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76ers’ Combination Of Combo Guards

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The Sixers took a big hit in Game One, losing to the Bulls 103-91, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score implies. Guard play, which has been a strength of the 76ers all season with the capable, if not overwhelming, quartet of Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Lou Williams and Evan Turner, really let them down. In the opening tilt, that foursome shot 12-34 from the field, made 1-6 three-pointers, and racked up 10 assists to 9 turnovers. They also struggled defensively as the Bulls starting duo of Richard Hamilton and Derrick Rose went 15-30, 4-7 on three-pointers, and had 13 assists to just 6 turnovers. The one real positive you can point to is that the Sixers’ guards got to the line 18 times, well above their season average of 9.4 per game.

Now obviously Derrick Rose‘s tragic ACL injury means that, despite jumping out to a 1-0 lead, the Bulls took an even bigger hit than the Sixers in Game One. The injury to Rose removes a major obstacle for Philadelphia, but there is still plenty that stands between them and a series victory. Both C.J. Watson and John Lucas were terrific for the Bulls when Rose was out during the regular season, and guard play is going to continue to be essential if the Sixers are to have a realistic chance.

The beauty of Philadelphia’s guard rotation is their versatility. Holiday is the ‘purest’ point guard of the bunch, although his Ast/FGA ratio of 0.35 this season puts him squarely into a combo-guard cluster, with players like Rodney Stuckey, Monta Ellis, James Harden, Rodrigue Beaubois and George Hill. Williams and Turner also have the have the ability to play the point and initiate the offense for stretches. Each provides different tools in the scoring department, and none is an obvious weak-link defensively. The flip-side of that versatility coin is that none of the four are, at this point in their careers, dominant enough to demand minutes regardless of the game situation. Each offers production in several areas, production that’s accompanied by obvious weaknesses as well. The trick for Doug Collins has been to overlap their skill-sets building strengths upon strengths, and covering holes as best he can.

After their struggles in Game One, I decided to try and hone in on which combinations of those guards have been most effective for the Sixers this season. For each combo, I noted the minutes played as well as the team Offensive and Defensive Ratings when they were on the floor. I also included their Assist Ratio (the number of assists recorded per 100 possessions used) and their Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA). I selected those stats because efficient offensive production is what the Sixers desperately need from their guard rotation. Assist Ratio and FTA/FGA measure areas which have been weaknesses on the season; weaknesses that could prove fatal against Chicago’s ‘challenge every shot, anti-isolation blockade.’

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The Sixers two most effective combinations this season were also the two they used most often – Holiday and Meeks as the starters, with Turner and Williams coming off the bench. On paper this makes sense, Holiday and Meeks fall comfortably into the traditional point guard and shooting guard roles, complementing each other well offensively. Both Turner and Williams straddle the line and give the second unit a completely different look. When those duos were split, for whatever in-game scenario seemed to make it a necessity for Doug Collins, the Sixers’ Net Rating took a big hit.

The two units that were the least effective, Holiday-Turner and Turner-Meeks, struggled defensively, seemed to pass the ball well enough, but showed no aptitude for getting to the line. So how did these combinations do in Game One against the Bulls?

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Surprisingly the lineup that Collins used the most against the Bulls, Holiday-Turner, was one of the least successful on the season. Less surprisingly, they got torched by Chicago. Turner started the second half in place of Meeks and the Sixers went on a 6-0 run to cutting the Bulls’ lead to 5. Over the next 5:38 they were outscored 18-7 until Williams entered the game for Holiday. From there the Sixers went on a 9-1 run that lasted 2:10, ending when Holiday came back in for Turner. The lead promptly swelled from 11 to 17 and the game was essentially over from there.

Clearly Meeks’ performance in the first few minutes (0-2 from the field, a turnover, and 11 quick points for Hamilton) drained Doug Collins of trust in one-half of his starting back-court. But his solution was to ride a pair of guard combinations, Holiday-Turner and Holiday-Williams, which hadn’t worked particularly well during the regular season. He must have felt strongly that Holiday needed to be on the floor – he ended up playing 44 minutes. But in that time he only spent ten minutes, the first ten minutes of the game, playing alongside the backcourt partner who he performed best with all season, Jodie Meeks.

The Sixers are in a difficult situation, because their two best all-around guards, Holiday and Turner, don’t play particularly well together. They both function best with the ball in their hands and don’t draw fouls or offer much in the way of floor spacing. Doug Collins is between a rock and a hard place, where rotations decisions based on raw talent means less effective pairings. Focusing on the best player pairings may mean leaving a considerable amount of talent sitting on the bench. Removing Derrick Rose from the equation takes some pressure off this decision, but not a whole lot. The Sixers’ guard rotation has to be a difference-maker in this series. For that too happen, it may have to look different than it did in Game One.

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