By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
The Sixers were extremely bad last season. Unless you were living under a rock or in a Wolf of Wall Street-inspired drug-fueled haze over the past year, this is not news to you. The team was dead last in the NBA in offensive rating by a wide margin (96.8) a season ago, and weren’t much better defensively, sporting the 4th-worst defensive rating. About the only metric they performed well in was their lottery balls earned ratio (LBE%), an internal metric compiled by Sam Hinkie and company derived from the number of minutes you give to street free agents and player games lost to the pre-existing injuries.
Unfortunately for viewer’s eyeballs, the offense projects to be even worst this season. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes were my no means my favorite players but they were at least somewhat competent NBA players while they were around this season. Now, Hinkie has completed the veteran purge, sending off the team’s leading scorer from a year ago (Thaddeus Young), and receiving two players in Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute who shot 29.5% and 27.9% last year from three, respectively. With the amount of bricks sure to go up at the Wells Fargo Center in the coming months, Hinkie can finally build the grand cathedral to tanking he has dreamed of constructing.
However, while the offense is expected to be avert-your-eyes-awful, the defense is one area that may allow for optimism. One facet of the game where the team actually excelled was swiping the ball from the opposition. The Sixers led the NBA in steals per game last season at 9.3, which was not solely a result of their rapid pace of play, as they finished third on a per possession basis. Those steals allowed the team to fuel their best source of offense, transition buckets, as the Sixers were 5th in fast break points on a per-possession basis. They’ll need to rely on a similar strategy to be able to put any points on the board again this season.
Certainly, as their poor overall defensive numbers show, this was a high-variance strategy for Brett Brown’s crew. Players would gamble for steals, and the times they failed, it was almost certainly an open outside shot or an easy lay-in for the opposition. This time around, the hope is that many of the returning youngsters will have a better grasp of Brett Brown’s system and the results will show in a better decision-making process out on the floor. With so much of last year’s offseason and training camp devoted to conditioning, hopefully guys like Michael Carter-Williams, Hollis Thompson, and Tony Wroten can focus on understanding the defensive schemes now that the baseline of fitness is already there. Bringing in a highly-regarded defender like Mbah a Moute can only help in this regard.
Still, the main reason for optimism is the impending rookie season of Nerlens Noel. Noel was a shining beacon of hope during the summer league, displaying the game-changing athleticism and defensive instincts that allowed the Sixers to take a chance on him two drafts ago despite coming off ACL surgery. If Noel can even approximate that defensive impact against better competition, it will provide the sort of rim protection the team was sorely lacking a season ago, and make up for a lot of his teammates’ gambles in the process. He also showed off quick hands defending on the perimeter, and could make up for the loss of Thad Young in the steals department, who was one of just three NBA players, along with Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio, to average over 2 steals per game, while also the best thief on the team among regulars on a per possesion basis.
I don’t anticipate many bright spots in the year ahead, but the defensive abilities of Noel, combined with continued improvement from the host of young, elite athletes Sam Hinkie and his staff have assembled, lead me to believe the defensive side of the ball might be one of them. I’m not saying the Sixers are going to remind anyone of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, but a middle of the pack defensive squad is not out of the question. In a year that portends a poor harvest for Philadelphia, that’s one straw I’m willing to grasp.