Spurs vs. 76ers Give and Go Preview

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After a sizable loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday, the Spurs are back home at the AT&T Center with a day of rest to work with. They face a struggling Philadelphia 76ers team that, on paper, looks like a good fit for the Spurs to handily easily and possibly rest the starters in the fourth quarter. As they say though, especially when trying to discount everything stat geeks do, games aren’t won on paper.

To preview game and get to know the 76ers a little better, we invited Tom Sunngergren of ESPN TrueHoop Network 76ers site Philadunkia to chat.

Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Let’s talk Spurs-76ers. Give Spurs fans an idea of where Philadelphia is compared to last season’s playoffs, which is probably the last time Spurs fans saw the 76ers.

Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Suffice it to say, we’ve regressed. Sixers management took a calculated, and probably intelligent, gamble this offseason when they realized the team as constructed couldn’t contend and decided to construct it differently. It hasn’t exactly worked out.

In losing Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, we lost not only two of the team’s leading scorers, but a premier post and wing defender. The Sixers were one of the best defensive teams in basketball last season, and with the loss of those two, the squad has fallen back to the middle of the pack. If Bynum’s knees weren’s so darn wobbly, obviously it might be a different story.

AM: Has the offense at least improved at all?

TS: Not really. I’d have to check on this, but I think we’re around 18th in points per possession in the NBA this season, which is right around where we were last year. This despite the maturation of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner’s discovery of the corner 3.

AM: None of this sounds very encouraging if I were a 6ers fan.

TS: It isn’t. The hope is that Bynum will recover sufficiently to come back and play basketball, and then play well enough to warrant a max extension. At this point, despite an improving prognosis, that’s a little Pollyannaish.

AM: What is the latest as far as when he might actually play basketball?

TS: There’s no timetable set in stone right now. He can rehab–but right now that’s it. Mum, as they say, is the word.

Speaking of expectations, why do the Spurs consistently exceed them? (Relatedly, why wasn’t I born a Spurs fan?)

AM: I think the big reason is because there’s no San Antonio hype machine, so the mainstream always seems to forget about them and write them off. Which inevitably leads to the “Nobody’s talking about the Spurs” and “Don’t look now, here come the Spurs” stories that we usually get post-All-Star Weekend.

TS: So, are you saying the Spurs succeed relative to expectations because the expectations are reliably lower than they should be? Or suggesting that the media environment itself is a help? A “thriving in anonymity” thing.

AM: A little of both. Every year people are racing to be the first to say that this is the year the Spurs fall off. We’ve been doing that since 2006, I think.

TS: That would explain the consistent struggles of every team that’s jersey says “Philadelphia” on it.

AM: But we have no basis for that. The Spurs keep winning 50 games as long as Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan are still fulfilling their respective roles.

TS: That’s true, but for the two seasons before his pretty incredible renaissance this year, Tim Duncan wasn’t performing his role (i.e., he wasn’t destroying people with his robotic consistency), yet the Spurs still marched on.

AM: That’s true, his role evolved. I guess you could argue Pop’s role evolved as well, or at least his philosophy did.

TS: I remember talking with Tim Varner at Sloan last year and asking him about this, and he said that when you ask the Spurs themselves, they just talk about “the program.” What is that, and where can I get some?

me: That’s one of the most interesting things about this franchise to me. They don’t call it a team or franchise or organization. It’s a program. It’s a tried and true system with the key cogs still intact. That’s enabled them to replace all the pieces that continually get plucked away by other organizations.

You can try taking away someone from the Spurs organization in an effort to recreate the program, but very few have been able to duplicate its success. The Thunder are the closest and that’s because they were able to find one of the few franchise players with a similar personality to Tim Duncan.

TS: Interesting. The NBA is such a player centric league — whenever pointy-headed dudes with spreadsheets try to explain the sport, they tell us coaches don’t really matter — but, like you said, the Spurs don’t seem to follow that rule. Is Pop a singular genius? Is that, at the end of the day, why their success isn’t duplicable?

AM: I agree that it’s absolutely a player’s league, but the coaches play a huge role. I think it has to do with being able to view the game at a macro level, where as I would figure most players are looking at things from a micro level. But even more so, I think Pop help reinforce the culture of the Spurs organization. He started out as the team’s GM and still hold the role of team President, if I remember right. His likes guys who have “gotten over themselves,” which fits right in to the way Duncan wants the team to run.

TS: Reminds me of an old Red Auerbach quote: “Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them.That’s the player who willingly undertakes the thankless job that has to be done in order to make the whole package fly.”

In regards to the Thunder, I think the Spurs comparisons, despite Presti’s presence, break down because of how overwhelmingly talented that team is. If they’re still winning when KD is 35, maybe.

Another question: how much of the Spurs player evaluations hinge on analytics, and how much of it is old-fashioned scouting?

AM: I don’t know the nitty-gritty as far as the Spurs scouting, but place a supreme importance on analytics. I would imagine they’re one of the more balanced teams as far as old-school scouting (I know what I see) and the new-school analytics (this is what the numbers say).

What about the 76ers culture? Has Doug Collins done much to build a way the organization runs?

TS: Collins is almost the anti-Pop in that sense. He really excels at the micro level management of individual games and players (he consistently, if relatively unnoticeably, out adjusts opposing coaches) but he sometimes misses the forrest for the trees.

The Sixers organization isn’t exactly transparent–I’m not sure who’s making the final calls on certain moves–but it’s made some downright bizarre personell moves since Collins came into town. Nick Young, Kwame Brown, Spencer Hawes…the list goes on. He gets them to play hard, though. I guess you could say Collins the coach saves the skin of Collins the player evaluator.

AM: So where are the 76ers excelling on the floor? They’ve got to be playing well somewhere?

TS: Well, we’re a slightly below average team. We’re a bottom third offense and a middle third defense that, when it succeeds, does so because of pluck, hustle, Jrue Holiday’s defense, and Thaddeus Young.

At least we have Thaddeus Young.

And while it isn’t generally a good idea to try and score points in isolation, we do a good job of that. Jrue Holiday is improving as an attacker and Evan Turner, goody handle aside, is as well.

AM: What about rebounding?

TS: We’re small, and we get consistently out-rebounded. Our two best big men are Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes, and we get beat up inside about as badly as you’d imagine a team whose two best big men are Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes would.

That said, Evan Turner rebounds as well as any 2/3 in the Association. (If memory serves, he set an NBA record for defensive rebounding rate for a guard last season).

The crux of the problem is this: we’re a team that was built to play around a piece that is absent. Imagine how the 2009 Magic would look without Dwight Howard. The Sixers are more or less there.

AM: Right. Not good.

Well before I let you go, I need one random prediction from you for tomorrow night’s game. Something that has nothing to do with the final score.

TS: Tony Parker will outscore Jrue Holiday by at least 13 points.

AM: Good one.