When Doug Collins met with his coaching staff weeks before the season began, weeks even before players and owners resolved the NBA lockout, Collins and his assistants spent hours going through game tape of last season. What were they looking for? Identifying the most effective offensive sets; the simplest, most potent pieces of offense that could easily be carried over, could easily be taught, especially in a season with an abbreviated training camp and only two pre-season games.
This smooth-running offense was on display during last night’s win over the Indiana Pacers. So far this season, Collins and his staff have created an offense that highlights what the team does well. Of course, you can’t place enough weight on the continuity factor. That for the first time in years, the 76ers entered the season with their top 12 players returning as well as the same head coach. But almost as crucial in this process was the distilling down of the very best offensive sets from a slew of offensive sets.
In Doug Collins’ first days as head coach, he instituted a base play that included stacking two players — maybe Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams — and having them run cuts off the low-post player. Whatever cut one player made, it triggered a different cut from another player. In those first few weeks, it seemed this set would be one of the most consistently run in the team’s arsenal. Collins had run this play when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls, and in those first days last season he spoke about how Michael Jordan would read those cuts, how effective Jordan became at breaking down the defense off of this stack play.
As last season began, the Sixers struggled to run this play. They struggled to run a number of plays based on reads and continuity. Why? Mostly because the whole mix — plays, players, coaches — was about two weeks old and chemistry doesn’t exist after two weeks. An ability to read one another comes after a year or two, if it comes at all. The Sixers also struggled because, as we all know, the team’s roster is filled with players who are stronger creating off of pick-and-rolls than they are off the ball. The Sixers have half a dozen players who know very well how to execute a pick-and-roll.
So what does the offense include now?
At its very best last night, the offense was a stream of successive pick-and-rolls, run so smoothly that it almost looks like its own offense. If you watch, it looks like that carnival ride with two separately spinning axis: Thaddeus Young starts low and then loops up top to set an on-ball pick for Lou Williams. Williams and Young execute the pick and roll; Young sets the pick then rolls into the open space for a little mid-range jumper. If Lou and Thad don’t get a shot off of the pick-and-roll, Lou reverses the ball to, for example, Jrue Holiday on the opposite wing. Immediately, Elton Brand swings up and sets a pick-and-roll on Holiday’s defender.
Using these successive pick-and-rolls is perfect for the Sixers’ roster — and Collins knows it — because half of his roster is great with the ball and his big men are versatile rolling off of a pick. And these successive picks aren’t stunted, like they might have been early last season. It’s not as if the trains come off the track and the ball lands in Lou’s hands and he frantically calls for a screener. These screens are executed while maintaining really good spacing between the other three players on the floor. There is timing and flow.
Also, the Sixers ran the “Flex” offense very effectively last night. They did so more toward the end of the game, or when they wanted to use a good chunk of the shot clock. But the Flex seems to be their long-winded offense (when they don’t want to pull the trigger quickly). The Flex is just a continuing series of screens: cross screen and then down screen. The two sets of screens are repeated on both sides of the floor until the Sixers take a shot. Because the Flex doesn’t traditionally contain an on-ball screen, it slows down the scoring process, it forces the use of clock.
Collins loves the effort the Sixers are playing with right now; he also loves how well rookie Nikola Vucevic fits into the lineup. Vucevic is the guy Collins wanted to draft from Day 1 of the NBA’s pre-draft camps. Last night, Vucevic scored by turning over his right shoulder, finishing with his left hand off the glass. Then Vucevic scored by turning over his left shoulder, finishing with his right hand. Then Vucevic stepped outside and hit a 15-foot jumper. With Hawes and Vucevic running the center spot, the offensive continuity won’t be interrupted because both guys can pass. There will still (specifically when the opponents become more challenging) be times when interior defense and rebounding will be a liability, but Collins believes his guys can offset that handicap with effort and hustle.