Why The Sixers Defense Could Be Elite, Really Soon
Right now, the Philadelphia 76ers aren’t much of anything. Unbelievably (but not surprisingly) they rank dead last in most statistical categories, from points per game (90.5) to turnovers (19.2). They don’t do much of anything right, and their 5-29 record is testament to that.
Last month however, there was a mini breakthrough, with the 76ers winning a couple of games and having a top ten defense for the month during that run as well. It’s hard to know what a team as young and as bad as this can be, but there’s reason to believe they’ll one day be an elite defensive unit in this league.
Before going any further, something else needs to be pointed out. General manager Sam Hinkie has drawn the wrath of fans and media alike for undertaking what appears to be the biggest cleanse of an organisation in recent memory, but at least he has a vision. The 76ers are a laughing stock now, but we do at least know what they can be in time. The same cannot be said for the likes of the New York Knicks, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
There is a vision here, even if it is painful to watch most nights.
In December however, the team allowed 98.2 points per 100 possessions, which was good for fifth in the league. It’s a small sample size, but it showed this team at its young best. It’s no coincidence that they won three games during that stretch as well. One thing Philly has given most nights all season? Effort. No matter what, they go out and try to shut opponents down as best they can. The problem? Their roster isn’t terribly good, and they are just being scorched by better players.
In Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams and KJ McDaniels, the 76ers have a young trio that already are above average defenders.
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McDaniels in particular, came out of nowhere as a rookie to inject real life into this team on the defensive end. Primarily a shooting guard, he’s tied for 12th among all players at that position for rebounds per game (3.7). His .94 steals a game has him tied for 23rd in that category too.
This isn’t heady stuff. But you’ll know why this is important if you’ve seen Philly play. There’s next to no pressure to be good. They’re lottery bound, and they know it. But yet players like McDaniels are putting in the work on a nightly basis, and it sticks out on a team that does everything else so badly. McDaniels can leave this team after this season, but it’s imperative he is kept around at a reasonable price for the long term. He is a key piece to the defensive identity head coach Brett Brown is cultivating.
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Returning to that December run that saw them look like an actual NBA team (and not one that most assumed could be beaten by a top college outfit), the three players that worked best defensively together was a surprise. Their names?
Luc Mbah a Moute, Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson. This is great because it shows even role players have bought into being tough workers on the defensive end. When bench guys can contribute like this consistently, it leads to wins.
Why this is a drawback however? None of the above names look to be part of the long term plan here. All three would struggle to make another NBA roster, and will be cut in favour of better players in time. So while it speaks volumes that they had an impact here, are they going to be around when this team finally has what it needs to move in the right direction again?
While that may be a concern, Carter-Williams and Noel have been getting it done all season. The point guard is second in the league in rebounds a game for his position (6.3). Noel on the other hand is already a better rim protector than the likes of Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic, a center years ahead of Noel in terms of experience.
His 7.1 rebounds a game isn’t amazing, but when you see some of the players he lines up with and has to bail out of situations, it’s not entirely his fault. Oftentimes he’ll get sucked away from the basket on a possession to help a dangerous situation from developing, meaning he’s not in the right place to box out accordingly if the shot doesn’t go down. Averaging just shy of 30 minutes a contest as well, it’s great to see that his injury woes look to be behind him.
Here’s why it gets even better. The 76ers play at an unnecessarily frantic pace sometimes, which has led to them having the most turnovers a night in the league. That will change. Carter-Williams is learning to control the ball better, and Tony Wroten, in what has been a great year for him, has license to do what he wants with the ball if it means the team can actually get some points. This will all be tightened up in time, and Philly will take better care of the ball. That will mean less turnovers, and less stupid baskets given away.
— Tom Moore (@tmoore76ers) January 5, 2015
All of this, and we haven’t even mentioned Joel Embiid. Yes he looked out of shape the other night getting some shots up before a game, but he could be a real difference maker here. Even if he returns a slow, clunky big man, there’s no doubt he’ll still get his share of rebounds and protect the basket well. Noel and all the defensive goodness he brings will finally have some help, and he’ll be slid over to the power forward position too.
Having those two patrolling the paint, and Carter-Williams and (hopefully) McDaniels in the backcourt together, could lead to a top five defense in as little as three years no problem at all. It’s such an exciting prospect, it’s possible to forgive the garbage we’re currently seeing.
Finally, here is how it can possibly (and probably) get better. The 76ers have upcoming draft picks, and an huge amount of cap space. Their best players will be on rookie deals the next couple of years at least, all while the new television deal will flood the league in revenue. It’ll be hard to convince a star to play in Philly for a while yet, but having this defensive minded young core, while adding a possible Kawhi Leonard/Jimmy Butler type, would put this team back in the playoffs. Even overpaying for a two-way impact player, would make sense with the cap space available.
So there you have it, a logical reason why this team can look forward to being a top defensive team. Their best players are already good defenders, and even the role players grind hard.
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As the young core grows and the role players are gotten rid of for better pieces, the defense will only improve. Throw in Embiid, another high draft pick and a free agent, and this team’s fortunes will probably turn around faster than we can imagine. Their foundation for success will be built on their stellar defensive work.
Me? I’m jumping on that bandwagon early.
Thank you for loving Aussie hoops! From Kein, Damian and #TeamPnR