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Nov 07 2013

The Sixers’ Surprising Goliath Strategy

Why a bad team is playing like a good one.

One of the most welcome developments of the first five games of this season is the sheer pace at which the 76ers are playing. This is a team that wants to go fast. Like: Usain Bolt, Formula 500, shaking-ass-on-the-freeway-cause-you’re-late-to-work fast. The Sixers are using 105.6 possessions per game, which places them second behind the warp-speed Warriors and, if it holds up over the course of the season, would be the fastest mark in the NBA since 2007-2008. The players are logging miles like ultramarathoners. Michael Carter-Williams has run 13.6 miles so far, the most in the NBA. (Of players who get more than 30 minutes per night, only JJ Reddick covers more ground per minute.) Evan Turner is 13th at 12.4.

This makes for fun basketball, but it’s also—given the Sixers, um, objectives this season—really smart.

david-and-goliath-sumos22Using a high-number of possessions in a game is a low-variance, or Goliath, strategy. The concept is a simple one: if a team thinks it’s better than its opposition, it wants to increase the total number of chances it gets to prove that, reducing the odds of a fluky outcome. Though the likelihood of a flipped coin coming up heads is exactly .5, if you flip the coin just four times you could easily get tails four times in a row. But if you want the heads/tails distribution to get as close as 50-50 as possible—as close to its true outcome as possible—you want to flip the coin as much as you can. Good teams that play at a breakneck pace (think last season’s Nuggets) are simply taking a coin they believe is loaded in their favor, and flipping it a ton.  

Here’s where it gets interesting. If we’re assuming the Sixers don’t really want to win this season—and, compelling arguments about the relative merits of this strategy aside, that’s probably the safest assumption—using this kind of low-variance Goliath strategy is one of the surest ways to make this happen. By fielding a bad team, and increasing the amount of chances (or possessions) the team gets to demonstrate its badness, the Sixers are ensuring more losses pile up.

There is a complicating factor though. If a team is well-conditioned—which the Sixers, by all indications, are—playing at a fast pace isn’t just a low-variance strategy, but a dominant one. I.e., not only does it decrease variance, but it increases the odds of victory for a team that employs it. In this case, well-conditioned teams that play at a fast pace wear their opponents out. This is great for the long term—the Sixers are installing an offensive style that they want to lean on in the years to come—but could be a problem for a team that’s trying to lose games now. We’re already seeing the impact. Though the Sixers have been outscored, on average, 108.4-104.4 on the season, they’re actually outscoring opponents 57-49.8 in the second half and 28-20.8 in the fourth period alone.

Either way, pace is likely to make a difference only at the margins. The NBA is a player’s league, and the men out on the floor tend to matter a lot more than the scheme they happen to be in. And, make no mistake, the 2013-14 Sixers are a roster of Davids. Which makes it especially interesting that they’re playing like Goliaths.