already fast and athletic roster to the point that it overwhelmed opponents on some nights.
Stefanski also made a hugely important deal, sending Korver to Utah for Gordan Giricek and a first-round pick. Unloading Korver's contract was vital to the Sixers' free-agent plans for the summer of 2008 -- eventually netting them Elton Brand -- and the fact that the Sixers actually got something of value in the deal was an added plus.
Highest Opp. Turnover Rate: 2007-08 Leaders
|TEAM||% OF OPP. POSSESIONS W/ TO|
The rejuvenated Sixers went 22-12 down the stretch after an 18-30 start, finished a game under .500 and scared the daylights out of Detroit in the first round of the playoffs before eventually succumbing.
The key to it all was the Sixers' defense, which finished 10th in the league in defensive efficiency, and more specifically, its ability to press, trap and force turnovers. Philadelphia's defense was average or worse in most respects: Opponents shot 49.3 percent against the Sixers on 2-pointers, ranking them 20th in the league, and they gave up an above-average number of 3-pointers and offensive boards.
Combine those numbers and you'd think they'd have a horrible defense, but they were good because their opponents couldn't get a shot off in the first place. Philadelphia's opponents only averaged .952 shots per possession (defining a free throw as 0.44 shot attempts), the third-best mark in the league. And the reason they couldn't take shots was because of all the turnovers the Sixers forced.
Philadelphia forced miscues on 16.9 percent of opponent possessions, ranking second only to Boston's mighty defense in this category (see chart). A big part was that the Sixers led the league in steals, but also forced an above-average number of conventional turnovers -- three seconds, passes out of bounds, offensive fouls and the like.
Additionally, they were able to do this without fouling. Despite all the steals, Philly was fifth in opponent free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt at 0.265. As a result, their opponents' true shooting percentage wasn't nearly as high as you might think looking at the shooting percentages they gave up.
The turnovers had one other important effect: They provided transition opportunities for an offense that had profound difficulty scoring in the halfcourt. The Sixers were only 20th in offensive efficiency, and the amazing part of it is that they led the league in offensive rebound rate by a wide margin, pulling down 31.8 percent of their own misses.
But from outside, these guys were hopeless. The Sixers were dead last in 3-point shooting at 31.7 percent and very nearly last in the percent of shots that were 3s at 14.3 percent -- and this was despite employing one of the league's best shooters for a third of a season in Korver. The shooting woes weren't confined to 3-pointers, either; Philly was also dead last from the line at 70.6 percent.
Worst 3-Point Shooting Teams, 2007-08
|TEAM||3-PT %||3-PT ATT. PER 100 FGA|
The effect of the lack of 3-pointers went much deeper than just a few points lost on perimeter shots. Opponents sagged in the paint and laid in wait for the Sixers, knowing full well they couldn't beat them from outside. The starting backcourt consisted of Miller, who made three triples all year, and Green, who shot 28.5 percent from downtown; Philly also featured rotation players such as Kevin Ollie and Reggie Evans who had no range whatsoever.
That they made the playoffs despite all that is impressive, and is another in a long line of second-half U-turns from Cheeks. Despite his laid-back demeanor, his teams have seemed to jell under him as the season goes on -- amazingly, last year was the fourth time in six years that he'd gone exactly 24-17 over the final 41 games. Over his seven-year coaching career, he's won only 39.0 percent of his games in the first half of the season, but 53.0 percent afterward.
Biggest Strength: Transition offenseThe Sixers are a blur in transition, which is why it's so important to avoid live-ball turnovers against them. It all starts with Miller. Yes, he's 32 and out of shape, but he's also one of the best transition players in basketball. He throws the alley-oop as well as any player in history, has an outstanding array of short bank shots that he can hit on pull-ups, and almost never makes the wrong decision.
|What roster moves did the 76ers make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider|
He has plenty of teammates to run with him. Iguodala is a fearsome dunker and a strong ball handler himself who can generate many of his own transition opportunities, while Williams is among the league's fastest players and creates odd-man advantages with his speed, though he can get wildly out of control.
Up front, Young is a combo forward who is among the league's most promising young players. He went completely under the radar last year, but he's a good athlete who can handle the ball and finish with either hand around the rim, adding another transition threat. And up front, Dalembert is one of the league's speediest big men.
Biggest Weakness: ShootingDidn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this one, huh? Philadelphia's projected starting lineup includes only one 3-point threat in Iguodala, and even he is more of a slasher than a pure outside shooter. Miller is OK from midrange but won't shoot 3s, while small forward Young is shifting to the perimeter from last year's power forward spot and likely will need another year to perfect his long-range stroke.
That's why Philly may turn to its bench quite a bit. Marshall and Rush are the two most established snipers in terms of career numbers, but the guy to watch is Williams. A rising star who is one of the league's top sixth men, he hit 35.9 percent from downtown last season and has improved his numbers every year. If he can establish himself as a true long-range weapon, he'll likely be finishing a lot of games at the 2 instead of Young, with Iguodala moving up to the 3; alternately, Philly can move Brand to center and Young to power forward with that arrangement.
Brand's arrival completes Philadelphia's rapid-fire transition from doormat to contender. This is one of the East's most-talented teams and they're well-stocked for the future, as rising stars like Young (20), Iguodala (24) and Williams (21) are still well on the upswing side of their careers.
The shooting is a concern, obviously, but Philadelphia's defense should be good enough that they can win 50 games even with a middling offensive effort. If you're looking for negatives, the biggest concerns this season regard the two veterans, Miller and Brand. Miller was fantastic least season but his age and conditioning are huge worries, especially since he has no jump shot to fall back on. He'll also be a free agent after the season, so the decision whether to give him an extension is a huge one heading forward.
Brand, of course, is a worry simply because of the Achilles injury last year. He looked rusty upon his return but didn't seem like a different player, so to speak, and one suspects he'll return to All-Star form this season.
If so, the Sixers look like the third-best team in the East. They'll run teams into submission on many nights, especially at home, and now have the rock-solid post threat to win half-court battles, too. The lack of shooting seems to be the only thing standing between them and a place in the conference finals.
Prediction: 50-32, 2nd in Atlantic Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
HOLLINGER'S TEAM FORECASTS
Philadelphia 76ersTRAINING CAMP
Sept. 29: State College, Pa.
Oct. 8: vs. Boston
Oct. 29: vs. Toronto
TRAINING CAMP INDEX