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Sixers struggles against the zone

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As I mentioned in game 1's post-game recap, Miami's zone in the second quarter of game 1 was very effective in slowing down the Sixers offensive attack.  According to Sebastian Pruiti, the Sixers scored just 6 points in the 10 possessions against the Heat zone.  The zone is something Miami could throw at the Sixers throughout the series to try to slow them down (assuming, of course, that at some point the Sixers offense actually clicks.  2 more games like game 2 and it won't matter).

This comes as no surprise to Sixers fans, as it's obvious the team has struggled against the zone all season.    Just how bad were they?  I decided to take a look.  Also, I'm going to be taking a look at how the Sixers shot distribution changes in the zone, and which players effectiveness takes the biggest hit.  Check in after the jump for more details. 

First the facts: The Sixers are the 4th worst team in the league against the zone, shooting just 37.2% and averaging just 0.8095 points per possesion, down from 44% and 0.897 points per possession against man to man defense in the half-court. 

(Surprisingly, the Sixers aren't the worst playoff team against the Zone, as the Bulls and Blazers are both less efficient, but I digress).

First, let's set some baseline numbers of offensive efficiency.  To overly simplify things, offense can generally be broken down into two categories, transition and half-court.  Half-court offense can then further be broken down into against man to man defense or against zone defense.  The vast majority of the time (~97% of the time), teams play man to man defense in the half-court, so the sample size we're talking about isn't very large.  In the Sixers case, they faced a zone in only 231 possessions on the season, compared to 7075 man to man possessions.

The league average (15th best team in the league) in transition is to shoot 57.6% from the field, yielding 1.16 points per possession.  For overall half-court offense, those numbers are 44.4% and 0.9053 respectively.  Against man the league averages 44% and 0.9057 points per possession, and against zone the league median is 38.8% from the field, but because of the increased propensity to take three pointers, efficiency is actually up to 0.9513 points per possession.  Against good shooting teams who can get the ball into the foul line extended and move the ball well, zone defenses are generally not effective at the NBA level with NBA rules, hence why teams are so reluctant to run it.

Here's the NBA average in each of the sets (transition, half-court, half-court man to man, and half-court zone).  This data, and the data that will follow, all courtesy of Synergy Sports (which now has an updated fan version that hardcore NBA fans will love):

Play Type points/poss fg% league rank ft rate to rate
Transition 1.160 57.6 15 15% 12%
half-court 0.9053 44.4 15 10.5% 12.8%
  h/c man 0.9057 44 15 10.6% 12.8%
  h/c zone 0.9513 38.8 15 8.6% 10.3%

Overall, field goal percentage and free throw rate drop, but turnover rate improves as teams become more perimeter oriented. 

For the Sixers, their efficiency in these different sets are broken down as such:

Play Type points/poss fg% league rank ft rate to rate
Transition 1.207 60.4 2nd 16.7% 11.7%
half-court 0.894 43.8 19th 9.2% 11.5%
  h/c man 0.897 44 19th 9.2% 11.4%
  h/c zone 0.810 37.2 27th 7.6% 15.6%

The first thing that jumps out is, while the rest of the leagues turnover rate drops, the Sixers actually gets worse.  Whereas the Sixers are considerably better at taking care of the ball both in transition and in the half-court against man to man sets, they're 50% worse than league average against the zone.

Taking a look one step deeper, let's take a look at effectiveness by play type against the zone.

Type Possessions points/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % zone possessions
overall 231 0.810 27th 37.2% 7.6% 15.6% 100%
isolation 16 0.688 19th 41.7% 6.2% 18.8% 6.93%
p&r 17 0.353 25th 15.4% 2.9% 23.5% 7.36%
post-up 16 0.750 17th 45.4% 6.2% 25% 6.93%
spot-up 122 0.926 24th 33.6% 7.4% 3.3% 52.8%
cut 41 0.976 27th 53.3% 12.2% 17.1% 17.7%

What immediately jumps out at these numbers is that the Sixers aren't better than league average in any play type.  Spot-up attempts are going to be the most prominent among types, but the Sixers are far down the league rankings in this category, as they are in cuts, the second most prominent types of sets in zones.  They're far too turnover prone in other categories to be effective.

Now let's take a look at some of the players production, so we can see who takes the biggest drop in productivity when teams go to a zone.  Again, this doesn't include assists and open looks generated for teammates, this is purely their own scoring output.  Take that into consideration.

Also note, here the league rank is in percentile (higher is better), not literal rank.

Jrue Holiday:

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 1094 0.848 39 42.8% 7.1% 15.9% 15.5%
Zone 30 0.500 4 23.8% 3.3% 26.7% 13.0%

Louis Williams

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 887 0.950 75 39.9% 15.4% 9.4% 12.5%
Zone 38 0.947 53 36.7% 13.2% 10.5% 16.4%

Elton Brand

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 1091 0.977 82 50% 9.3% 8.3% 15.4%
Zone 20 0.900 45 53.8% 10% 25% 8.66%

Andre Iguodala

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 819 0.832 35 39.1% 11.4% 12.6% 11.6%
Zone 15 1.133 75 45.4% 16.7% 13.3% 6.5%

Spencer Hawes

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 637 0.816 32 45.2% 5.8% 12.7% 9.0%
Zone 19 0.579 10 45.4% 5.3% 36.8% 8.2%

Evan Turner

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 530 0.842 38 41.7% 9% 11.3% 7.5%
Zone 25 0.520 7 26.7% 0 4.2%


Jodie Meeks

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 473 0.992 87 38.8% 8.7% 9.9% 6.7%
Zone 32 0.844 39 26.7% 4.7% 3.1%


Thaddeus Young

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 854 0.936 69 49.2% 7.5% 9.7% 12.1%
Zone 26 1.038 59 60% 7.7% 15.4% 11.3%

Marreese Speights

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 334 0.934 68 49.1% 9.4% 10.8% 4.7%
Zone 10 0.600 13 33.3% 0% 10% 4.32%

Andres Nocioni

Set possessions pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % team poss
Man 258 0.849 39 40.1% 6.8% 15.1% 3.65%
Zone 21 0.952 53 40% 11.9% 19% 9.09%

And here's a chart with the changes.  A positive value means they improved in that category against the zone, a negative means they got worse against the zone.

Player pts/poss league rank fg% ft rate to rate % poss
Holiday -0.348 -35 -19% -3.8% -10.8% -2.48%
Williams -0.003 -22 -3.2% -2.2% -1.1% +3.91%
Brand -0.077 -37 +3.8% +0.7% -16.7% -6.76%
Iguodala +0.301 +40 +6.3% +5.3% -0.7% -5.08%
Hawes -0.237 -22 +0.2% -0.5% -24.1% -0.78%
Turner -0.322 -31 -16.7% -9% +7.3% +3.33%
Meeks -0.148 -48 -12.1% -4% +6.8% +7.17%
Young +0.102 -10 +10.8% +0.2% -5.7% -0.82%
Speights -0.334 -55 -15.8% -9.4% +0.8% -0.39%
Nocioni +0.103 +14 -0.1% +5.1% -3.9% +5.44%



A few conclusions, both from the above data, and from watching the film, as I watched all 231 possessions against the zone over the past few days.

First, Holiday, Turner, and Speights have flat out been ineffective against the zone.  Turner's not all that surprising, considering his lack of outside shot.  Holiday and Speights are somewhat surprising, though, as you would think they'd be fairly effective against the zone.

Speights probably doesn't have enough data to draw any meaningful conclusions, as he's only used up 10 possessions against the zone.  But for Jrue, all of his problems (low free throw rate, relatively high turnover rate) just become exacerbated playing against the zone.  Combine that with not making shots and you have one of the most inefficient players in the league against zone defenses.  

That being said, we're talking about a small sample size, and he seems to have the skill set to be effective against zones, so in the future I look for this to improve.  And looking at the shots, he seems to have gotten quality looks against the zone this year, so some of this may be due to the bad luck associated with not having enough data.  That being said, in terms of what he's done this year, he's used up nearly 1 out of every 7 of the teams zone possessions, and given us virtually nothing out of it.  The ball also tends to stick with Jrue more than it normally does in man to man situations, as he doesn't seem as comfortable creating for others as he is when against man.  This is likely due to the fact that it's much harder to effectively pick and roll against the zone, which is what he likes to fall back to in the half court.

Still, while I expect him to do a better job of making shots against the zone in future years, the turnover problems and inability to get to the line are ongoing concerns.

Young is perhaps most suited to breaking down the zone, and the Sixers do in fact like to use him at the foul line or elbow extended to force the defense to collapse and break down the weak part of the zone.  He also does a good job of moving without the ball, finding the seams in a zone You can see the success he has, at least initially, on his field goal percentage, sitting at a team high 60% against the zone.  That being said, while ideally you would use that attention he draws to kick out to corner three point shooters, this rarely happens.  Young uses the foul line extended area to score, but his lack of passing renders him unable to capitalize on the attention he draws and create high percentage shots for his teammates.  He also suffers from turnover problems more against the zone than he does against man, again a result of the defenses collapsing on him and his poor passing ability.

The other big the Sixers like to use in the foul line extended area, Spencer Hawes, has been completely ineffective.  Hawes is a turnover machine when put in that situation who shoots terribly from the field.  Hawes is actually more likely to turn the ball over against a zone defense than he is to score, at least on the small sample size from this year.

The other big surprise is Jodie Meeks, who you would assume has been a zone killer because of his three point shooting.  While Andres Nocioni's efficiency has increased as you would expect a solid shooter too (Nocioni does a solid job of limiting himself to spot-up shots against the zone), Meeks takes a sharp decline in productivity.  

I think a part of this is attributable to the small sample size / bad luck I discussed about in Jrue Holiday's field goal percentage, and I'm not sure if we're looking at next years end of year numbers they're not more in line with what you would expect.  I also think a part of this is directly related to Jrue Holiday's decreased comfortability in creating for teammates, and Jodie not getting as good of looks as he does against man.  Rarely are his shots coming from the short corner three's where Jodie's most effective, instead coming from elbow extended three's.  Since he's not getting as open, he's trying to do more off the dribble, using a pump fake and settling for pull-up jumpers, which isn't the strength of his game.

Finally, there's Iguodala, another surprise, but at least this one positive.  Perhaps more relevant though than Iguodala's increase in productivity is his fairly substantial decrease in usage.  When he has been able to get shots off, it's mostly been from spot-up opportunities, which is actually an underrated part of his game.  By limiting himself to catch and shoot situations, rather than the pull-up jump shots he sometimes falls in love with in the half-court, Iguodala's efficiency has actually been good, despite a large percentage of his attempts coming from perimeter shots.

Overall, the Sixers offense looks largely unsure of their strengths when attacking the zone.  I agree with Sebastian's general conclusion that the Sixers offensive sets are solid to attack the zone, and the ball tends to stick.  I believe it's a combination of poor personnel and uncertainty in execution holding the Sixers back.  If I had to pick a primary culprit (and, generally, it's a team failure), Jrue Holiday's uncertainty against the zone and his inability to use the pick and roll to generate quality looks, as he prefers to against man to man defense, is the area you look to for improvement the most.

Should the Sixers half court offense start clicking, don't be surprised if the Heat throw a zone at the Sixers again.  How they attack it may be one of the keys to them making this a series once again.