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Sixers and Rockets: A Tale of Two Offenses

Same story, different year.


The Sixers didn't lose last night's game in Houston because of their offense. Realistically, a Sixer team without Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner (for half of the game) is going to struggle to beat anyone in the NBA period, much less a team with the firepower that the Rockets have at their disposal. Do me a favor and forget "He Who Must Not Be Named" for a minute, and then focus on what losing both members of the young starting backcourt means to the Sixers' chances. Taking those two guys out of the picture, not only is Doug Collins down two of his three best offensive players, but also the only legitimate ball-handlers and playmakers on the roster (Sorry, Maalik).

In the same vein, while the defense is absolutely why the Sixers lost last night (131.6 DRtg, yikes), the team's defensive problems are not Doug Collins' fault, nor should he fire Michael Curry and promote Todd Bowles. The Sixers' recent defensive struggles trace back to the summer because personnel-wise, it's simply a mix of poor individual and team defenders. With HWMNBN out of the lineup, there's no interior shot-blocking presence to help cover for a shaky perimeter defense fresh off losing the NBA's answer to Darrelle Revis in Andre Iguodala. Now without Holiday, a supremely talented if not refined point guard defender, and Turner, who at least will do yeoman's work on the glass, the Sixers are in serious trouble on defense. Scheme can only accomplish so much.

With all that said about defensive personnel, the shorthanded Sixers are still maddening, mostly due to the continuing reliance on a failing ultra-conservative offense. The Sixers' inability to score efficiently isn't what's so bothersome. It's their inability to even attempt to score at such a rate.

Expected field goal percentage is something I've referenced a lot in my posts, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there's a reason that the Sixers have the 25th-ranked offense: They simply don't generate enough quality shots, and the Sixers' 29th-ranked XeFG% spells that point out. Too many long twos, not enough threes, and a team-wide allergy to the free-throw line will get you there.

The one thing the Sixers are above average in offensively is taking care of the ball, but ironically, one could easily make the argument that this statistic is holding the team back in almost every other category. It's no secret that Collins loathes turnovers, but ball security at such an extreme level is clearly coming at the expense of the team's ability to create quality shots. Again, the Sixers find themselves at one end of the spectrum, and again, the Sixers are struggling offense because they sacrifice the ability to seek out good shots in order to keep the turnovers down.

The dichotomy between the Sixers' mechanical long two offense and Houston's high-octane four corners pick-and-roll attack was on display last night. Unsurprisingly, the Sixers took 30 shots from 16-23 feet and the Rockets only 10. It's tough to win when you are starting off by only getting 16 points on 30 of your shots, as the Sixers did last night. It's the kind of thing that cancels out the great success they had at the rim, where they shot 19-27.

There are many things I admire about the way the Rockets run their offense, things I wish the Sixers would do more. And it's interesting enough that in many cases, the Rockets don't have the optimal players to run their system, yet they see the benefits of playing that style anyway. For example, they more often than not have players stationed in both corner threes at all times. Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris are usually in those spots, and they aren't all-world shooters by any stretch of the imagination. But Houston is smart enough to realize that even Morris and Parsons can be efficient shooting from that spot, and because of that threat, they space the floor and give their ball-handlers, James Harden and Jeremy Lin, room to operate.

For a team with limited playmaking ability like the Sixers, one of the best ways to maximize their talent would be to place two of the team's three-point shooters in the corners. For all of Dorell Wright's struggles shooting the ball this season, he's 17-39 from the corner three. That's a weapon. So is Jason Richardson, who is 13-31 from those spots. Nick Young, who is only 8-30 to start this year (Swag), shot an absurd 50-104 from the corner three last season. Evan Turner has proved plenty capable taking that shot when he's been off the ball. The Sixers do have the necessary shooters to space the floor.

Houston also employs the pick and dive big man. Omer Asik is a very flawed offensive player, one who has a lot of trouble catching the ball and making free throws. But he does two things the Sixer bigs in general don't do, two vital elements to his team's offensive success. First, he sets screens, ones where he more times than not makes contact with the defender. In the Sixers' case, their poor screening may be more of a mindset problem. With their big men having the freedom to flare for inefficient long twos, often times they forget that the first purpose of the screen is to make contact with the ball-handler's defender in hopes of giving him an advantage. Because of this, the Sixers waste a large number of screens. Houston doesn't.

Asik also dives hard to the rim, as about 87 percent of his shots come in the restricted area. One of my personal pet-peeves in basketball lingo is how many will blindly refer to a jump-shooting big man as someone who "spaces the floor." In the right context, yes, that can be true. But when a team has four other players outside of the paint taking jump shots, a big man that floats around the perimeter actually bunches the offense up compared to someone who plays in the paint. In the Rockets' attack, Asik should be considered just as much of a floor spacer as the three-point shooters.

Obviously having a player of Harden's caliber making decisions with the basketball off high screens is a luxury the Sixers don't have. The Beard's ability to pull-up off the dribble or zig-zag to the rim where he's either going to make the shot or get fouled is a national treasure, one Nick Cage would be honored to go and dig up.

But just watching Harden's approach in taking that screen and attacking the basket relentlessly is such a stark contrast from the way the Sixers use their ball screens. While Harden or Lin takes a straight-line drive to the rim which places so much pressure on the defense, Evan Turner goes East-West, or sometimes even a little backwards, in hopes of freeing himself for a 16-footer. And if it's not there, a big man is flaring East-West for a 16-footer of his own. It all seems a little fruitless, no? Ironically, Houston's high ball screen attack brings back a few memories of the Ohio State Buckeyes when Turner was at the controls.

Anyway, this isn't all Collins' fault. Right now, he's playing impossibly shorthanded. Heck, when he's playing with Holiday and Turner in the lineup, it's still difficult for the Sixers to win. Most of the mistakes were made building this team in the offseason, and horrible injury luck has compounded those mistakes. But to play this way after last season's shot-selection travesty, it's disappointing. Jrue Holiday has shown signs of being able run a spread pick-and-roll attack before. If the Sixers are going to go down, and all signs point to that being the case on this upcoming road trip, wouldn't you rather go down swinging?

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