Philly Phlying: Refusing to Tank?

One of the bigger potential ironies of this season is that the Philadelphia 76ers look like a pretty solid playoff team whereas the Denver Nuggets, who took Allen Iverson from Philly because the Sixers were mired in the lottery, are likely going to miss the playoffs.  Of course, that’s a bit of a superficial observation as ironies go.  The Nuggets are significantly better team than Philly but the Sixers have the fortune in being a far less deep conference.  Still, Philly’s run has been impressive.  They continue to beat their competitors for the lower seeds on a regular basis and they have many impressive wins over good teams (San Antonio, Phoenix on the road, and last night against Boston)  Contrary to what many (including myself) believed, the Sixers have not tapered off at all but in fact have played better and better as the season has progressed.At the All-Star break, I figured that Philly was much better off tanking it by trading Andre Miller for a pick and getting a higher draft pick instead of having a nice little season with a first round exit.  The Sixers are interesting team and I though we could like at why they are playing well now and what they should do in the future. 

Why they are playing well now 

It’s hard to tell.  A knee jerk reaction leads us towards the stars, Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala.  But that doesn’t necessarily have to be true.  The Sixers were just 6-19 when Miller came to town last year and went 29-28 the rest of the way, basically the same numbers as this season and arguably they’ve been the same team so far this year.  But the Sixers were so dead when they benched Iverson and released Chris Webber that they were bound to improve with the acquisition of another good player like Miller.  Maintaining that pace over a full season is much more impressive.  Moreover, the expected wins has spiked up significantly from last year.  The Sixers were an expected 32-50 last year and now they are 36-35 and expected to be 38-33 with their point differential.  The point differential hints to improvement in 2007-08 that seems more genuine than the dead cat bounce of 2006-07 and there should be something in the numbers to reflect this.  Let’s juxtapose the stats of the 2006-07 Sixer starters versus those of 2007-08 and see what improvements, if any, we see: 

                            2006-07 Sixers Key Players (Post-Iverson Trade)

A. Miller PG 37.6 13.6 0.464 4.4 7.3 0.1 1.3 2.7 15.9
W. Green SG 24.9 11.3 0.411 2.1 1.5 0.1 0.8 1.4 10.3
A. Iguodala SF 40.3 18.2 0.447 5.7 5.7 0.4 2.0 3.4 18.1
S. Hunter PF 22.9 6.4 0.577 4.8 0.4 1.1 0.2 0.9 12.3
S. Dalembert C 30.9 10.7 0.541 8.9 0.8 1.9 0.6 3.5 16.1
K. Korver G 30.9 14.4 0.440 3.5 1.4 0.3 0.8 1.6 14.2
J. Smith F 25.1 9.2 0.445 6.7 0.9 0.4 0.6 1.2 14.1

                                2007-08 Sixers Key Players

A. Miller PG 36.5 17.1 0.500 3.9 6.7 0.1 1.2 2.6 18.5
W. Green SG 27.2 12.7 0.447 2.4 1.9 0.3 0.7 1.6 12.9
A. Iguodala SF 39.3 19.8 0.453 5.4 4.6 0.7 2.0 2.7 18.9
R. Evans PF 24.2 5.5 0.447 8.0 0.8 0.1 1.0 1.4 11.1
S. Dalembert C 33.0 10.7 0.506 10.2 0.5 2.4 0.5 1.9 15.7
T. Young F 19.8 7.6 0.528 4.2 0.7 0.1 1.0 0.9 16.7
L. Williams PG 22.9 11.1 0.415 2.0 3.2 0.2 0.9 1.6 16.0

Miller is playing much better, mainly because he’s shooting 50%.  How real is this change?  I find it pretty flukey.  Miller is a career .459% shooter and has never shot better than .477% for a full season before 2007-08.  Moreover, it’s not like he added some new ability.  His three point shooting is his typically awful numbers (3-27 for the season).  Iguodala and Willie Green are also playing a little better, their shooting is up a bit and their (particularly Iguodala’s) turnovers are down a bit.  Other areas of improvement are having youngsters Thaddeus Young and Louis Williams off the bench, who offer more than Kyle Korver and Joe Smith.  But these are also not eye popping improvements either.  There should be something else here too. 

Turning to the team numbers, let’s eliminate the things that the Sixers don’t do well: they can’t shoot threes (.318%) and they shoot very few (782 attempts versus 1,317 for their opponents), all these numbers are worst in the NBA.  They are also out-assisted by a pretty big margin (1,408 versus 1,598 for opponents).  What Philly does do very well, however, is draw fouls, rebound, and steal.   Stealing is the only category where they really excel, as they are in top five and happens to reflect a team-wide commitment to defense we haven’t seen before in the Maurice Cheeks Era: 

Year        Pts/100 pos.    Opp Pts/100 ps.

2005-06    106.0 (15th)    108.1 (25th)

2006-07    103.6 (26th)    106.9 (16th)

2007-08    106.2 (17th)    105.5 (8th)

As can bee seen, Cheeks’ teams have steadily improved defensively.  We can’t tell whether or to what extent this is a result of personnel change or change in coaching philosophy.  Cheeks’ Portland teams steadily declined defensively but that was very likely the result of Portland stripping away the core of a good team.  Clearly, defense is driving the current Philly team.  They have a nice shot blocker in Sam Dalembert and they really have no weak defender in their starting five or top seven (except maybe Young), which is quite different from teams that relied heavily on a heavy legged Chris Webber and Kyle Korver.  Going forward for the rest of the season, Philly looks like a tough low seed have an outside shot at catching the Wizards for the five seed.  I don’t see them winning a round but the Sixers will definitely have an interesting playoff series before they are ousted. 

Going Forward? 

Of course, one nice season doesn’t matter quite so much when we’re talking about building a consistent winner for a five-year period or so.  As good as Miller has been, he’ll be 32 and expecting one more big contract for his mid-30s, which is never a good bet.  The Sixers have plenty of cap room (they are projected at $34.6 million) for next season and have a nice young core in Iguodala, Williams, Young, and Dalembert (who is actually an above average center when healthy).  Williams and Young both have pretty high ceilings.  Williams looks like a real good young guard, but he’s small and not a great passer yet.  He cannot step in for Miller quite yet but is so young that he should develop nicely soon.  

Young is also very young and looks pretty good.  The worry I have with him is that he does not look like a super all-around player.  His block numbers are ridiculously low for a young, athletic forward (0.1 bpg this year) and he wasn’t a shot blocker in college either (12 blocks in 31 games his one season at Georgia Tech).  Young isn’t a great rebounder either (7.6 rpg per 36 minutes this year).  This doesn’t mean Young won’t be a good player but it most likely limits his value to the Juwan Howard/Al Harrington-type player and makes him someone to consider trading if you can get a real two guard or some other nice value exchange. 

Young’s potential development also impacts on what the Sixers will do with Iguodala, who is looking for a huge extension.  Iguodala is a very good player but he’s not a superstar.  Still, Philly should pay him if they can get a sane offer.  Iguodala is only 24 right now and paying top dollar until age-30 is not a huge risk.  The Nets made a similar move with Richard Jefferson (a very similar player).  The Nets may have overpaid on that deal but keeping RJ made sense because teams needed some continuity and investing in good young players that you drafted makes sense for fans. Even if Iguodala fails to improve, he’s still tradeable at his current value level (barring injury of course).

The Sixers are in a tougher situation with Miller.  Williams isn’t quite ready to take the reins and the team is faced with choosing between contending for a low seed in 2008-09 (and risk losing him for nothing after the season as a free agent or giving him a really bad contract) or trading Miller for some value.  I was leaning towards trading Miller earlier this year but I understand that Philly likes contending.  So, now they are in a delicate dance where they may try to start next year with Miller and only trade him if they can’t replicate the success of 2007-08.  This is a nice paradigm for GM options, where it’s not clear whether they can continue to contend or whether they can get the value they want for Miller.  My feeling is that the Sixers should let the market shape their decision.  If they can get a lottery pick for Miller or a talent close to that, they have to trade Miller.  If not, they may as well let it ride in 2008-09.

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