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.

Mychal Kendricks may be only starter to play Thursday vs. Jets

Mychal Kendricks may be only starter to play Thursday vs. Jets

Nelson Agholor, a struggling second-year receiver who may or may not be a starter, likely won't play in the Eagles' preseason finale Thursday against the Jets.

Mychal Kendricks, a fifth-year linebacker who's been a regular starter since he was a rookie, likely will.

"There's a chance," head coach Doug Pederson said Monday. "There's a chance he plays because he hasn't played all preseason, and we still want to get him those live reps and get him ready for Cleveland."

Kendricks played Saturday against Indianapolis after missing the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury suffered in training camp earlier this month. He was still in the game in the fourth quarter, when the rest of the starters had exchanged their helmets for baseball caps.

"Why? Because he hasn't played," Pederson said. "He hasn't played and we just want to see him get game and live reps. That's the bottom line."

And just to be sure, Kendricks is still a starter?

"Oh, yeah. He's another one that we'd love to see again this Thursday night in a short role," Pederson said. "But at the same time he hasn't played all preseason. Stephen Tulloch's another one that we need to see play. So there's an opportunity for these two to get some more reps on Thursday."

Tulloch makes sense. He needs all the reps he can get. And he's also a backup. He should have no problem playing Thursday.

As for Kendricks ... he was not available to the media Monday.

Aaron Grymes waived/injured by Eagles

Aaron Grymes waived/injured by Eagles

Aaron Grymes was making a serious push to be on the Eagles' 53-man roster until the cornerback's right shoulder slammed into the ground at Heinz Field after an interception.

Grymes hasn't practiced or played since and the Eagles waived/injured the 25-year-old corner on Monday.

Before coming to the Eagles this spring, Grymes spent three successful seasons in the Canadian Football League and won a Grey Cup as an All-Star for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2015.

There seems to be a decent shot that the Eagles might want to put Grymes on their practice squad.

After the Pittsburgh game, when he had the interception and suffered the injury, Grymes was asked if he would prefer to be on a practice squad or head back to Canada, where he's already a proven star.

“I’ve thought about both of them," Grymes said on Aug. 18. "Both of them are great opportunities. I know that there are teams in Canada that are willing to bring me in and let me play. But then again, you can’t really compare it with this NFL dream I’ve had forever.

"To sign to a practice squad … injuries happen every day, and I think an opportunity could be there. It will be something I sit down with my wife and talk about, sit down with my agent and talk about. We’ll just make the best decision for us from there.”

Nelson Agholor unlikely to play Eagles' preseason finale, even if he could use the work

Nelson Agholor unlikely to play Eagles' preseason finale, even if he could use the work

Starters typically don't play much if at all in the final preseason game, but what does that mean for the Eagles and Nelson Agholor?

Agholor may be a starter by default, but the second-year wideout has followed up a disappointing rookie campaign with an uninspired summer thus far. More reps might be of value for a young player in Agholor's position.

Doug Pederson apparently disagrees, telling reporters on Monday that Agholor "probably" won't make an appearance in the Eagles' preseason finale this Thursday against the Jets. When pressed for an explanation, the head coach gave a curious response.

"One, I don't want to risk an injury necessarily," Pederson said. "Two, he's right on track with where he needs to be, so I'm not concerned with Nelson."

Any assertion that Agholor is "on track" is debatable. The 2015 first-round pick has just two receptions for 30 yards in preseason action. To make matters worse, he's also dropped three passes, including a costly deflection that went for an interception against the Colts on Saturday.

Minimal production and lapses in concentration plagued Agholor throughout last season, and there's little evidence those issues are behind him. Regardless, Pederson sounds unconcerned.

"Every day he comes out here and puts in a quality day's work," Pederson said. "He works extremely hard, and I've seen what he can do in practice.

"Is there the occasional drop here or there? Yeah. What he did after the drop (against the Colts), you probably didn't notice the blocking downfield, the things he did away from the ball. More than being a receiver — obviously, catching the ball is number one — but we pride ourselves in being physical in the run game and blocks down the field, and the things he did in this football game put him in a really good position going into the regular season."

To his credit, Agholor has shown a willingness to contribute without the ball in his hands. The 23-year-old threw a key block on Josh Huff's eight-yard touchdown run on Saturday.

Of course, Agholor wasn't taken 20th overall for his ability to pancake defensive backs. The Eagles are hoping he can become a viable target in the passing attack.

Agholor has dealt with questions about his production and confidence going back to last year. He knows as well as anybody that he needs to improve, although he doesn't necessarily feel that growth needs to take place in an exhibition game.

"The most important thing to me right now is practice, and I got an opportunity to go out here and practice and progress from the game to today," Agholor said. "We went over some corrections from the game, so that was a step, and now when I go out here, I have to show signs of progression.

"(Coach Pederson's) decision is his decision. For my mind, I need to make sure I go out here today and get better as a football player."

But are Agholor's troubles holding on to the football correctable through practice? Drops are often attributed either to a receiver's hands or his concentration, both of which tend to be difficult flaws to overcome.

Concentration has been more to blame in Agholor's case. If there's a positive, he realizes that. Agholor looks at a drop like the one he had against the Colts that wound up going for an interception and tries to figure out exactly what broke his concentration on that play so that he won't make the same mistake again.

"As a wide receiver, when you watch that, the end result, the drop, isn't on my mind," Agholor said. "It's 'What was my route?' to go to that. Did I do too much to take my focus away from receiving that football? And I felt like I did.

"I felt like my pattern to get to the football — I made man moves and they were actually in a zone — and all those stairsteps made my eyes and my hands not be in the right place to receive the football at the right time."

Nobody is putting more pressure on Agholor to eliminate these mistakes than he is.

"That's what you have to do in this league, and that's what you have to do for a football team, especially when they count on you," Agholor said.

"My teammates count on me to be explosive with the football and without the football. I want to always do it with the football because that's my job. I'm a wide receiver. But as a player on the field, I have to make sure I'm explosive and I have to make sure I make plays without the ball in my hands too."

Perhaps that's why Pederson is showing so much faith in his young receiver. Work ethic has never been an issue for Agholor, and he's going to do whatever he can to become a reliable weapon for the Eagles. When he comes up short, it's not for lack of effort or preparation.

Fortunately, there's still time for Agholor to turn things around. If he can give the offense somewhat steady production in 2016, nobody will remember the preseason or even how he struggled as a rookie. Agholor realizes that too, so he's worried only about getting ready for opening day against the Browns on Sept. 11.

"I have a responsibility because I will be a guy that's out there," Agholor said. "In my mind, my number's going to be called multiple times and I need to answer the phone. That's how I look at it."