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.

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Heading into his 13th season, Jason Peters has experienced a lot during his exceptional NFL career. So when the eight-time Pro Bowler says head coach Doug Pederson is more respectful of veteran players than the previous regime under Chip Kelly, you take notice.

"I think so," Peters stated frankly on Thursday at training camp. "The last couple years, there wasn't a lot of vets, and any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him.

"Doug was a player here, he understands veteran players and he understands the game, so I think it's better."

Addressing the media for the first time since last season, Peters faced a series of questions about how Pederson differs from his unique predecessor. Schemes and philosophies were topics of discussion, as well, but perhaps the sharpest criticism levied by Peters was Kelly's lack of appreciation for what an NFL player goes through to be ready on Sunday.

"Any time you've got a coach who's been there, done that, he knows about the trenches and he knows about the two-a-days, it definitely helps with a veteran team as a whole," Peters said.

Peters admitted Kelly's practices took their toll on players. If that sounds like a familiar complaint, it's probably because former Eagles cornerback Cary Williams voiced a similar opinion in 2014. On Thursday, Peters echoed and expanded upon Williams' sentiments.

"The same practices that we did in training camp were the same spring practices, exactly the same, so it's pretty much we had training camp the whole offseason," Peters said. "Even OTAs were the same exact practice. It kind of wore us down."

Peters also maintained the unusual practice schedule during the regular season was no help, either.

Most teams practice Monday and take Tuesday off. Kelly did the opposite, so there was no real break leading up to gameday.

"We practiced on Tuesdays when Chip was here, and you felt it on Sundays," Peters said. "I did anyway."

Pederson has mentioned on several occasions the Eagles intend to do everything they can to keep Peters fresh and prepared for Sundays this season, which the 34-year-old says is "just being smart." One way that could manifest itself is an occasional day off during the week.

Although Peters' criticisms of Kelly weren't limited to the workload on veterans, the left tackle indicated the constant uptempo attack may not have done the offense many favors, either.

"If you run 100 times in a row, back to back to back, don't you think your 50th time you're going to be a little slower?" Peters asked. "But if you get a little bit of a rest, you're going to be a little bit faster.

"It's give and take. When you go back to the huddle and you get that wind, you're just a little stronger when you go back to the line, so I think it will help."

Peters added that the simplicity and predictability of Kelly's system became a problem, as well.

"I mean, this is the National Football League, and if the running back is to the left and you're running the zone read, where do you think the ball is going?" Peters asked rhetorically. "To the right.

"They caught up to us. We had some good years there back to back, then last year we had that down year. We just needed to change a little bit up, especially with [quarterback Sam Bradford] back there. They know he's not gonna run it, so it kind of put our hands behind our back."

While Peters believes the return to a more sophisticated, traditional NFL offense under Pederson — one that uses snap counts and chip block to help its offensive linemen — will be an enormous improvement for the Eagles.

Peters knows it's on the players to do a better job in 2016, too. At the same time, he feels as though the deck might've been just a little stacked against them.

"We can't really blame it on that, we're professionals," Peters said.

"[The coaches] call the play, and we execute it. But when the [opponents] know, and they're professionals too, and they know what the play is, it's tough."

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

As the Eagles kicked off their first full-squad practice in the bubble on Thursday afternoon, a big part of the offense was missing. 

Starting right guard Brandon Brooks was nowhere to be found. In his place, with the first-team offense, was veteran Stefen Wisniewski. 

Brooks, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal to join the Eagles this offseason, missed practice with a hamstring injury and is listed by the team as day-to-day. 

The only other player that missed practice is running back Ryan Mathews, who is on the Active/Non-football Injury list with an ankle injury he suffered while training last week. 

Offensive starters
Thursday’s light afternoon practice was what Andy Reid used to call a “10-10-10” practice. The term is back under Doug Pederson. Basically, it’s a light practice that goes continually through offense, defense and special teams. But it’s not very conducive for observations because of the format, which is meant to allow the offense or defense to look good. 

But we did get a chance to see the starting units. 

Here’s what the first-team offense (they came out in 11 personnel) looked like to start practice: 

QB: Sam Bradford
RB: Darren Sproles (Mathews was out)
TE: Zach Ertz
WR1: Nelson Agholor
WR2: Chris Givens
Slot: Jordan Matthews
LT: Jason Peters
LG: Allen Barbre
C: Jason Kelce
RG Stefen Wisniewski (Brooks was out)
RT: Lane Johnson

Notes: It’s worth noting that Matthews is still working in the slot way more than he is outside. And Givens, after a nice spring, got the nod to work outside with the first team.

Defensive starters
The defense first came onto the field in the nickel package, so we’ll start there: 

LDE: Vinny Curry
RDE: Connor Barwin
LDT: Fletcher Cox
RDT: Bennie Logan
LB: Jordan Hicks
LB: Mychal Kendricks
LCB: Leodis McKelvin
RCB: Nolan Carroll
Slot: Ron Brooks
S: Malcolm Jenkins
S: Rodney McLeod

Notes: We listed the defense in nickel, but when the Eagles were in base, Nigel Bradham was on the field as the strongside linebacker. The most important thing to note is that when the team was in base, Ron Brooks stayed on the field and moved outside. That’s what the team did most of the spring and it hasn’t changed yet. We’ll have to keep an eye on that. 

North Dakota’s hero
Earlier this week, there were several reporters and a TV crew from North Dakota to watch the progress of their hometown hero Carson Wentz. Wentz said it was cool to see some familiar media faces, especially because he knows how closely fans in his home state are still following his career. 

The rookie hasn’t been home much recently, so he wasn’t sure if the buzz has died down at all since the draft, but he suspects there are many more Eagles fans at home now. 

“I know now that football season is starting to kick up, it’s starting to heat up back home,” he said. “Everyone’s all interested in the Eagles, more than just the local teams around there. It’s pretty exciting. Exciting time for the state of North Dakota, for sure.” 

Odds and ends
• We’ll start with Wentz, who made a great toss on Thursday down the field about 40 yards to shifty wideout Paul Turner. Just a beautiful ball from the rookie. 

• Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jalen Mills made another play. This time, he was able to get between the ball and Jordan Matthews near the right sideline. Perfect coverage. If he keeps this up once the pads go on Saturday, he’ll earn some playing time this season. 

• Jason Peters spoke for the first time this year after Thursday’s practice. We’ll have plenty on his thoughts and comments, but here’s what stuck out to me: he really didn’t like the way Chip Kelly did some things. He clearly didn’t like the tempo offense or Kelly’s management style. When asked, Peters agreed that Pederson’s staff is way more veteran player-friendly. 

“Any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him,” Peters said. Yikes. 

• Sproles, Agholor and Rueben Randle worked as the punt returners on Thursday. Obviously, Sproles is the guy, but this gives us an idea of the depth there. 

• Pads go on Saturday. 

• The first open practice (of two) is this Sunday at the Linc at 10 a.m. No tickets needed, just show up. 

Nelson Agholor: 'I fell short of my mission' to represent Eagles, family

Nelson Agholor: 'I fell short of my mission' to represent Eagles, family

When the allegations were first made public on June 10, Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor feared for his football career.

“To be honest with you,” he said, “there were points I thought an opportunity that was given to me to play for this organization and to have the life I have could have been taken from me.”

Agholor last month was accused by an exotic dancer of sexual assault during a visit Agholor made to a gentleman’s club in South Philadelphia in early June.

It wasn’t until about a month later — July 18 — that Agholor was cleared when the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office announced that no charges would be filed against the 23-year-old second-year pro.

On Thursday, after his first practice of training camp, Agholor spoke for the first time about the allegations.

“I put myself in a poor situation, and the most important thing for me was to realize that no matter what’s going on, if I make the right decision, I won’t be there,” he said after an afternoon practice in the Eagles’ indoor bubble.

“I put myself in that position going there, and to be honest with you, as I look at it, at the end of the day, it’s either neutral or negative consequences being in a place like that. So I made the wrong decision being there. …

“It definitely puts me in a position where I truly have to re-center my focus and remind myself who I am. You know? Being associated with anything like that is not who I am as a man. Falling short and even being associated with that, you’ve got to make sure you find yourself again and be yourself. Truly be yourself. And that’s what I’m going to do from here on out.”

Agholor declined to talk specifically about what happened at the strip club that day in June, but he did say the first few days, especially after the allegations came out, were very difficult for him and his family.

“Tough. Tough,” he said. “For a few days I sat back and I was in shock. But after a while I had to realize, I put myself in that position and all I can do is grow and find ways to get closer to my family and get closer to the people that had my back and just continue to grow and also train because I couldn’t let it defeat me twice.

“If I had just sat around moping, I wouldn’t be prepared to perform today. So I continued to train, stay with my family and get myself ready.”

Agholor said after the allegations came out, he returned home to Tampa to reconnect with his family and start the process of deciding exactly what kind of changes he had to make in his life to be the person he wanted to be.

“My parents were disappointed,” he said. “But they also understand that the best I could do is respond the right way. The actions were the actions. But what was I going to do after that from here on out?

“[Becoming] closer to my younger brother, taking care of my little sister, being there every day, being there for my family, making the right decisions. And they were proud of the way I responded.”

Agholor, the 20th pick in last year’s draft, had a disappointing rookie year, with just 23 catches for 283 yards and one touchdown.

So even before these allegations were made public, a lot of Eagles fans were disappointed in Agholor.

Now he has more to overcome to win the fans back. Because even though there won’t be any charges against Agholor, his reputation has definitely taken a major hit.

“At the end of the day, what I did gives everybody enough to say, ‘Hey, man, you did something wrong,’” he said. “At the end of the day, they have every right to do that.

“But as a man, I’ve got to do stuff from here on out to show who I am as a person and the type of man I’ll be.

“You never wish for negative things to happen to you, but they say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And I swear I feel way stronger. I do.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody coming across more genuine in such circumstances than Agholor Thursday.

His voice shook as he spoke of the faith that Chip Kelly, Doug Pederson, Howie Roseman and Jeff Lurie had in him and how he let them down.

“I fell short of my mission and I understand I should have done a better job,” he said. “From here on out, I have an obligation to do the right thing and to be the right person for this organization.

“What’s going to change? Understanding that every day I have an opportunity to take care of the life I have and to be a good person.

“I made a [poor] decision. I wish I didn’t. But at the end of the day, I have to make a conscious effort every day when I wake up to feed myself the right stuff and be around the right people and make the right decisions and hold myself accountable. So that’s what I’m going to do.”