Sixers-Nets Preview: Answering The Q’s

Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday

Been a while since the Brooklyn Nets have played… and it’s been a nice break.

After a rough 2-8 stretch, the Nets took a few needed days off before facing the Philadelphia 76ers today at Barclays Center at 3 P.M. Like the Nets, the 76ers have dealt with a rough stretch themselves, losing five of their last six games and tumbling to fourth in the Atlantic Division even as the Nets race them to the bottom.

Joining me to preview tonight’s matchup of the falling-apart franchises is the excellent Tom Sunnengren of Philadunkia, ESPN TrueHoop Philadelphia 76ers affiliate.


Tom Sunnengren on the Philadelphia 76ers

Devin: The Sixers have petered out after a relatively successful start — before beating Atlanta on Friday, the team had lost five straight. What’s your impression of this franchise as it stands today?

Tom: Here’s my impression of the franchise. (Imagine me saying “doy” and pantomiming some sort of cognitive deficit. Now move on from that awful joke.) The whole thing hinges on Andrew Bynum, obviously. The problem—and, yes, at this moment in Sixers’ history it’s hard to talk about the team without beginning with “the problem”—is that we have a team that’s constructed entirely around someone who isn’t playing. While the 7-6 were conceived of as a sort of 2009 Orlando-lite, without their center the roster is just a mishmash of spot-up shooters who aren’t terribly effective at creating anything but lousy looks for themselves and their teammates.

There is some talent here — Thaddeus Young is an animal, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner are improving, Dorell Wright, despite getting not a whole lot more playing time than you or me, can do a lot of helpful things — but that’s exactly the problem. The 76ers are deep enough, and Doug Collins whips them into defensive frenzy reliably enough, that it’s almost impossible to imagine them bottoming out and earning the game changing, high lottery pick the franchise desperately needs. They’re stuck in no-man’s land, 35-45 wins and not much else, and I’m not sure they have the brainpower to work their way out of it. The Sixers were reportedly close to hiring analytics wunderkind Mike Zarren as GM this offseason—instead they opted for in-house mediocrity Tony DiLeo. It’s depressing. I’m depressed.

Devin: Andrew Bynum. That’s the question.

Tom: The thing is, the Sixers took a chance they had to take. Look at my above remarks. Management understood all that—outside of the whole “brainpower” thing; the franchise actually seems to have a pretty high regard for itself—they knew they had to shake things up, and when they found an opportunity to do so they rightly jumped at it. This said, to say it hasn’t panned out would be a pretty serious understatement. Despite his protests to the contrary, and an apparently improving prognosis, I just don’t think Andrew Bynum plays basketball this season. At this point, I’m not sure he ever plays basketball again at a high level. I hate him for that, and consequently hate myself for blaming a stranger for something he has no control over. It’s a bad situation. Next question.

Devin: I remember some (very) early rumblings this season about anointing Jrue Holiday as one of the league’s most improved players. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of how he’s evolved over the past few years, or is that lofty praise?

Tom: The praise might be a bit lofty, but it is clear that he’s made strides. Jrue’s a sound defender, he’s become a much more capable facilitator—almost doubling his assists per 48 from a season ago—and he’s been, sneakily, very effective in isolation. He also seems to have remedied the turnover problem that dogged him earlier in the season, when he led the NBA in that unfortunate category by a large margin. Most importantly, the Sixers, evidence by a recent five-game losing streak that coincided with his missing time with an ankle injury, are much better when he plays. The verdict: he’s probably a bit overrated at the moment because his counting stats (18 points and 9 assists) are shiny, but given his age it’s possible he’ll grow into the praise.

Devin on the Brooklyn Nets

Tom: Deron Williams, periodic flashes of brilliance aside, has not been the same player since he became a Net.  Questions on that: Is he the biggest thing holding Brooklyn back? Why can’t he shoot the basketball anymore? (Or, to crib a line from Moneyball, if he’s a good shooter, how come he don’t shoot good?)  And, what are his prospects for recovering and reentering the “best point guard alive” conversation?

Devin: Let me answer your questions in order. If you look at the statistical profile, it’s hard to argue against that point — outside of the shaky PF position, Deron’s been the worst starter on the floor; the team’s overall plus-minus shoots down when he’s on the court and rockets upward when he’s off. He’s shooting poorly, turning the ball over frequently, and playing the type of inspired defense you’d expect from someone unconscious.

I have faith that he’ll find his touch again — somewhere, somehow — if only because not having that faith would leave me abjectly terrified. Other than his body of work in Utah, fading from memory day by day, there’s little tangible evidence that Deron Williams is a good shooter anymore. I have few examples to hang my hat on. I just hope that the mental block, the wrist injury, the “system,” whatever it is that’s holding Williams back, leaves forever — and soon.

Tom: Predictions on the Nets were sort of all over the place in the preseason, but after a promising start — specifically after the Nov. 26 Knicks game — a consensus formed that you guys were a very good basketball team.  Even with the 2-8 slump you’re mired in, was that consensus basically correct?

Devin: I’d say so. The 2-8 slump has come primarily with Brook Lopez injured and recovering. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve looked awful in these past ten games, but it’s a specific brand of awful that you kind of hope can be kinked out once their center is at full strength. The team needs some serious work, particularly guarding the pick-and-roll, but it’s not that long ago that the Nets were rolling and 11-4. Though they will land somewhere in the middle, I’m generally confident that the team’s closer to 11-4 than 2-8, talent-wise.

Tom: Brook Lopez: justified max player or center that gets outrebounded by guards?

Devin: Neither? Lopez’s max contract gets him in hot water mostly because of the stigma behind the phrase “max contract” — it suggests a Joe Johnson-esque albatross that eats up 30% of a team’s cap room. Had the maximum contract for Lopez been in the five-year, $98 million range, four years and $61.8 million suddenly doesn’t seem so bad for a center that boasts the 8th-best PER in the league and second-best among centers. (PER, mind you, is a statistic that overvalues rebounding, which gives you an idea of just how solid the rest of his contributions are.)

As for rebounding, there’s no doubt that Lopez isn’t a stalwart, but his rebound rate this season so far is 14.1% — well above the league average and in the same range as power forward/centers like Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, Brendan Haywood, Tiago Splitter, Nikola Pekovic, and Josh Smith. His rebound rate ranks 33rd out of 51 qualified centers, which is below average, but not stunningly so. Make no mistake: his deficiencies aside, the Brooklyn Nets are very happy with him.