The Philadelphia 76ers have found a virtually uncharted way towards their 18-8 start to the season, one which defies logic and past indicators.
Throw out for a second that they're doing it without a superstar, a commonly stated prerequisite for winning, and one with some degree of truth. This was known about the team before the season started and is hardly a shock.
There are three things this 76ers team has done so far this year that are at near historic levels.
First, they aren't getting to the free throw line. At all. After last nights 100-90 loss to the Spurs, the Sixers are last in the league in free throws made at a mere 13.4 made per game. Since the league was founded in 1946-1947, no team has ever finished above .500 averaging less than 14 made free throws per game. The closest to the Sixers were the St. Louis Bombers, when in the inaugural season they averaged 14.1 made free throws per game. The least since the BAA/NBL merger in 1949 were the 2005-2006 Phoenix Suns at 14.5 made per game.
The worst offenders of this are Jrue Holiday (1 free throw attempted for every 7.7 field goals attempted), Thaddeus Young (one free throw attempted for every 5.1 field goals attempted), Nikola Vucevic (1 every 12.8 field goals attempted), Jodie Meeks (1 every 7.1), Spencer Hawes (1 every 6.5), and Elton Brand (1 every 4.9).
None of those are particularly surprising. Meeks was much better last year (1 free throw attempted every 3.3 field goals), but he was being fouled at an abnormally high rate for a jump shooter. Elton Brand had been good at getting to the line earlier in his career, but has been on a steady decline since his injury. Spencer Hawes has been incredibly bad for his career (1 free throw attempted for every 6 field goals for his career), as has Thaddeus Young (1 every 5 attempts), despite an ability to get inside and finish well.
Vucevic's game (and reputation) aren't yet developed enough to draw many fouls, but his start to his professional career has not been a positive one in that regard.
The major disappointment is Jrue Holiday.
Holiday wasn't particularly adept at it in previous years, but the hope was that he would take his game to the next level, penetrate more inside and learn how to draw contact. Instead the opposite has happened. Rather than build on his previous rate (one free throw attempted for every 4.9 field goals), he has gone far in the opposite direction. Of point guards who are scoring at least 10 points per game Holiday's 1.7 free throws attempted per game are tied with Mario Chalmers for the 2rd fewest, behind only Jordan Farmar
The second item the Sixers have been tragically bad at this season has been offensive rebounding. Heading into the game the Sixers were last in the league in offensive rebounding rate, which is simply the percentage of available offensive rebounds the team has grabbed. If you go back to the 1970-1971 season only 4 teams have ever had an offensive rebounding rate as bad as the Sixers have been this season (22.2%) and finished above .500.
While the Sixers were a poor team at getting to the line the last two years (26th in free throw made last year and 27th the year before), this one is a little more surprising, as they were 23rd in offensive rebounding rate last year and 9th the year before.
Elton Brand's decline as an offensive rebounder and the trade replacing Samuel Dalembert with Spencer Hawes have contributed to the problem, but the offensive rebounding and free throw discrepancies are tied together and have a very simple explanation.
The Sixers are shooting too many long jump shots.
While the Sixers are making a very good percentage from both beyond the arc (4th in the league at 38.9%) and from 16-23 feet (38.5%, good for 12th in the league), they're simply taking too many of them. The Sixers have attempted the 2nd most field goals between 16 and 23' from the rim and have the third fewest field goal attempts at the rim.
For a coach in Doug Collins who has stated he doesn't believe long two point jump shots will beat him, this is a major contradiction.
Jrue Holiday is once again the primary culprit. He's tied for 5th in the league among point guards who play 30 or more minutes per game in field goals attempted from 16-23 feet, at 4.4 per game. But he's not alone. Andre Iguodala (3.8 long two point jump shots per game), Evan Turner (3.2 per game), Louis Williams (3.2 per game), Thaddeus Young (3.2 per game), Spencer Hawes (2.9 per game), Elton Brand (2.6 per game), Lavoy Allen (2.2 per game), and Nikola Vucevic (1.5 per game) all get a size-able chunk of their half court offense on the worst shot in basketball.
Not only are you unlikely to get fouled on a long two point jump shot (except for Louis Williams), but it's often times only a step away from gaining the extra point awarded to three point shots and is not a significantly higher percentage shot than the three pointer to boot. The league on average shoots 37.6% from 16-23 feet, only a small uptick from the 34.5% it shoots from three point range.
To perform a simple math equation, if a team shoots 100 three pointers and makes 34 of them, or 34%, it would yield 102 points from those shots. If a team shoots 100 two pointers from 16-23 feet and makes 38 of them that would yield 76 points. Since those two pointers are so far away from the basket, it is unlikely teams will get fouled enough to make up this difference.
The Sixers are overcoming these two glaring holes due to their incredible ability to protect the basketball. The Sixers are only turning the ball over 10.6 times per game, well ahead of even the second best team in the league the San Antonio Spurs, who turn it over 13.8 times per game. In fact, 10.6 turnovers per game is well ahead of even the best mark in NBA history, set by the 2005-2006 Detroit Pistons, who turned it over 11.4 times per game. They're not just setting an NBA record, in a season which has seen turnovers pick up and scoring decrease as side effects of the strike, they're demolishing it.
If you wanted to find an area of the game the Sixers could pick up on, something to offset any potential increase in turnovers or even more decline in offensive rebounding and getting to the free throw line, it's transition. While the Sixers have generated transition opportunities, at the 4th highest rate in the league according to Synergy Sports Technology, they haven't converted those opportunities like they have in the past. Last year the Sixers shot a blistering 60.4% during transition opportunities, the 5th most efficient mark in the league. This year they've only converted at a 53% clip, which is 25th in the league. With returning almost entirely the same cast and still generating a good amount of opportunities, you would expect this mark to increase.
So far, the Sixers have vastly exceeded expectations on their way to an 18-8 record and sitting at first place in the Atlantic Division. How they have gone about that has been interesting in that it's been historic in numerous ways, both good and bad. Which of these extremes continue throughout the season will go a long way towards determining whether the Sixers are truly contenders.
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