Philadelphia Team Report: What's the Endgame?

Posted on Fri 15 February 2013 in 2013 Team Reports by Aaron McGuire


Coming off my 370-part player capsule series, I'm taking on a significantly less absurd task -- a 30-part frame examining the evolution of the individual teams in the NBA's 2013 season. Some in medias res, others as the season ends. Somewhat freeform, with a designated goal to bring you a few observations of note about the team's season, a view into the team's ups and downs, and a rough map of what to expect going forward. Today, we cover a team I was skeptical of entering the season, but whose collapse I really didn't see coming -- the 2013 Sixers, of course.

Fun story -- I actually didn't like Philadelphia that much as we entered the 2013 season. A few reasons for that: Bynum's injury was worrisome given his prior injury history, they replaced their best offensive player (Lou Williams) with Nick Young, and I wasn't a big fan of any of their non-Bynum moves. Still, the general consensus that they were a high upside team with potential outclassing the names on the roster -- after all, Doug Collins had guided a roster of relative no-names and young castaways to a game short of the Eastern Conference Finals a year prior, right? No way they'd disappoint. Except for the "no way" part, since that's exactly what happened. Let's examine how.

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A few comments on the format of the statbox. EFF DIFF indicates the average margin of victory per 100 possessions. OPP SRS indicates the opponent's strength using Basketball Reference's "Simple Rating System" -- high numbers indicate a hard stretch of schedule, low numbers indicate an easy one. W/L and H/A are straightforward, and ORTG/DRTG/POSS are calculated using the Basketball Reference formula. For more on the metrics in the bottom panel, see their page on Dean Oliver's four factors. Savvy?


A few metrics and observations of note in this split:

  • BEST STRETCH: This one's pretty obvious -- from late January to early February, the Sixers went on a pretty nice run. One of the few good ones this season. It wasn't exactly a murderer's row of opponents, but it was a good stretch. They lost to Milwaukee and Memphis in close games, coupling that with their best win of the season (a blowout of the Knicks) and a few blowouts over the East's cellar (the Bobcats and the Magic, obviously). Add in some comfortable wins against the Wizards and the Kings and you have their best stretch. It's really not much, but that's the kind of year they're having.

  • WORST STRETCH: They were pretty atrocious in December as a whole -- they went 4-11 over the month. But in these particular two-week splits, the worst stretch has to be their 1-6 schneid around the middle of the month. They went 1-6 against generally weak competition, including an embarrassing home blowout loss to the Lakers and a 0-4 road record against the Pacers, Mavericks, Rockets, and Nets. Their only saving grace? A single blowout win against the Hawks. Not their finest hour.

Let's not beat around the bush -- the Sixers have been poor. Awful. Atrocious. They're still in the weeds of a tepid Eastern playoff race, but that's only on the assumption that Rondo's absence eventually leads to a Boston collapse -- it's unlikely they leapfrog Milwaukee, so Boston's theoretical collapse is their only real in-roads. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the two teams directly around them in the standings -- Toronto and Detroit -- are both a touch better than they are. At the 51-game mark, the Sixers rate out as one of the worst offensive teams in the league and a marginally above average defense. They're a defensive team, theoretically, but they're mostly just a bad one -- all things considered, Washington's shown a much higher defensive ceiling than Philadelphia has and they're a better offense as well, now that Wall's returned.

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Last season, around the conference finals, I performed an analysis of each conference finalist's "perfect" pace -- essentially, I split pace into four buckets (slow, mid-slow, mid-fast, fast) and assessed records and efficiency for each conference finalist in each bucket. I've decided to bring that type of analysis back to give a bit more context on the way teams are best suited to play. A reminder of what's going on here: I've split every game played this season into four buckets based on the number of possessions played -- one for slow, one mid-slow, one mid-fast, one fast. Quartiles. I've set up my program to update the quartiles as more games get played, so the designations may change slightly as time goes on. As for the statistics provided, they're similar to those you'll see above. There's the team's efficiency differential in that pace bucket, the average opponent differential of their opponents in that bucket on all games played, wins and losses, home and away totals, offensive ratings, defensive ratings, and a nice collection of the team's four factors stats. Good talk.

Here's how the Sixers have done by each bucket:


Some interesting stuff. A few observations on the overall distribution here.

  • By design, Doug Collins likes his teams to focus on grind-it-out basketball. The man's happiest when his teams play turtle-slow basketball and grind the opponent into submission. That's... just about exactly what they've been doing, too! Almost 40% of Philadelphia's games were played at a snail's pace, at less than 88 possessions per contest. The Sixers have punched slightly above their weight at that pace -- they actually defend a bit worse than they do at faster paces, but their halfcourt offense does actually work a bit better when it's used less.

  • One thing that may surprise you is how Philadelphia did in the 10 games they've played at over 95 possessions per contest. They really haven't been that bad. Their offense falls apart when they play fast, but their defense has shown to be a bit more stingy at high speeds, primarily because their rebounding improves and they force a lot of turnovers. This matches the eye test, as well -- when you watch some of the games Philadelphia has played at breakneck speeds, like this solid win against the Rockets, one of the first things you notice is just how comfortable Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young are when they're sprinting the floor and given free reign to challenge all quick passing lanes. They played a harder slate in those 10 "fast" games but still posted performances above their average. Good stuff.

  • Overall, the Sixers have posted a winning record from exactly zero of these possession buckets -- there's no particularly notable pace of the game that strengthens them considerably. They play slow because Doug Collins likes to play slow. While it isn't exactly working out gangbusters for them, there aren't a whole lot of other options -- they play a bit better at breakneck speeds but transitioning to such a style falls squarely outside Collins' expertise. When nothing really helps, you do what you know.

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I really can't restate it enough -- the Philadelphia 76ers are one of the biggest disappointments of the season. The higher profile struggles of the Lakers and the Celtics have obfuscated it, but this is an astonishingly poor season for a franchise that thought it was putting its hens in order. In the preseason, I thought they'd go 40-42. That's good for a 3 game drop from last season's standard, but hardly anything close to the currently projected 35-47 record that Basketball Reference forecasts them for. There were two main causes, so far as I see it, for their currently awful season.

  • ANDREW BYNUM. I don't want to beat it into the ground, because it isn't really reasonable. But Bynum hasn't played a single game for them. He's the best player on a not-particularly-deep team -- that was going to hurt no matter what happened. All that said, I stop short of attributing all of their struggles to Bynum's absence. As good as Andrew Bynum is, we still have yet to see him acting as a team's first option on offense and we have yet to see how he recovers from his latest injury. Bynum's notorious for long recovery time and occasional flagging effort -- while it's possible he would've fixed everything for Philadelphia, it's hard to simply assume he would.

  • A TERRIBLE SUMMER. Let's be straight, here -- the Sixers had an atrocious summer. The Bynum trade was decent in theory, if you consider just how tepid the trade market was for Andre Iguodala in the first place. But almost every single other move they made this summer went sour. Replacing Lou Williams with Nick Young has proven to be an unreasonably massive downgrade, and replacing Elton Brand with Kwame Brown has been arguably worse. Spencer Hawes has played so poorly he's had trouble living up to his contract, even though it's a massive bargain-bin deal. Dorrell Wright has been mediocre at best, Royal Ivey has been worse than Jodie Meeks (really? REALLY?!), and Jason Richardson is messing up their future cap situation (more on that in a second). Even if Bynum WAS playing, it's impossible to argue that Philadelphia made lateral moves this summer. Their wheeling and dealing dramatically harmed their team.

The second bullet is the more important one. They may yet sign Bynum to a max contract, and he may yet suit up and prove he deserves it. But Philadelphia got worse at virtually every position they touched this summer. That's phenomenally hard to do. It's also difficult to have a year as bad as the one Philadelphia's having in concert with your young stars having breakout years, but Philadelphia's aggressively poor offseason made sure of that. Seriously -- Jrue Holiday has taken a quantum leap forward and Thaddeus Young has looked phenomenal this season. If during the offseason you'd told me that either of those would happen, I would've predicted 48-54 wins. Even if Bynum was out! But alas. Sometimes your moves simply don't work out.

This season's an obvious casualty of a few moves that didn't work out, but it's worth mentioning that next season may be out too. Philadelphia currently has $44 million in the books for next season, and that's without resigning Bynum, Nick Young, or Dorrell Wright -- once they resign Bynum, they'll be over the salary cap and reduced to scrounging for the lower-priced scraps on the market. It's certainly possible that a three man core of Bynum/Holiday/Thaddeus can contend for a middling-tier playoff spot in a barren Eastern conference, but it's hard to see a championship endgame for a team like that without some excellent depth and some better wings. If Evan Turner didn't look atrocious, that might change matters -- but he's looked bad.

The Sixers are perilously close to losing all financial flexibility, partly because of their taking on Jason Richardson in the Andrew Bynum deal. Richardson's looked over the hill with a foot out the door for two seasons now, and he's still got $12 million left on his contract after this season. Richardson probably takes Philadelphia out of the picture in the incoming free agency bonanza during the 2014 offseason. Which all translates to a murky, hazy future. Philadelphia doesn't look like a title contender, or anything close -- if they resign Bynum, their upside appears to be a second round Hawks-type faux contender. What's the endgame? I really don't know. We'll see soon enough.

Here's hoping it goes a bit better than last year's endgame.

For more Sixers scouting, check out the 2012 Philadelphia 76ers player capsules.

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Since I'm dealing with teams, now, riddles come cheap -- I'll be using a trio of random statistics or facts from a random subset of the next team's last season. If you can intuit what the next team is from these numbers, you're a scientist of the utmost brilliance. Today's facts about our next team are:

  • Team #5 plays relatively fast -- they don't always play at the fastest pace, but they almost never play slow. They've only played 8 games this season at under 88 possessions a contest, which is one of the lowest totals in the NBA. They've been consistently awful all year regardless of their pace, and their rotation is an absolute mess. Their coach infuriates me and they're having one of the worst 5-year stretches any franchise has ever gone through. At least they're 11-12 against the East. Wait, what.

Best of luck. See you next week.