When it was popular to criticize the Sixers for their team's organizational approach, it was also popular to ignore some of the interesting things they do - promoting efficient (in a normal NBA world) shot selection, giving young players who would otherwise not have an NBA job a chance to make an NBA team, and developing and improving as a unit.
One of the tangible results of the Great Sixers Experiment, so far, is a weirdly successful defense. So successful, in fact, that almost no one can believe it. The Sixers entered Wednesday 13th in the NBA in Defensive Rating, per NBA.com's stats site, remarkable considering how lost the team can appear on either side of the ball for long stretches of time.
At the moment, the Sixers are hovering around the league average on defense by forcing tons of turnovers and getting by elsewhere.— Rob Mahoney (@RobMahoney) December 9, 2014
Rob Mahoney, who wrote a short, awesome K.J. McDaniels profile that was posted yesterday, noted the above on Twitter, stealing a little bit of my thunder in the process. This post sat in the editor for a day, waiting for me to gain time to document everything I wanted to. He nailed it, though - the Sixers are average defensively because they force a crapton of turnovers, a league-leading 18.2 per game.
A turnover is the best defensive possession result by expected value, as a shot, even a bad one, is worth much more than no shot at all. It's why teams settled for low-risk, low-reward isolations at the end of games, or why some coaches prefer their guards to take a midrange shot than force something at or around the basket.
It's not much of a secret how the Sixers force so many turnovers - the Sixers are really, really long and ahtletic. The shortest player on the roster is a 4-way tie involving all three point guards (Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, and Alexey Shved) along with McDaniels, who has a block rate greater than 4%, which no one at his height in recorded NBA block history has ever done. The height, and corresponding length (all but Shved have longer wingspans than their heights) make it more difficult to convert relatively low-risk passes and makes it nearly impossible to convert difficult passes.
To show you what I mean, we'll take a look at a few hastily cropped examples (I swear I'm gonna work on that cropping, but my snippet tool isn't the greatest). Let's go the OKC game. Here, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook try to convert a difficult pass in the post.
Andre Roberson runs around Durant here before the pass from Westbrook, attempting to drag his defender with him. Durant is usually tall enough to catch this pass, even with the expected double-team from behind. His foot injury may have sapped some lift, however at 6'10" with an even longer wingspan, most wing defenders can't extend as high as Durant. This play often results in a foul, for that reason.
But here, the pass needs to be precise, especially if the NBA's human pogo stick is coming up from behind him as he leaves his man to double the post.
The pass is a little bit off, K.J. McDaniels knocks the ball away from Durant, and the Sixers end up with the ball in Nerlens Noel's hands. Note that if McDaniels misses, Durant is getting fouled, or Roberson is open in the opposite corner for a three. The Sixers have a higher chance of these gambles paying off than most, which makes more of the gambles worth taking, especially since Roberson is a poor shooter.
Now, the ball landing in Noel's hands is a bit of a problem. The Sixers actually struggle somewhat turning their forced turnovers into easy fast break points, because oftentimes only one player on the court can dribble. Despite averaging 18.2 opponent's turnovers per game, they score 18.9 fast break points, one of the lower ratios in the league even while running the third fastest pace.
Here's another example of a more difficult play. Durant and Westbrook try to connect on a backdoor pass, thinking they have an opening. And they do!
Henry Sims has his attention taken, as the dangerous jump-shooter Serge Ibaka stands to his right, and he stands on the wrong side of the paint. If the pass is converted, Westbrook has an easy dunk. But the window is small for any backdoor pass where the defensive guard is aware the play is coming. Even though Westbrook has a step on MCW, enough to beat almost any point guard, MCW's height (6'6') and length (6'7.5" wingspan) at the point makes the small backdoor window even smaller.
He gets a hand on the ball and steals it away.
Sims is bailed out, and the Sixers have the ball back.
Aside from the team's general length, Nerlens Noel specifically creates havoc either at the rim, where opponents are shooting under 50% while he is the primary defender, or on the perimeter where his hands can always be found in passing lanes while he averages 1.6 steals. Let's go to the Dallas home game next.
Here, Tyson Chandler attempts a dribble hand-off to Monta Ellis, following a screen for Ellis by Chandler Parsons. This is a fairly common look for the Mavs, who like to give Monta Ellis the ball while he's coming full-speed off a screen.
Noel here attempts to hedge the screen. It appears he might be a bit late with the move, but he does cut Monta off, as seen below.
It makes sense to do that here - Ellis is moving full speed, and to slow him down the defender needs to get in his way. Noel has the foot speed to cut him off before he turns to gun for the paint. But unlike most bigs, Noel can reach in and try to poke the ball away without fouling.
He knocks the ball away, leading to a 3-on-2 fast break and foul shots for Shved.
There's also Noel's defensive post play, which needs no breakdown. Noel is already the most proficient post defender at knocking the basketball away from the offensive player, typically hitting the ball away from behind when the post player turns right, from the left block, toward the lane. About half of his steals come from that simple swipe move.
Of course, these are only a few examples, but they illustrate how the Sixers have the physical talent to cause tons of turnovers. Next, the team will need to improve on mastering defensive concepts and simply getting more experience. But for now, they can be league average solely on physical talent and a bit of coaching.