The Ignored Evolution of the SixersAlex Goodlett/Getty Images
Every think piece on the Sixers’ tanking binge anxiously mentions how Philly’s players could absorb “losing habits” as they trudge through the season as permanent underdogs.
No one seems to know exactly what “losing habits” are. They appear to be some toxic mix of sloth and greed: Henry Sims and Brandon Davies1 experimenting with 3-point shots they should probably bag, or Michael Carter-Williams hoisting wild layups instead of involving his inferior teammates.
Theoretical “losing habits” take root in an environment that is both permissive and lacking in accountability. Sims can test his range if wins matter less than him developing into a tradable asset. Carter-Williams can chuck away without fear that Brett Brown, the team’s head coach, might shift some of his minutes to a quality backup.
This is the collateral damage of tanking, the thinking goes. Brown understands the concern, and even if he thinks it’s overblown, he’s fighting against any creeping selfishness. “I am on the warpath to keep our locker room together,” Brown says during a pregame interview in his office. “And to not have us break apart as a team.”
Carter-Williams is more blunt. “I’ve heard it all,” he says. “I don’t know what a losing habit is. We play hard every time we step on the floor. We share the ball. We take care of our bodies. Just because we’re losing doesn’t mean we have losing habits.”
The ultimate “losing habits” test case will be Carter-Williams. He does some very bad things, but he’s young, and he’s the lead ball handler for a roster that only includes a handful of NBA players.
Carter-Williams turns the corner on a pick-and-roll these days, and he might see Nerlens Noel rolling to the rim; Sims hanging around the elbow; Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a combo forward who can’t shoot, lurking along the baseline; and Tony Wroten, a wrecking ball with a broken jumper, floating on the perimeter. That is a double nightmare: no spacing and no quality kickout options.
No wonder Carter-Williams drives into the lane for crazy shots or dribbles into traffic without a plan. He also loves to cross right over his rolling big man, a classic score-first tactic for point guards:
“There’s definitely a crowd when I come off a pick,” Carter-Williams says. “I try to do my best to trust my teammates and make plays at the same time. I’m not the greatest at it. But I’m learning.”
“His heart is in the right place, but he’s misjudging the defense,” Brown says of his point guard. “He’s going into fire, and that ends up hurting us. We challenge him all the time. We ask him: ‘Do people want to play with you?’ He’s coachable. That’s what I love about him. It can’t get to the point where he stops being a point guard. If someone’s open, they have to get the ball. End of story. If we don’t have that, especially in a losing environment, we don’t have much.”
But what happens when the Sixers (hopefully) aren’t in a losing environment two or three years from now — if Carter-Williams is still a Sixer?
The Sixers may be taking the first baby steps toward semi-respectability. They are 2-14 since a humiliating 53-point loss in Dallas, and 2-6 this month. They’ve been somewhere between run-of-the-mill bad and historically bad in those 16 games, and for Philly, that represents progress. The Wolves and Hornets have worse point differentials in that span, and Philly’s per-possession scoring margin is in the same ballpark as that of Detroit. The Sixers are sixth in points allowed per possession in December against a quality schedule that has included San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Memphis.
The modest uptick coincides with Carter-Williams’s return from injury and the emergence of K.J. McDaniels and Robert Covington. Those dudes are anonymous, even if NBA nerds have fallen head over heels for McDaniels’s chase-down blocks and highlight dunks. “I didn’t know I was an Internet sensation,” McDaniels says, laughing, after a reporter informs him that, indeed, he is.
But they are facsimiles of NBA rotation wing players — a step up for Philly. McDaniels’s stroke comes and goes, but he’s a spot-up guy happy to stand around the 3-point arc. Covington launched a bazillion 3s for Houston’s D-League team last season, and he has nailed 45 percent of his 3s since the Sixers signed him to one of their patented four-year, nonguaranteed contracts just above the minimum salary. The Sixers are a pedestrian minus-14 in the 317 minutes Covington has logged, and a monstrous plus-39 in the 100 minutes Carter-Williams, McDaniels, and Covington have played together, per NBA.com.
With those three, Noel at center, and Mbah a Moute acting as a smallish power forward, the Sixers almost look like a normal NBA team. Imagine that! “When we have two shooters on the floor, or our version of shooters, it really helps [Carter-Williams],” Brown says.2
McDaniels and Covington will regress; McDaniels is slumping now, and both might top out as ninth or 10th men in the NBA.
Still, the Sixers today don’t give off the whiff of a team learning fatal long-term habits. They look inexperienced, which is an entirely different thing. Brown and the coaching staff understand that the players are still learning, and they’ve given most Sixers permission to stretch themselves. There is no better way to learn whether Sims might be able to shoot 3-pointers during games than to let him shoot 3-pointers during games.
That is not so different from what Boston did last season with Jared Sullinger’s 3-pointer. Wroten may end up a keeper, but even if he’s not, Philly has stoked leaguewide curiosity by unleashing him as a rampaging scorer with a killer hesitation dribble.
Some of the exploration will prove fruitless. Wroten was on pace at one point to smash the league record for single-season turnovers, and some guys just can’t shoot 3s, no matter how hard they work. If they keep doing things at which they are bad, they will have developed the dreaded “losing habits.”
The Sixers don’t appear worried about that. Firing away for a tanking Seattle team did no lasting damage to Kevin Durant’s game. The same is true for lots of other players who got to stretch their wings on awful teams. Philly management is confident that Brown will hold players accountable once they prove incapable of doing some particular basketball thing. Do it again, and you’re coming out.
And more than that, Philly believes that its players are mature enough to know their limits, take coaching, and adjust in kind. If they’re not, the Sixers will move them along.
It’s hard to watch a Philly practice and come away worried the players are learning bad habits. Brown has every shootaround scheduled to the minute. He props an iPad on a table, and has it display a clock ticking down the time remaining on each segment of practice. The players glance at it and jokingly suggest someone sneak over and speed it up.
Brown played for Rick Pitino at Boston University, and Pitino used to cover over the clocks during practice so no one could track the time. Brown hated it. “I like seeing a clock,” Brown says. “I like the horn.”
Philly might have more sports science gadgets than any team in the league. In practice, they wear devices from the Australian-based company Catapult that log every player’s exertion level — heart rate, cutting speed, and more. The team hopes to soon display that information in real time, so Brown can know instantly whose body doesn’t seem to be performing correctly.
Players wear sleep bracelets. “I used to just sleep whenever I felt like it,” McDaniels says. “But now I take it seriously.” They have individual water bottles, so that the team can track how much water each guy drinks. “We’re probably overdrinking,” Carter-Williams says.
Brown bought into sports science over three stints as the coach of Australia’s national team, and he is constantly seeking advice from other coaches — including Chip Kelly of the NFL’s Eagles. He wants every player hearing as many mentoring voices as possible. Joel Embiid may not play a second this season, but before a recent Spurs-Sixers game, Brown convinced Tim Duncan to sit with Embiid and talk hoops for about an hour, Brown says.
The Spurs influence runs deep for Brown. We are already seeing evidence of how the Sixers want to play once they are good: a fast pace, lots of 3s, and even more shots near the rim. It’s almost Rocket-Ball, and Sam Hinkie, the team’s GM, came from Houston. But Brown learned under Gregg Popovich that none of the fun stuff on offense — the hard cuts, rim runs, and solid screens — really matters unless you defend.
“Nothing great is achieved unless you play defense,” Brown says.
Philly is doing that. Noel struggles to catch the ball on offense, but he’s already a scary traffic cop near the basket. Opponents are shooting just 46 percent on close shots when Noel is near both the hoop and the shooter, per NBA.com. Noel is smart enough to sniff out decoy action away from the ball, ignore it, and focus on the ball — an essential mental skill for shot-blockers who must rotate to the rim in the blink of an eye.
He’s quick enough to switch onto point guards against the pick-and-roll, and Brown has been using that tactic often. When Embiid finally plays, Brown plans to use a more conservative style, with Embiid dropping back toward the basket like Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard, he says.
Carter-Williams is a bit of a mess, but he’s at least long. Almost everyone is. It’s dangerous to read too much into Hinkie’s thinking based on the current personnel, but it’s clear he values long arms and athleticism. He’s also willing to invest in tweeners whose lack of a “true position” turns off rival teams. Covington was a big man in college, but he’s learning to be an NBA wing player. No one has any idea what position Jerami Grant plays.
That’s part of the vision: a versatile, long-armed group that can switch assignments on the fly — with elite rim protection behind them.
Philly’s mistakes on defense are the kind of silly things we see from young players across the league. They miscommunicate on switches now and then, which is how you get three panicked players chasing Kyle Korver around a screen — and leaving every other Hawk open:
A similar botched switch led to a crucial Beno Udrih 3-pointer during the Grizzlies’ improbable comeback in Philly last weekend:
All young players struggle with these in-the-moment reads. Overall, Philly plays hard on defense, with a solid understanding of how to execute its bedrock scheme. “If we don’t have playing hard as our foundation,” Brown says, “we don’t have much.”
It has been more of a slog on the other end, where Philly’s pursuit of optimal shot selection isn’t yielding anything close to optimal results. The Sixers are dead last in points per possession, and by some measures, they are on pace to have the worst offense since the ABA-NBA merger.3 This is the “losing habits” fear: Philly wants its players to attack the rim and heave 3s, but the players aren’t skilled enough to do those things amid bad spacing and a general lack of talent. They’re just flailing away at a task for which they are overmatched, like the well-meaning but clueless husband trying to build furniture.
Carter-Williams hasn’t done well as the lead ball handler. He has shot a miserable 21-of-72 out of the pick-and-roll, and he has coughed it up on nearly 29 percent of the pick-and-rolls he has finished — one of the half-dozen worst marks in the league, both this season and last, per Synergy Sports.
His jumper is broken, a constant threat to clang accidentally off the backboard. Opponents dart under screens, daring Carter-Williams to jack.
He dribbles himself into tight spaces, almost as if he’s challenging himself to escape from a predicament he created. It usually doesn’t end well:
He tries thread-the-needle interior passes when a simpler kickout to a shooter would do:
“He wants to go one inch too far, one dribble too much,” Brown says. The resulting missed layups and turnovers lead to opponent transition points, and they have cost Philly in crunch time of a few winnable games. “When we take forced shots at the rim like Michael and Tony do sometimes, you cannot believe the world of pain we are in with transition defense,” Brown says. “They have got to make the extra pass.”
Carter-Williams agrees, and he’s optimistic he’ll get better — especially as he builds chemistry with Noel on the pick-and-roll.
“It’s a hard league,” he says, “but I’m working on it.”
Carter-Williams isn’t selfish; you don’t snag triple-doubles that way. He has good passing vision, and he understands all the reads — the corner shooter, the drop-off pass, and the blind pass to that cutter along the baseline. They’re all in his bag.
He has also shown that he can resist a clogged driving lane, bend the defense just a hair, and then make a simple ball reversal to keep the offense flowing:
It’s a matter of finding more balance in the pass-or-shoot equation. Carter-Williams will get that, but it will be hard for him to become an upper-echelon point guard without either a jump shot or a post-up game.
And that’s the thing: All tanking successes have started with a no-brainer top-10 guy, and Philly doesn’t have that. Carter-Williams and Noel both look to be solid players in the (very) long term, but neither has the hallmarks of a can’t-miss star. Ditto for Dario Saric. Embiid might be that sort of player, but we haven’t seen him yet, and a big man with foot issues is a scary thing.
Philly will have another top-five pick this June, and even if that yields just a “pretty good” player, the Sixers will have themselves a nice core of young talent. That does not necessarily make for a championship nucleus, and Philly knows it. It’ll shoot for stars, and continue to churn out gain-an-inch trades designed to net an asset trove it could flip for the next James Harden.
The Sixers will also have a bonanza of cap space, even if they re-sign McDaniels, and some executives around the league think Philly might make a play for a younger free agent this summer after sitting things out the last two Julys.
They might fail in the end. Hell, if your standard is making the Finals or winning a title, they probably will fail. As Henry Abbott, David Berri, and others have noted, most teams that scrape the bottom don’t reach the top over the next decade. But most methods of building a champion fail; only one team wins every season, and the same few teams tend to win over and over.
This ugly bottoming-out was not the only way to chase a title; several teams, including Portland, Indiana, Memphis, Toronto, and Golden State, have built at least borderline contenders without tanking entire seasons, let alone two or three. Some tanked for segments of a season, and the Warriors and Blazers drafted elite talents just outside the top five. Still: They built very good teams by drafting well when outside the can’t-miss range and working the free-agency and trade markets. Houston stayed around .500 while madly trading its way into position to snag Harden, and then Howard.
Philly chose another path, one that maximizes its chances of landing a foundational talent while bringing other risks. The “losing habits” concern isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a real thing. The Sixers think they have the culture to fight it, and the early signs are good. But the jury’s still out.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. John Wall’s Passing Acrobatics
Wall is an otherworldly athlete, and his height helps him make cross-court passes that smaller point guards can’t manage. But his overwhelming athleticism shouldn’t outshine what a genius passer Wall has become.
Wall is throwing the kind of next-level passes that mark a truly great distributor. He isn’t reacting to a defense’s rotation and then hitting the open man. He’s anticipating the next rotation, and even coaxing it with a smart dribble or fake designed to get the defense leaning one way — only for Wall to fire the ball someplace else.
He knows where every teammate is, and he can hit everyone — even guys who think they are out of his passing window. Paul Pierce has looked surprised to be standing at the top of the key when Wall, under the rim, fires some crazy straight-line pass out to him for a triple.
Washington’s offense is heavy on midrange jumpers and running low on 3s and free throws. It should be better. But Wall is improving every day, and he’s dynamite to watch.
2. The Clippers Bench
The Clips’ five-man bench mob lineup has a positive scoring margin, but other hybrid units have failed badly, and these guys would be borderline unwatchable without Jamal Crawford’s intoxicating step-backs and crossovers. Big Baby just flails around, Spencer Hawes hasn’t fit in quite as cleanly as expected, and though Hedo Turkoglu has perked up of late, it’s still unclear what exactly he’s doing on this team.
The Clips were on fire before a two-game blip over the weekend, but they feel weirdly unstable at times. At least Jordan Farmar is shooting well, and Chris Douglas-Roberts is back with his delightful hair.
3. Cleveland’s Lapses In Weakside Pick-and-Roll Defense
The Cavs tightened up on defense during their eight-game win streak, but they struggled against Oklahoma City (sans LeBron) and New Orleans, and they sprang some ugly leaks even as they reeled off wins.
Cleveland mostly plays an aggressive, trapping style, and when you send two guys at the ball, the rotations behind the play — and especially from the weak side — must be on point.
The Cavs don’t trap like that here, and perhaps that’s one reason Kevin Love decides he doesn’t have to fulfill his duty as the help defender responsible for bumping Jonas Valanciunas:
Little things like this will determine whether Cleveland can contend with the league’s very best in May and June.
4. Serge Ibaka, Finger-Wagging Like Mutombo
The league has tried to outlaw this, but I love that Ibaka does it anyway. He is the rightful inheritor of the Mutombo finger-wag in just about every way. Keep doing it, Serge!
5. Jose Calderon’s Impromptu Triangle Pick
On most standard triangle possessions, the point guard will bring the ball up, dump it off to someone in the high post area, and then cut out of the way to one of the corners.
Smart triangle players know what defenses are expecting, and occasionally switch things up. Once or twice a game, Calderon will enter the ball to Carmelo Anthony, start that corner cut, and then suddenly abort it to set a surprise pick for Melo:
That’s fun! (And, yes, that is a good-hearted attempt to say something nice about the wretched, infighting Knicks.)
6. Tobias Harris, Expert Cutter
Harris is having a great contract season in just about every sense — including improved attention to detail on defense. He has become a smart off-ball cutter, especially when he’s spotting up beside an Elfrid Payton (or Victor Oladipo)/Channing Frye pick-and-roll.
If Frye pops for a 3-pointer, Harris’s defender will often be the next guy in line to rotate out at Frye and challenge a jumper. As his defender decides whether to make that rotation, Harris will take advantage of the divided attention and bolt right to the rim. Here he comes from the left wing:
7. The Nikola Mirotic Experience
It’s not always pretty, and you have the sense that Tom Thibodeau might murder him before the season is over, but the Nikola Mirotic experience makes the NBA a better place. He pump fakes all the time, regardless of whether any defender is nearby. He probably pump fakes involuntarily during his sleep.
He has the balls to pull 3s off the dribble, or to launch from four feet behind the arc and 20 seconds left on the shot clock. He has a tremendous, furry beard. He runs the floor as hard as any big in the league, and he’ll keep sprinting even if he never gets the ball. He has predictably struggled on defense, and he’s fouling at a Larry Sanders-like rate.
It’s uncertain how much Mirotic will play in postseason games if Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, and Taj Gibson are all healthy, so enjoy it while you can.
8. Enes Kanter’s One-Dribble Bursts
Kanter is still struggling on defense, but he’s become a polished offensive player. Opponents know Kanter munches on pick-and-pop jumpers, and Kanter has countered with a bunch of nifty one-dribble moves that get him to the basket:
9. The Decline of Chase Budinger
Budinger was once a huge leaper with a gorgeous jumper. A few knee injuries later, he’s shooting 29 percent, scrapping for any available minutes on an undermanned Minnesota team that had to play Robbie Hummel at center before signing Jeff Adrien.
Budinger rehabbed hard over the summer, including a stint at P3 in Santa Barbara, but it hasn’t paid off yet. Let’s hope that changes soon.
10. Amir Johnson, Wiping You Out
Calling Johnson a “dirty work” guy undersells him. Johnson’s skills are more subtle, including his screen-setting. He mixes things up so that defenses can’t quite predict what he’s going to do. He’ll occasionally slip a pick, darting to the hoop before really setting it — a move that can suck in all kinds of emergency help defense.
But he mostly wants to slam you chest-to-chest and lay your ass out. A defender might think he has discovered a clean path around Johnson, only for Johnson to flip the direction of his screen at the last minute, change the angle, or call for his point guard to come around a second pick:
Great stuff from one of the league’s underrated players.