The Philadelphia 76ers lost by six points, 99-93, to the Miami Heat Tuesday night. They hung with the Heat throughout, and most game stories will rightly point out that losing Andre Iguodala to a freak Three Stooges eye-poking allowed LeBron James to go wild in the second half. But another storyline, one easily plucked from the box score, might have been just as influential. The Sixers lost by 12 at the free throw line.
Specifically, the Heat made 26 of their 32 attempts from the stripe, while the Sixers made 14 of the just 17 they attempted. That was potentially 15 extra points for the Heat, which actually resulted in 12.
And the discrepancy in trips to foul line between the Sixers and their opponent is by no means limited to last night. It's been a problem for the team all season. It's generated by both their personnel and their style, and it's going to continue to hold them back.
How Bad Is It?
The team's 17 attempts from the line on Tuesday is a total completely in line with their season average of 17.7 -- an average bad enough for dead last in the NBA.
Of the Sixers who actually get to the stripe, Lou Williams isn't just the team's best, he's one of the league's best. In 26 minutes a game, Lou shoots 4.69 foul shots for 3.75 makes, good enough for 36th in the league. Bear that out over 48 minutes and he's shooting 8.6 per game at 79.9 percent for more than three extra points (6.9). The point being that if Lou played more minutes (not that he necessarily should, not that he necessarily shouldn't), he would move only higher up a list that already includes some of the league's preeminent stars, who make a nightly living at the line.
But Lou is the outlier for this Sixer team. The only other Sixer in the Top 100 in free throws attempted per game is Andre Iguodala, in 67th with 3.24. And AI9's seeing the floor a whole lot more than Lou. After those two, no Sixer other than Thaddeus Young attempts more than two a night.
So why are the Sixers so inept at getting to the line? Two reasons: their personnel and their style.
Prior to his spate of injuries, Spencer Hawes played better than just about anyone, probably including his coach, could have expected in the early season. But he's still by no means a low-post scorer. If anything, he's low-post facilitator that can help with floor spacing and who contributes surprisingly adept passing for a big man. And the shame of it is, he's really only one of (when combined, barely) two options the Sixers have down on the block. Yes, Thad can post when he wants and spin to the basket or turn and shoot, but he's still an inside/outside undersized, unconventional power forward.
On the perimeter, the team doesn't have a single slasher, not one guy -- well, other than Lou, to an extent -- who can get to the paint whenever he wants.
Critics of the professional game have long bemoaned the star treatment the game's best players receive when they are rewarded for taking out-of-control drives into traffic knowing they'll be bailed out thanks to the name on the back of their jersey. While those critics might hate that's the way the game has gone, if you're still a fan, it's a reality with which you have to live. And if you're a Philly fan on top of it, well then it's a reality that's killing you, because the Sixers just don't have anyone with that kind of reputation or status.
So, if you're Doug Collins, and your goal as a good coach is to maximize your team's talent in an effort to win basketball games, what do you do? You run. You defend like crazy, get out in transition on every opportunity and, when you are stuck in the half court, you pass the ball to the best of your ability to generate open looks for a number of guys who cannot create their own.
The Sixers are seventh in the league in fast break points per game (15.6) and eighth in fast break efficiency. But they are 20th in points in the paint, with 39.1 a night.
Take those away, plus the foul attempts the team isn't getting, and the only thing left is jump shooting. Thankfully, the Sixers are 13th in total field goal percentage (44.8 percent) and seventh in three-point shooting (36.8 percent). But is there anyone on this roster who is any more than, at best, a streaky shooter?
Teams who win NBA championships, even in this modern, point guard dominated era, score in the post. The Sixers can't, and, to make matters worse, they have no one, singularly-gifted talent on the perimeter capable of making up for their frontcourt deficiencies.
What It All Means
The700Level crew was fortunate enough to take in the Sixers-Hawks game last Saturday night as a group, and AU threw out a stat at night's end that caught all of us a least a little off guard. The team's 95-91 win over Atlanta was it's first victory in a game decided by five points or less all season. They had previously been 0-9 in games decided in such a fashion. Indeed, they are tied for dead last with Portland in team winning percentage in "close games," according to TeamRankings.com.
Everyone of the top 12 teams in winning percentage in close games would make the playoffs if the postseason started today. Only four other spots remain, one of which would go to the Sixers, a team who struggles to score in the paint, can't get to the line and doesn't win close games. And with the exception of the Houston Rockets, every one of those 12 teams is either also in the top 12 in foul shots attempted per game (OKC, LAL, MIA, IND, MEM, DEN) or has players who can command foul calls late in games based on reputation (CHI, SA, BOS, ATL, LAC). The Sixers aren't shooting free throws and don't have a player talented enough to make up for that game-long, style-generated shortcoming by drawing fouls as the game winds down.
To hammer home the points about their style, NBA analyst Hubie Brown perhaps said it best after the team's 93-76 loss to the Spurs on March 26:
“If they’re going to get it done from now to the end, the Painted Area, whether you get there on the post-ups or off the dribble, and second-chance points, you’ve got to be able to do that,” he said. “You say, ‘Why?’ Because that’s where you get fouled. That’s where you get the three-point play. Then, if you shoot and miss, down in that Painted Area, once you get the second-chance opportunity, you’re within eight to 10 feet of the basket. That’s where you get fouled and get second chances.”
“When you’re playing the bad teams, you blow right by the perimeter guys, you get down inside,” Brown said. “They make a mistake [in their defensive rotation], you hand it off, you get a layup. Against the plus-.500s, you don’t blow by these people. … [The Sixers] don’t get to the line. They’re not scoring points in the paint.”
For those attached to this very likable team, Hubie believes the Sixers are young enough not warrant wholesale roster changes at this point, and that they need to be further allowed to grow into what they could or could not become.
That said, veterans Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand have already reached their potential and are clogging up cap room that could otherwise be spent on adding pieces to complement their veteran experience. Of course, the Sixers can't add those pieces, as they're already over the salary cap, though, thankfully, still below the luxury tax. So while many of the young guys still have growing to do, it's almost hard to believe this particular Sixers experiment hasn't already run it's course considering how little room the front office has to maneuver without getting rid of someone.
The Sixers personnel necessitates playing a style which doesn't result in trips to the foul line that are always valuable in winning close basketball games. The team doesn't get enough shooting foul calls throughout the game and doesn't have a dynamic enough to scorer to suddenly warrant them late in contests. While they often blow out inferior opponents, and remain competitive with the league's best, being competitive makes them just good enough to stay close ballgames they fail to lock down.
In coach Doug Collins' defense, he's gotten this team to play to the peak of its ability. The style they play in the best way to utilize everyone's talents in tandem to win basketball games, be good enough to make the playoffs and be "competitive." Moreover, as a late, but revealing example, the Sixers are good enough as a team to sweep a club like the aforementioned Hawks, who have a better record and more talent, proving that the whole can still be more than the sum of a team's parts.
The problem is when the Sixers play teams with more talent and a sound group philosophy. This Sixers team, as its currently constructed, cannot beat those teams, and, as disappointing as it is to say, without star-caliber roster improvements, likely never will.
Photo above credit US Presswire, where, go figure, it was tough to find a shot of a Sixer at the line.