Sixers' size is bucking NBA trends, but it's working so far


The NBA game is always evolving. The three-point line didn't exist until 1979 and Stephen Curry revolutionized it. Big men like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal used to dominate in the paint, but bigs nowadays are more likely to be rim runners — guys that block shots and catch lobs.

Elton Brand sees your league trends and scoffs.

We’re just four games into the season, but Brand’s vision of building a roster of skilled giants may just be crazy enough to work.

Including their 117-95 win over Minnesota Wednesday, the Sixers have won ugly. 

A decent shooting performance Wednesday (9 of 25) boosted them from the fourth- to sixth-worst three-point shooting team in the league. They're second in the league in turnovers per game in large part because of so many new pieces. 

The shooting may not improve much without a roster move, but there are signs of encouragement on the turnover front. The Sixers have several good passers in their starting lineup. Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Al Horford all averaged over four assists a game last season. There are possessions where you can see the ball move the way it’s supposed to, and it’s impressive.

Luckily for the Sixers, they’ve been proficient at turning their opponents over and lead the NBA in steals per game. They may have turned the ball over 22 times Wednesday, but they forced 21.

It’s reasonable to think they can keep turning teams over while taking better care of the ball themselves.

“I feel better because I think the ball moved,” Brett Brown said. “I didn't really purposefully call a bunch of plays until the end. I wanted them to figure it out. The turnovers, the abundance still is haunting. You're not going to do anything that matters unless you fix that. That's the bottom line. Now, that's the bad news. The good news was our transition defense after the turnovers was exceptional. I think they had 12 points on 22 turnovers which is a very tiny relative number for that volume. It starts with trying to help our two All-Stars, Ben and Joel, with this mission to try to reduce turnovers. You're going to see that there are many other participants in this ugly category that we need to fix. And if you remove that I give our offensive a thumbs up.”

Along with the Spurs — who are the only other unbeaten team in the NBA — the Sixers lead the NBA in rebounding. They dominated the glass against Minnesota to the tune of a 56-34 advantage.

Turning teams over and punishing them on the boards seems like a solid recipe for success.

“See, to me there's two areas that [are] the game,” Brown said. “If you look our points after we turned them over, which I think is 29, and the 30 points on second-chance points. When you talk about how do you utilize height? How do you exploit size? It's part of the sort of smash mouth, bully ball thing we're trying to get better at and that 30 points, crashing the boards, and 29 points I think it was ... taking advantage of how we turn them over — you'd have a hard time going someplace else when you talk about significant stats that helped us win.”

The Sixers have beaten teams up — which unfortunately has caused them to average the second-most personal fouls per game. There’s reason to believe that number can improve as well. Again, with so many new players, communication can be an issue. That can lead to slow rotations and help, which can lead to fouls.

While the team appears to be getting better in that regard, Al Horford said it was “still not great, to my standards.” This is a big part of the reason Brand was so aggressive in pursuing Horford. The veteran big is a demanding teammate, which is good when you have so much young talent.

Horford is most encouraged by the versatility this team has. It was on display against Karl-Anthony Towns. Brown opted to start out defensively with Horford matched up on Towns instead of Embiid. The Timberwolves’ center was shooting a ton of threes at a high clip coming in. The more mobile Horford seemed to throw Towns off.

That’s the thing with this starting five — where do you attack them?

"I believe that that's one of my strengths, to be able to be put in different parts and defend different people, bigs or small,” Horford said. “And not only me, but Ben does that as well. And Joel, it's tough to go through that in the paint. I think it works to our advantage when we do these type of matchups."

On top of the “bully ball defense,” the “smash mouth offense” was alive and well.

When Brown first mentioned these concepts before camp started, he referenced the idea of players identifying mismatches and attacking them. Because of the size advantage the Sixers have one through five, there’s always at least one.

"The thing that I keep seeing with our group is literally any of us can go in there, post, go score the ball, be aggressive, be strong,” Horford said. “That was an example of it tonight. There were times where I had to take it, or Joel, or Tobias, or even Josh. Ben, as well. We really try to play with our size and impose our will in the paint."

Elton Brand sees your finesse players, NBA. He raises you his giant bullies.

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