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76ers Moving On Up (And Down the Court)

Charles Fox/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Ever since the Sam Hinkie-Brett Brown era began with the Philadelphia 76ers, a core tenet of the philosophy involves speeding up the game. Toward the beginning, conspiracy theorists tried to argue the strategy was a more under-the-radar way for the franchise to tank games.

By upping the number of possessions, it provided more opportunities for the better-talented opposition to win. It was the opposite of heavy underdogs in college basketball slowing the game down to win. The Sixers were being accused of speeding it up to lose.

In reality, Hinkie wanted to see if it was feasible to run an NBA-version of Houston’s D-league team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where the Daryl Morey school of thought surrounding pace and three-point shots is pushed to the extreme. Meanwhile, Brett Brown understandably made the argument that the roster was chock full of young, athletic players, and it only made sense to use their speed and quickness to the team’s advantage.

Whatever the underlying reasoning, there’s no denying that the Sixers played at the fastest pace in the league back in 2013-14, often to their detriment. I still have PTSD flashbacks of Spencer Hawes grabbing a defensive rebound and immediately turning to fire a baseball pace down the length of the court while barely giving a look to lurking opposing defenders. After finishing last in offensive rating and fourth-worst in defensive rating, team brass determined a slight shift in philosophy was needed.

Thus, last season, the Sixers dropped down to just the 7th-quickest pace in the NBA. The team’s defense made huge improvements, even vaulting into the top half of the league in its defensive efficiency rating. While a big part of that development was certainly due to the tremendous rookie season from Nerlens Noel, there’s no doubt it was at least partly attributable to the team slowing things down just a bit from the frenetic pace of a year earlier.

Heading into the current season with top draft pick Jahlil Okafor in tow, many expected the team to slow things down even further. Many saw conditioning as a potential issue for the big man coming into the NBA and felt the team would have to wait for Okafor to get up the floor and into post position if Philly intended to center the offense around him. The Sixers didn’t think so. In fact, earlier this summer in a radio interview with 94WIP, Brett Brown said, “And even though we’re big, we still wanna run…I can’t go to my guys and say, ‘You’re gonna get in career-best fitness, the best shape of your life, and then we’re gonna play slow.'”

Thus far this preseason, Brett Brown has been true to his word. With 107.46 possessions per 48 minutes, the Sixers have played at the quickest pace among NBA teams this preseason. Now, teams do tend to play at a higher pace in the preseason than during the regular season, both because guys are playing fewer minutes, and there are many more days in between games. Still, this year’s mark is well above the 102.44 figure from last preseason, so it stands to reason the team won’t have a drop-off in tempo.

Granted, the team’s pace slows down to 103.36 while Okafor is on the court,  easily the slowest mark of anyone on the team. However, that mark would still be among top-10 for NBA teams this preseason, and the former Blue Devil deserves a lot of credit for working himself in better shape and busting his tail up and down the court. Coach Brown has also been playing him in shorter buckets of time across each quarter, allowing Okafor to run hard in those shorter stints; something Brown says will carry over to a degree during the regular season.

It’s still not a very large sample size, representing just six games, only four of which Okafor participated in. Still, it will be interesting to watch over the course of the year whether the team can defy public perception, and continue its running ways despite the two big-man frontcourt alignment. Many Philadelphia fans would like to speed up the pace of the franchise’s rebuild, but they may just have to settle for the team on the court moving as fast as ever.

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