When a team has a given philosophy, especially once it's known, the stats tend to bear it out. It's much more common to read into offensive shot distribution, because teams are thought to have more control over their own shots than their opponents'. But with a sagging defense since the all-star break, it's worth looking into the Sixers' defensive philosophies to see if there's anything that sticks out.
Spoiler alert: there is.
(all statistics are current as of the morning of March 6th)
The Number: 26.6
The Context: Imagine you wanted to paint a picture of the Sixers defense. What do you include?
Is Jahlil Okafor five feet away from the nearest shooter? Did Hollis Thompson miss a defensive rotation? Has Ish Smith given the opposing point guard an open path to the paint? Is Jerami Grant saying "Gimme That ####?" Where oh where on the court is Nik Stauskas getting beat? Who is Robert Covington fouling? How hard is Nerlens Noel trying at that moment?
Whatever that painting has, the overall picture should depict a largely unsuccessful exercise. After ranking 13th in defensive rating last season, the Sixers are currently 26th, per basketball-reference.com, and no one player is full to blame. It takes a complete effort to fall apart so badly.
The Sixers seemingly have a core defensive game plan when you piece together two statistics. The first, not mentioned above, is the opponent's three-point rate. If you had to guess, where would the team rank in that category?
Two seasons ago, the Sixers were among the worst teams at preventing opponents from making and taking three point attempts. Only pre-LeBron Cleveland, which employed Byron Scott as coach, was worse at preventing attempts, and the Sixers allowed the 6th highest percentage on attempts as well, a toxic combination for a defense. Brett Brown's philosophy was that the team shore up their paint defense first, then work on preventing jumpers. Last season, the team ranked mid-pack with a horde of wingspan and athleticism at every position while still bringing the branded violence at the rim.
This season? The Sixers are among the best at the league at preventing threes, allowing 21.2 per game. Only San Antonio (19.5, and having a historic defensive season) and Detroit (19.9) are better on a per-game basis. But the defense is still horrid despite this. Why?
The Stat: Opponents Free Throw Attempts Per Game
Even when giving up a ton of threes in year one of the rebuild, the Sixers were bad at not fouling. As much as the development of analytics in the NBA has changed the game, one effect of the revolution has been a reduction in free throw rate across the league (image via Reddit). This is where defenses have largely won, as free throws are the most efficient source of offense in the NBA.
The NBA's average free-throw percentage is 75.6% this year, meaning that the expected value of two free throws (not including potential offensive rebounds) is 1.512 points. It's significantly higher than the value of a three pointer for most players - you'd have to shoot over 50% on threes to match it. The Sixers give up more free throws than all but two teams: Phoenix (similarly terrible) and Boston (an aggressive defensive team).
Now, the part which really links the two stats together is adding a third, related rate: opponent's free throw percentage. The Sixers are dead last in opponent's free throw percentage: they shoot 78.2%. They're fouling better free throw shooters than most teams on average, likely the guards and forwards they're running off the arc.
Granted: the difference between league-average and what Sixers opponents shoot amounts to less than a point per game. But it's emblematic of the philosophy: chase shooters off the three point line and make them score against lineups which typically feature two bigs, at least one of which is a shot-blocker. It makes logical sense, especially when Nerlens Noel mans the middle.
But it hasn't been totally effective. While the Sixers rank second in blocks per game, they aren't bringing the violence consistently, and they're fouling too much especially as of late. Since the All-Star break, opponents are getting to the line an average of 32.7 times per game:
|Game||Sixers Defensive Rating||Free Throw Attempts|
The problems have been evident during their 9-game post all-star malaise, and the team needs to stop fouling so much if they want to return to respectability, let alone making it a strength moving forward.