Sixers head coach Brett Brown is still trying to figure out his rotations.
With 9 of his 15 players in their first season with the team, and with Michael Carter-Williams only 7 games back from injury, and only having returned to the starting lineup 4 games ago, that process is naturally still in its infancy.
"It's a puzzle," Brown said yesterday as he prepared his team for tonight's game against the Brooklyn Nets. "It's a whirlwind of different thoughts that you feel responsible for, to try to win a game and grow the program. It's not easy at times."
Brown, who mentioned that he hopes time together and consistency can help the team play better, likes his most recent starting lineup. He thinks.
"I like the ones that we're starting [now]," Brown said. "With Henry [Sims], and Nerlens [Noel], and Luc [Mbah a Moute], and Tony [Wroten], and Michael [Carter-Williams], there's a solidarity. There's a presence at the rim."
Brown went on to call that group perhaps his best defensive group, although he admitted that they have their offensive shortcomings.
"It's not our best scoring group," Brown said. "So I get caught all the time with that group better run, because you're going to have a hard time scoring any other way."
That group, while only playing 37 total minutes together on the season, has had some defensive success, holding opponents to only 48.4% shooting from the field and, more impressively, 21.4% from the three point line, per NBA.com. The Sixers are allowing opponents to shoot 35.8% from deep on the season.
But that lineup has provided an offensive rating of only 85.3, with a true shooting percentage of 45.2, while playing at one of the slower paces among lineup combinations on the team, with a pace of 93.6. Only 44% of the field goals that unit scores are assisted, well below the teams average of 59.3%.
When that lineup is playing? The Sixers are shooting only 9.1% from three point range. That's not a typo - seriously under 10% from three point range.
The net result has not been positive, with that lineups net rating (difference between offensive rating and defensive rating) at -20.1.
"I'm not even sure that Tony and Michael, on first glance, is good right now," Brown said. "But I think it can be, so I'm committed."
So far that duo, after playing 116 minutes together, has struggled on both ends of the court. The team has an offensive rating of 85.8 when they're on the court together and a defensive rating of 109.3. with the team shooting only 40% from the field, with a true shooting percentage of 46.3%, and have as many turnovers as assists. That's very bad.
Defensively they've had some success, at least more perimeter success than their defensive rating might suggest, holding opponents to 28.3% shooting from three point range. Their defensive problems have stemmed largely from two areas: defending transition, made more difficult by poor shot selection and high turnovers, and the defensive glass, where they've collected only 66.4% of their available defensive rebounds, a struggle that would not be primarily placed on the play of the guards.
Ultimately, though, immediate success isn't the primary focus for Brett Brown. He alluded to that above in his reasoning for continuing to start Carter-Williams and Wroten together, as he feels the need to find out whether the duo can work. More importantly, though, is the development of his young players.
"When you remind yourself what's most important, you're grounded quite quickly," Brown said. "Developing our young guys, making sure that Nerlens is growing and on the floor, watching the evolution of some of our draft picks, all those things might not equal, at this time and moment, [what's] best to try to win this game."
"The only thing that's clear is when I say 'What's most important?' I know who I have to develop," Brown said. "I know who has to play. It's just how you play them and who you play them with."
The most common criticism from fans comes in the form of K.J. McDaniels playing time, especially as it relates to playing over Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute, a 28 year old journeyman, is averaging 26.7 minutes per game with the Sixers, with K.J. McDaniels, the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, at 22.7 minutes per night.
Jake Pavorsky addressed the question of whether Mbah a Moute should still be starting yesterday. There is little doubt in anybody's mind that McDaniels is both more important to the teams future and more gifted. The team has also been far better offensively with McDaniels on the court, having an offensive rating of 95.3, compared to an offensive rating of 84.6 with Mbah a Moute there.
The question, it seems, comes down to defense, and whether McDaniels knows where to be on the court.
"He's gifted athletically, but there's so much more that, like any young player would go through, to [where] you feel secure where he knows what to do when you're trying to win games."
"He's getting a little bit better," Brown said. "There's still a long ways to go with the intricacies of playing NBA basketball," Brown said.
When asked what kind of feedback Brown provides, McDaniels just said that he wants him to defend.
"He just tells me to defend. Defend and be aggressive," McDaniels said. "It's a learning curve. I just have to try to be an all-around player."
There's no question that McDaniels is incredibly gifted defensively, averaging 1.2 blocks and 0.8 steals in 22 minutes per night.
He's also very gifted as an individual defender, holding his man to a field goal percentage 2.2% lower than their season averages. Compare that with Mbah a Moute, who opponents are shooting 6.5% better than their season averages, and it seems a slam dunk.
It's whether or not his defensive rotations are up to par that could be the point of contention. Overall, opponents are shooting slightly better from three with McDaniels on the court, up to 36% shooting from three on 25.9 attempts per 48 minutes with McDaniels playing, vs 35.5% on 24.8 attempts with him off. The difference primarily comes from corner three's. With McDaniels playing, corner three's make up 9.2% of the opponents field goal attempts and they're shooting 42.9% on them. With McDaniels on the bench that falls to 7.5% of their field goal attempts at 35.6% accuracy.
These are, of course, all on relatively small sample sizes, and should be taken with a grain of salt. The impact is also not all that damaging at this point in the season: if the Sixers had held opponents to 35.6% shooting on corner three's when McDaniels was on the court the difference would be a handful less points allowed.
But it's only meant to be representative of the potential problem McDaniels has had in recognizing his responsibilities and making the correct defensive rotations.
Ultimately, as Brett Brown said above, his primary responsibility is to develop players, not win games this season, and that includes McDaniels. So, ideally, McDaniels would be playing 5-7 more minutes per night. But playing time during the first 14 games of the season isn't the entire picture when it comes to player development. Playing time is the greatest piece of leverage that a coach holds over a player, and it's possible that he's looking to use that as motivation, and as a reward.
Brown could also prefer starting Sims and Mbah a Moute because, with the team looking to develop Carter-Williams and Noel, he may want players who he trusts to be in the right places, both offensively and defensively. That obviously comes with a floor spacing trade-off in Mbah a Moute's case, but it's something that could change later in the year as McDaniels gets more experience, and as Brown gets more confidence that McDaniels knows where he's supposed to be.
If McDaniels were hardly playing at all, I'd call it a travesty. But we're only 14 games into the season and he's gotten 318 minutes as a 21 year old second round pick. This is a long game they're playing, and methods that may not make sense now could serve a purpose. I would give it time before taking the pitchforks out of the shed.