At the end of the 2010 season, Eddie Jordan was fired as the 76er head coach for taking a team prominently featuring Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holliday, and Louis Williams to a record of 27-55. Jordan, a disciple of the “Princeton Offense”, had famously bragged to a beat reported, when asked who the point guard is “that everyone on the floor is a point guard in this offense”. Never mind that players like Brand and Samuel Dalembert were odd picks for an offense that prized shooting and passing at every position, it leaned on Igoudala, an athletic wing known for his defense, to become the team’s dominant scorer. For those familiar with his work in Washington, the flip-side wasn’t much of a surprise: Philadelphia was the 8th worst defensive team in the league, allow three more points per 100 possessions than the average club.
Without any significant personnel changes, newly minted head coach Doug Collins was able to shave five points off that mark in his first season, landing the Sixers in the top ten in the NBA. In this season to date, the Sixers have shaved an whopping ten points per 100 possessions from last year – allowing eight points fewer than the average, and four less than the second-best Chicago Bulls. At their current pace, the Sixers would have the best defense since advanced stats have been kept (eight years), by a mind-shattering six points per possession over the next follower. Even adjusted for the overall decrease in offense this year, the Sixers allow 9% fewer points than an average team – the next best mark in the eight year span is 7%.
The change hasn’t come in personnel – all six of this season’s most frequently used players played on Jordan’s team, and five of them (all but Jodie Meeks) were on that team’s top six leading minute-getters. The Sixers are pretty average on the glass and forcing turnovers – where they’ve made their mark is opponents shooting percentage, where they lead the league.
It seems odd, as this seems, in many ways, to be a deficient team in terms of defensive talent. Elton Brand has never carried the reputation of being a stout defender, and an early injury to center Spencer Hawes has left them frequently deploying a front-court pairing of Brand and fellow defensive liability Thaddeus Young. Each standing 6’9″, it’s a grossly under-sized pairing that shouldn’t be able to stand up to better interior offenses.
Watching the team provides some clues – the Sixers are perhaps the best perimeter defense in the league (the fact that teams shoot under 30% from beyond the arc, best in the league is a hint), and excellent help defenders. The ball is nearly constantly pressured, and offenses frequently need to work in order to get into their offensive sets, often with half the shot clock expiring before they get into their set. Point-guard Jrue Holliday, built like a 6’4″ spider can prevent most opposing point guards from getting where they want to go (when properly motivated, he has a tendency to play down to his competition), and the next time Andre Igoudala gets taken to the basket will probably be the first.
It’s often odd to say that a player with steeply declining usage rates has significantly increased how immensely he effects his team, but in Andre Igoudala, that seems to be the case. Since the 2010 season, Igoudala is taking nearly five fewer shots a game, and also attempting two fewer free throws per game. However, his defense has been other-worldly. 82games.com tracks “Opponent PER” – the player efficiency rating of the player that a specific player is asked to guard. Compared to a league average of about 15, Igoudala allows his opponents a measly 8.4. In words, players guarded by him perform roughly half as well offensively as when they’re not. What’s also worth reminding is that this stat is flawed – one could post sparkling opponent PER number by guard Oliver Miller for 35 minutes. But that flaw is probably failing to account for how dominant Igoudala is – he’s not guarding defensive specialists or space-eating big men, he’s nearly always drawing the opponent’s dominant wing – he’s guarding Wade, Deng, Joe Johnson, and Carmelo Anthony. Toss in his offense, and he out-performs his opponent by over 10 points of PER – fifth in the NBA. The only players who out-perform their opponents by as much are Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Derrick Rose. Not bad for a guy scoring thirteen points a game. If none of this is persuasive, check The Igoudala list, a catalog of his performance against the NBA elite (hint: they shoot 38%).
Having the NBA’s single most dominant defender is a great start, but a single defender isn’t enough to explain the vast jump the Sixers have made. SB Philly extensively documented the vast improvement of Jrue Holliday on defense, using similar methodology as above. The summary? Holliday has become a slightly above average defender, allowing 13.5 PER (it has risen some since the linked post), after allowing 19 last year.
Offensively, the Sixers have improved substantially as well, moving from below-average to substantially above average, as measured by points per 100 possessions. Partly explained by the ascendancy of Louis Williams – one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA – the Sixers survive, despite poor rebounding and few foul shots, by leading the league in turnover rate. Clearly, Jrue Holliday deserves his share of the credit here, but Igoudala, Williams, and Thaddeus Young have all cut their turnovers per game by nearly a full mistake a night. Maybe that’s what happens when they aren’t all being point guards?
The 76ers have, to date, played a weak schedule, but after holding the Bulls to under 90 points on their home floor, they’ve shown that they have the ability to to continue. The schedule gets unquestionably harder, and the club probably won’t finish win the conference (today, they stand a game out of first). But they are, at this point, the prohibitive favorite in the East, even despite a resurgent Celtics club.