For the second consecutive year Liberty Ballers is participating in the annual NBA Blog Preview series conducted by Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog fame. Below is this year's entry and I did my best to redeem myself from last year's preview, which I blame entirely on Eddie Jordan.
Team Name: Philadelphia 76ers
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Sixers made significant changes in every area this off-season. They snatched the reigns from plan-less General Manager, Ed Stefanski and hired his former boss, Rod Thorn as Team President. Unfortunately Stefasnki remains employed, but Thorn should be the primary decision maker.
Thorn has a decorated past in the NBA -- dating back to the 60's -- and a pretty good track record in the front office. He was the Bulls General Manager from 1978-1984 and the Nets President from 2000-2010. Our friends at Nets Daily have detailed and graded every move Thorn orchestrated during his Nets tenure -- an absolute must-read. At the very least Sixers fans should feel less uncomfortable about the team now than they did when Stefanski was calling the shots.
Moving down the organizational ladder, the Sixers also saw dramatic improvement at head coach. The day following the season finale the Sixers kicked Eddie Jordan and his Princeton Offense to the curb and began their search for a new head coach. Under Jordan the Sixers were a team who lacked discipline, toughness, and the energy they had played each game with the previous two years. Jordan also implemented his system, which magnified the players weaknesses rather than strengths. In hindsight Eddie Jordan was a terrible fit for this team, and they were a terrible fit for him, which is probably why the Sixers went out and hired Jordan's polar-opposite, Doug Collins.
Collins will serve as a leader and role model for the Sixers young core -- something they've desperately lacked. He will also put them in position to succeed by allowing them to play to their strengths. For more on Collins, his past, and his fit with the Sixers check out the post I wrote last month.
As for the roster itself, the Sixers made two significant moves. First, they traded Sam Dalembert to the Sacramento Kings for Andres Nocioni and Spencer Hawes. Short term, this trade makes the Sixers a worse basketball team. Dalembert was the Sixers only serviceable interior defender last season, and without him they're depending on either Marreese Speights and/or Spencer Hawes to defend the paint -- not likely. That, or 2006 Elton Brand returns from the dead -- also not likely.
Dalembert was the Sixers best defensive rebounder as well, and finished third in the NBA with a 30.7 DREB% (percentage of defensive rebounds grabbed while on the floor), behind only Marcus Camby and Dwight Howard. The Sixers next best defensive rebounder was Marreese Speights who came in at 19.7%, ranking 56th in the league. So, as it stands Philly probably won't have a top 50 defensive rebounder this season.
Though I've just made the trade sound horrendous, here's why it isn't: I hate to go all David Khan on you, but the Sixers aren't contending for a title anytime soon. Would Dalembert have made the Sixers a better team this season, yes. Was he part of their future, no. Rather than watch him walk for nothing next summer, when his contract expires -- like Andre Miler did a year ago -- the Sixers decided to get something in return. That something is a one-year tryout of 22 year-old center Spencer Hawes. Hawes becomes a restricted free agent next summer, so the Sixers have one year to decide whether they want him long-term or not. Although it's not much, it's better than nothing. They also took on the final 2 years, 13 million of Andres Nocioni's contract -- which many complain about -- but until 2013, when Elton Brand's awful contract expires, they won't be free agent players anyway.
The other significant move the Sixers made was drafting Evan Turner number two overall. "The Villain" was the best college basketball player in the country a year ago and fulfilled multiple needs for the Sixers, so it shouldn't have been too difficult a decision. Turner should be able to come in right away and contribute in all phases of the game, and eventually develop into the team's go-to scorer and face of the franchise. The sooner he becomes the Sixers go-to scorer, the sooner Andre Iguodala can return to his natural role of super-beastly-second-or-third-banana-role-player on a championship team. USA! USA! USA!
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
You wouldn't know by last year's defensive efficiency rating (24th), but the Sixers strengths will be their perimeter defenders, athleticism, and transition game. They'll have a unique opportunity to start a top five defender at both point guard and small forward in Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala. Iguodala is already considered a top five wing defender by many, and continued to prove so on Team USA. Jrue is far from proven and me mentioning him as a potential top five defensive point guard probably has non-Sixers fans picking their jaws up from the floor right about now, but in order to fully understand my stance you would need to witness the defensive brilliance he flashed last season. He has everything you want in a lockdown defender. He's big (6'4'', 200 lbs, 6'7'' wingspan), he's strong, he's smart, he's committed, he's laterally quick, he has great work ethic and fundamentals, he's been doing it since high school -- the list goes on. Unfortunately there's little evidence to support my opinion since advanced stats don't necessarily agree. We'll have to take a wait-and-see approach.
Sandwiched between Holiday and Iguodala is Evan Turner, who's another solid defender with potential to be more. Like Holiday, Turner has the size to defend two-guards, and he also has the ability to guard points and small forwards. The good news for Evan is he'll likely draw the easiest defensive assignment each night, with Iguodala taking the primary scoring option and Jrue taking the secondary. So, not only will the Sixers have three average-to-above average perimeter defenders, but they are all versatile enough to guard three different positions.
The more defensive stops the Sixers get, the more baskets they'll be able to score in transition. And when you have young, freak athletes and a lackluster half-court offense, scoring easy baskets in transition is essential.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The Sixers biggest weaknesses are three-point shooting, interior defense, defensive rebounding, and half-court offense. The Sixers always rank near the bottom of the league in three-point efficiency, although the acquisitions of Jason Kapono and Jodie Meeks helped them improve to 22nd last season. However; with Evan Turner in the mix and Eddie Jordan gone, I see a significant drop in minutes for both sharpshooters.
In the first section of this preview I went into detail on how losing Dalembert hurts the Sixers interior defense and defensive rebounding. As documented by a Liberty Ballers reader, Collins has been able to maintain above average defensive teams without a defensive rebounder over 19 DREB%, but I'm not sure he's ever fielded a good defensive team with guys as ineffective as Spencer Hawes and Marresse Speights protecting the rim. The best way to mask the lack of interior defense is to limit penetration, and with Holiday, Turner and Iguodala on the perimeter the Sixers have a chance to take some pressure off the big men.
Scoring in the half-court has been a problem for the Sixers since Allen Iverson left and I think that will continue until Turner, Holiday, Young and Speights polish their repertoires. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if the addition of Turner and subtraction of Dalembert from the starting lineup resulted in moderate improvement.
4. What are the goals for this team?
The front office will tell you the goal is to make the playoffs and "make some noise" -- same as last year. My goals are different. I watched some of the worst basketball I had ever seen last season and eventually resorted to rooting for ping pong balls. I also saw regression from Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Marreese Speights. All I want from the Sixers is steady development of the young core, consistent effort on a nightly basis, and improved defense. I'd also like to see a long-term plan implemented rather than a flurry of random, senseless transactions like Tony Battie and Primoz Brezec.
5. Five predictions sure to go wrong.
- Andre Iguodala will at receive at least one vote for an All-Defensive team.
- Marreese Speights will have his best season yet.
- Lou Williams will see a significant drop in all of his numbers.
- Andres Nocioni will out-perform Thaddeus Young.
- No Sixer will score more than 15 points per game.
Predicted Record: 35-47