The Philadelphia 76ers have traveled a long road from the Draft day 2013, when they traded All-Star Jrue Holiday and initiated "The Process." But here they are, in playoff position in an improved Eastern Conference.
Three years after he was drafted, Joel Embiid is finally a full-time player (or pretty darn close to it). Ben Simmons is clearly the favorite to be the Rookie of the Year. Robert Covington has evolved from an undrafted guy they took a flyer on in 2014 to one of the league's best 3-and-D role players. Two more draft picks -- Dario Saric and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot -- are developing and veterans have been brought in to provide both leadership and production.
The Process has become a lot of fun to watch. But it's more than that, because the Sixers are actually pretty good. They have winning record (6-5) on the road and a top-10 defense. They've taken more than one step forward in the last couple of years.
There are more steps to be taken. This year's No. 1 pick, Markelle Fultz, has yet to show us what he can do. Embiid and Simmons have incredibly high ceilings and are still just finding their NBA legs.
The Sixers host the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. It's the first game of TNT's doubleheader and the last game of a stretch where Philly has been playing nine of 10 games at home.
The Sixers have been the most improved team in the league, 6.1 points per 100 possessions better than they were last season.
No kidding, right? The hardest part of "The Process" is over, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are healthy, and the Sixers have gone from bad to good.
But The Process actually made quite a bit of progress last season, when the Sixers went from awful to just bad. From 2015-16 to '16-17, the Sixers made a jump of 4.3 points per 100 possessions, the second biggest in the league. They actually made the biggest jump in winning percentage, which they've done again this season.
Of course, when you go 10-72 (as the '15-16 Sixers did), there's nowhere to go but up. An infusion of talent at multiple positions can make a big difference and the Sixers have had quite an infusion of talent over the last two seasons, both from new players and the development of ones they've had. (Hello, Robert Covington.)
The bigger improvement over the last two seasons has come on offense, where the Sixers are 7.5 points per 100 possessions better than they were two seasons ago. An improvement of 4.1 points per 100 possessions last season wasn't enough to climb out of 30th in offensive efficiency (where they ranked for the fourth straight season), but another jump of 3.5 has them up to 19th this season.
Shooting, on both ends of the floor, is the most important thing in basketball. Over the last two seasons, the Sixers have climbed from 27th to 21st to 16th in *effective field goal percentage and from 18th to 16th to 4th in opponent effective field goal percentage.
In regard to shooting, they've made a bigger jump on defense. From last season, they've improved from 15th to first in opponent 3-point percentage and they've had the league's biggest drop in the percentage of opponent shots that have come from the restricted area.
* Effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
But interestingly, the area where the Sixers have improved most on both ends of the floor is rebounding. Two seasons ago, they were in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. This season, they rank second and eighth, respectively.
Four of the top six players in minutes on last season's Sixers were Nik Stauskas (6-6), T.J. McConnell (6-2), Gerald Henderson (6-5) and Sergio Rodriguez (6-3). This year's Sixers are big. They start a 6-foot-10 point guard and J.J. Redick (6-foot-4) is their only starter shorter than 6-foot-9. Big players generally grab more rebounds and the Sixers' starting lineup has grabbed 57 percent of available boards, the highest mark among lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together.
Two seasons ago, the Sixers were outscored by 3.0 points per game on second chances. This season, they're a plus-1.9 on second-chance points. A difference of 4.9 points per game is huge, worth about 15 wins over the course of a full season.
The Sixers' last two wins - over Washington and Detroit last week - were both by five points. In those games, they were a plus-15 and a plus-10 on second chance points. Detroit's Andre Drummond ranks second in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, but grabbed just one offensive rebound (a season low) in Philly on Saturday. Five different Sixers had more.
League-wide, offensive rebounding percentage is at an all-time low of 22.3 percent, having decreased each of the last six seasons. Teams are prioritizing transition defense and sending fewer players to the offensive boards. But there are still points to be had and points to be prevented by improving on the glass, which the Sixers have done dramatically over the last two seasons.
- NBA.com/stats Video: Watch the Sixers grab 21 offensive rebounds against Washington on Nov. 29.
A FEW MORE SIXERS NOTES
This is the second straight season that Philly has led the league in player movement. And it's the fourth time in Brett Brown's five seasons as coach that they've ranked in the top three (they ranked eighth in 2015-16). They've also ranked in the top seven in pace in each of Brown's five seasons on the bench.
It seems counterintuitive to play fast when you have a talent deficit. The more possessions you play, the more chances your opponent has to use its advantage.
But shot clock data tells us the best shots come early in the clock. League-wide effective field goal percentage is about 60 percent in the first six seconds of the shot clock, 51 percent with 7-18 seconds left on the clock, and 43 percent in the last six seconds.
If you can get into your offense quickly, space the floor, *move the ball and move bodies, the league's not-so-good defenses will have a difficult time keeping up. A team that plays slow and stands around on offense makes things easier on the defense and more difficult on itself.
* The Sixers lead the league in passes per game, but, once you take pace into account, they rank lower in passes per possession.
With pace and space, it becomes a matter of execution. If you can take care of the ball, set good screens, and make the open shots that your system produces, you can have a solid offense.
Yes, the Sixers probably lost some games by playing too fast over the last four years. But they set a standard for the way they want to play. The Brooklyn Nets are trying to do the same thing as they go through their own kind of rebuilding. With more talent comes better execution and the habits that have been built over the years begin to bear fruit.
"It's really not like we've changed our structure," Brown said last week about the evolution of his team's offense. "We just have different people in the structure."
2. For the fourth time in the last five seasons, the Sixers have the league's highest turnover rate.
This is the execution issue that still lingers in Year 5 of The Process. The only time over the last five seasons when the Sixers haven't ranked last in turnovers per 100 possessions was '15-16, when they ranked 29th.
The good news is that only 49 percent of their turnovers have been live-balls (recorded as opponent steals). That's the third lowest rate in the league and down from 52 percent last season (and 54 percent in '14-15). The Sixers have replaced some sloppy passing with *travels and illegal screens.
* With more travels being called this season, the percentage of league-wide turnovers that have been live balls is down, from 55 percent last season to 52 percent (the lowest rate since 2010-11).
On the other end of the floor, the Sixers rank 25th in opponent turnover rate, but 59 percent of their opponent turnovers (the highest rate in the league) have been live balls. So they average almost as many opportunities per game off live-ball turnovers (8.4) as their opponents do (8.5).
Those dead-ball turnovers are still lost opportunities to score. And for the Sixers to take the next step, they have to do a better job of minimizing mistakes.
3. The Sixers have played the league's toughest schedule through Wednesday.
As noted above, the Sixers have played eight of their last nine games at home. Prior to that, they were on the road for 10 of their first 14.
So they're almost even in regard to home vs. away. But in regard to opponent strength, the Sixers have played the league's toughest schedule, as their opponents thus far have had a cumulative winning percentage of 0.561.
Of the Sixers' 23 games so far, 16 have been against the other 15 teams that currently have winning records. That includes a league-high six games against the teams - Boston, Houston and Golden State - with the three best records in the league, plus single games against two of the other three teams (Cleveland and Toronto) that have won at least two thirds of their games.
The Sixers are done with the Rockets and Warriors and play the 8-15 Lakers on Thursday, but then have a three-game trip with all three games against teams with winning records. Then, after games against Oklahoma City, Chicago and Sacramento, they'll have a month-long stretch (from Dec. 21 - Jan. 20) where 10 of 12 games area against teams that currently have winning records.
After that, the schedule will ease up. For now, the Sixers should be feel pretty good about where they're at. And if they're still in the top six or seven in the East on Jan. 21, they're in great shape.
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