Flawed 76ers Roster Can't Get to the Foul Line

Flawed 76ers Roster Can't Get to the Foul Line

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.

Personnel
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.

Style
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 Takeaway
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.

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Kenjon Barner has the third-most runs in the NFL of 14-plus yards despite having just 14 carries all year.
 
Wendell Smallwood ran for 79 yards and a touchdown Sunday in the first extended playing time of his career.
 
Despite their gaudy stats, Ryan Mathews will be the Eagles’ featured running back when he’s healthy, head coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
 
“I think we just continue the same way, really,” Pederson said. “When Ryan is healthy, he’s the guy, and then we’ll mix Darren (Sproles) in there and you saw what Wendell can do and we know what Kenjon’s all about.”
 
Mathews, who has been injury prone throughout his career, did not play after two early carries Sunday in the Eagles’ 34-3 win over the Steelers at the Linc.
 
Pederson said Mathews’ left ankle — originally injured in July, before training camp even began and then aggravated in the season opener against the Browns — is still bothering him.
 
“With that thing, that ankle, it’s something that for him it never loosened up (Sunday) and was stiff and so again (we) just opted on the side of caution more than anything else,” Pederson said.
 
Mathews gained minus-five yards on two carries in the first quarter and didn’t play again.
 
He's rushed for three touchdowns this year but is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry — 36th out of 40 backs with 20 or more carries this year.
 
Meanwhile, Smallwood is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, eighth-highest in the NFL, and Barner, with just 14 carries, has four runs of 14 yards. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry but doesn’t have enough to qualify for the league leaders.

Although Barner has the 58th-most carries in the NFL, only LeSean McCoy and Isaiah Crowell have more runs of 14 or more yards.
 
Sproles has been his usual electriyfing self in the receiving game and returning punts, but he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.
 
Since opening day last year, Sproles is at 3.6 per carry — 50th of 52 backs with at least 100 carries over the last two seasons.
 
Pederson said despite Mathews’ injury history — he started more than nine games twice in his first six seasons — he has no problem with the workload he gave him in Cleveland. Mathews had 22 carries against the Browns, his second-most since 2013.
 
“I think that’s a good number for him, honestly, and then for everyone else to get a few touches after that we’re on track,” Pederson said.
 
“It’s kind of with Carson (Wentz), I don’t think you ever want to go into a game thinking you want to throw it 50 times. If you manage it and keep it around 30 and have a successful running game, I think that’s a good balance.”
 
How much Barner and Smallwood will work in once Mathews returns remains to be seen.
 
But it’s hard to argue with their production.
 
“Everybody’s a little different runner,” Pederson said Monday, a day after the Eagles improved to 3-0.
 
“Wendell did an excellent job between the tackles last night, sort of downhill, Kenjon sort of off-tackle, and of course Darren can do everything.
 
“So we’ll still keep the rotation the same, we’re not going to change much that way, and just want to get everybody in the football game.”
 
It’s tough to put together a running back depth chart for this team. Mathews had the most carries against the Browns, Sproles had the most against the Bears and Smallwood the most against the Steelers.
 
Last time the Eagles opened a season with three different backs leading the team in attempts was 1989, when Mark Higgs had 13 carries in the opener vs. Seattle, Anthony Toney led the way a week later with nine carries against the Redskins (that was the huge comeback win from a 20-0 deficit) and then Heath Sherman had a team-high 16 carries a week later against the 49ers (when Joe Montana threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter).
 
How similar this year turns out to 2003 and the original Three-Head Monster of Duce Staley — now the Eagles’ running backs coach — Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter will sort itself out after the bye.
 
“It’s good to have that kind of depth at that position with as many touches collectively as a group that we’re going to get each game and the wear and tear on that position,” Pederson said. “It’s great to get that many guys in the game.”
 
The Eagles certainly do seem high on Smallwood, the only back in the group that Pederson didn’t inherit from Chip Kelly.
 
Smallwood missed most of training camp with a quad injury and concussion but has been very good since he’s been healthy.
 
“He’s much like Carson in how he prepares during the week,” Pederson said.
 
“We’ve been fortunate with our young players ... and how they work and how they handle themselves on and off the football field, and he’s done a great job in practice, he’s put himself in a position to help us, and it’s great to see him.
 
“We saw it early in the spring, we saw it in training camp before the injury.”

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson says Carson Wentz’s prep is ‘Peyton Manning-ish’

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson says Carson Wentz’s prep is ‘Peyton Manning-ish’

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, eight and a half hours before game time, Jordan Matthews was in the team hotel, going to get breakfast when he ran into Carson Wentz.

But the 23-year-old quarterback wasn’t interested in food at that particular time. He was going to watch film.

“Everybody thinks that’s like a crazy thing,” Matthews said on Sunday night. “That’s his standard.”

This is just the latest example of Wentz’s obsession with football and film study. Since the No. 2 overall pick arrived in Philadelphia, and especially since he was named the Week 1 starter, we’ve been regaled with stories of his preparation and drive. The anecdotes of Wentz’s arrival before the sun to watch film have flowed.

“It’s Peyton Manning-ish,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday, as the team heads into its bye week with a 3-0 record.

“And you hate to label, you don’t want to put labels on guys. But that’s how Peyton prepared and that’s how these top quarterbacks prepare each week. And he has that now as a young quarterback and that will just carry him throughout his career.”

When asked if Wentz’s film study habits reach obsessive levels, Pederson said that notion was “accurate.”

“He loves watching tape,” Pederson said. “I know I’ve mentioned he and the quarterbacks, Chase [Daniel] and Aaron [Murray], are in here at 5:30 in the morning and they’re exhausting the tape. He’s constantly, I hear him in the building talking about plays and routes and protections.”

Aside from Wentz’s just putting in the time during film study, his unique ability to recall plays quickly has given him a huge advantage during his first three games.

When asked if Wentz’s memory is photographic, Pederson said he thinks it is.

In between series, Wentz and the coaching staff are able to go over plays on their Surface tablets. They go over plays and then when he’s on the field, he recognizes a defensive front or coverage and can get the offense in a different play.

Through three games, Wentz’s preparation and memory have helped the Eagles get off to a quick 3-0 start.

“He’s a different player that way,” Pederson said. “He’s much like our last quarterback, Alex Smith, in Kansas City. It’s the same type of memory. For a young kid to do that, it’s pretty special.”