Why are the Sixers not Awful?

Posted on February 7, 2011 by


The Philadelphia 76ers declined from 41 wins in 2008-09 to 27 wins in 2009-10.  As Sam Cohen noted last June, given the departure of Andre Miller – and the failure to add any productive players – this decline was expected.

Sam went on to note that the primary trade the Sixers made last summer – a trade that sent Samuel Dalembert to the Sacramento Kings for Andres Nocioni and Spencer Hawes – was not likely to help.  After all, Dalembert produced 10.6 wins last season while Nocioni and Hawes posted WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] marks that were in the negative range.

Despite this negative assessment of Philadelphia’s future, after 50 games in 2010-11 the Sixers are clearly not awful.   The team has already won 23 games.  Furthermore, the team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) is 0.3; a mark consistent with a team that will win about 42 games across an entire season. 

Such modest success leads one to ask: How can a team trade away its second most productive player for – as Sam put it – “a bag of chips” and then improve?

To answer this question, let’s move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced. As the following table indicates, the Sixers in 2010-11 are receiving above average production (average WP48 is 0.100) from five different players.

The production of Andre Iguodala is hardly surprising.   Since entering the league in 2004-05, Iguodala has posted the following WP numbers:

  • 2004-05: 14.1
  • 2005-06: 13.5
  • 2006-07: 12.5
  • 2007-08: 11.7
  • 2008-09: 13.1
  • 2009-10: 14.4

Across these six seasons Iguodala has averaged 13.2 Wins Produced.  This season Iguodala has produced 7.2 wins after 50 games, and if he maintains his WP48 mark of 0.243, he will finish the season with… yes, 13.2 Wins Produced.  So Iguodala is essentially doing what he has always done.

The other veteran members who are posting above average marks, though, are not posting the same numbers we saw last year.  Elton Brand and Thaddeus Younger were in the negative range last season, while Jrue Holiday was below average.  Once again, though, each is above average this season.  And it is the improvement in the production of this trio that explains virtually the entire difference between what we are observing for this team and what we would have expected given these player’s performance last year.

Before we get to the play of this trio, we should emphasize that Sam’s analysis of last June’s trade was essentially correct.  In other words, Spencer Hawes – the player who is starting at center for the Sixers and who was probably the primary player the Sixers wanted for Dalembert – is still a very unproductive player.  So this trade (despite the improvement we see with respect to Nocioni) hasn’t appeared to help.

But the aforementioned trio has gotten better.  When we look at Brand – the player who has improved the most – the explanation seems pretty easy.  Brand was a very productive player when he was with the LA Clippers (and the Bulls before that).   And as will be shown in a moment, Brand has essentially returned to what we saw in 2006-07.  Yes, Brand appears to have recovered from his injury problems (and it only took three or four years).

The Holiday story also seems easy to explain.  Players initially improve with age, and Holiday is only twenty years old.

Age could also play a role with respect to Young.  After all, Young is only 22 and players tend to improve until their mid-twenties.  But the Young story seems more complicated than this. 

To see this point, let’s consider the specific stats generated by Brand and Young.  The following table compares Brand and Young – after 50 games this season – to what we saw from each player in the past. 

For Brand we are comparing this year’s performance to what we have seen across his career and during his last above average season (2006-07).  As one can see, across his entire career Brand has been an efficient scorer who is above average on the boards.  And that is what Brand is doing this year.  So once again, it appears Brand is now healthy (although older).

And again, the Young story is different.  Young entered the league in 2007-08 and posted above average numbers during that initial season.  But the past two years saw his production slip dramatically.  And now in 2010-11, his production has returned to what we saw three years ago.  So what happened?

At this point in the story we need to review something said in The Wages of Wins and reported in this forum in 2006:

One cannot end the analysis when one has measured the value of player performance. Knowing the value of each player is only the starting point of analysis. The next step is determining why the player is productive or unproductive. In our view, this is where coaching should begin. We think we can offer a reasonable measure of a player’s productivity. Although we have offered some insights into why players are productive, ultimately this question can only be answered by additional scrutiny into the construction of a team and the roles a player plays on the floor.

To summarize: Wins Produced tells us how productive a player has been.  To understand why, we need to look into the factors that determine player performance.  Given the consistency of NBA players across time (relative to what we see in football and baseball), the primary factor that determines a player’s success is the player’s individual talent.  And this is why, in general, player performance doesn’t change much over time.  Players like Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard are very productive season after season because they are very good players.  And players like Jason Kapono, Darius Songaila, and Spencer Hawes (all players currentlyemployed by the Sixers) are not very productive players season after season; and one suspects that is because they are not relatively talented (relative to other NBA players, not relative to you and I).

But although players tend to be consistent, when we observe a player like Thaddeus Young offering different levels of productivity we have to look beyond just the talents of the player in question.  And again, that is where coaching comes into the picture. At least, we need the insights of someone who has spent a fair amount of time watching the Sixers play.

As I noted in this week’s podcast, I watch about one NBA game every night.  But since there are 30 NBA teams, it is not often the Sixers are the game on TV in Utah.  It is a different story for Tom Sunnergren.  Tom writes for Philadunkia, and as someone who writes extensively about the Sixers, Tom seemed like a perfect person to ask about the changes in Young’s production.  And thankfully, Tom was gracious enough to send along some thoughts.

“…the Thaddeus Young resurgence is pretty fascinating. As are the Sixers themselves actually. I would venture to guess that they’re the NBA team that is most outpacing their preseason projections. They’ve been a pleasant surprise.

Thad’s success this season is, to my mind, driven by a few factors. He’s

  • not shooting three-pointers anymore, which is excellent news because he was never very good at making them (Doug Collins told him explicitly to knock the three off and he complied)
  • he’s rebounding better than he ever has
  • he, like the rest of the team, simply doesn’t turn the ball over (this is widely attributed to Collins’ influence as well)
  • he’s just finishing incredibly well. According to hoopdata, he’s got a 73 percent field goal percentage at the rim. According to my eyeballs, he ends every fast-break with a devastatingly awesome dunk.

Why has he improved in these areas? I understand that there’s not a lot in the data that suggests Doug Collins is a terribly effective coach, but he seems to have done great work with Thad. After a couple coaches (Mo Cheeks and Eddie Jordan) who encouraged him to develop an outside game, Collins has allowed him to get back to his game, one predicated on athleticism and attacking. The transformation isn’t total (he still takes more deep twos than I’m comfortable with), but after a couple years of jamming a square peg into a round hole, he looks (in the game and on the stat sheet) like a tool that’s again being used properly.

I also credit part of his rise to his reduced minutes. He looks faster at 25 minutes a night than he did at 35. Worth mentioning that in his encouraging rookie year he only played 21 a game. Thad, for his part, disagrees with this analysis.”

So there you have it.  According to Tom, it is possible Young was a victim of poor coaching the past two years; or at least, coaches who seemed determined to ask Young to do things he couldn’t do.  Collins has reversed this coaching focus and asked Young to go back to what he was as a rookie. Once again, I want to thank Tom for these insights. 

Let me close with some final thoughts on this team.  As Tom also noted, Young’s contract is up when the season ends.  That is also true of Spencer Hawes.  Of the two, it appears the Sixers should let Hawes go and re-sign Young.  For the Sixers to become title contenders, though, more has to be done.  One should expect Holiday and Evan Turner (the latter is above average as a rookie) to get better with age.   But even if Holiday and Turner do get better, the Sixers still have a problem at center.  So in the off-season, it is that position the team probably needs to address. 

If Philadelphia can find just an average center (average WP48 is 0.100), this team could become close to a 50-win team (even if Turner and Holiday don’t offer any more).   And if Holiday and Turner keep progressing, well, then the Sixers should be better than a 50-win team.

And that is all the Sixers need to become a lower-ranked contender in the East.  Just to summarize, to move from awful to contending status…

  • Brand had to get healthy
  • Young had to revert to what he was in the past (at the urging of his coach)
  • Holiday (and eventually Turner) had  to improve with age
  • and this team needs someone else besides Hawes in the middle

When all of these things have finally happened (and as noted, some already have), the Sixers will be back towards the top in the East.  Or at least, I think they will not be anywhere near awful.  

– DJ