"Oh, for sure he'd be putting up at least six or seven threes a night," Sixers coach Doug Collins said with a smile when asked about the kind of long-range sniper Free would be if he were, say, 21 instead of 57.
Collins, a four-time All-Star with the Sixers in the 1970s, has played in, coached in or commentated on the NBA for television for all but 6 of the past 38 years. Maybe as much as anyone, he understands how the trey, which the league adopted for the 1979-80 season, has morphed from a curiosity item and desperation tactic into a staple vital to the success of every team.
And, yes, that even includes the Sixers, who until this season have been among the worst three-point teams in the league, at both ends of the court.
There are several reasons to explain the Sixers' rise from the smoking ruins of a year ago, when they went 27-55 under Eddie Jordan, to the 36-34 mark they bring into tonight's game against the Atlanta Hawks in the Wells Fargo Center. But Collins' ability to incorporate the three-pointer into his offense, as well as to have his players defend against it much more effectively than was the case in past seasons, is as good an explanation for the turnaround as any.
During the 2009-10 season, the Sixers shot just 34.3 percent from beyond the arc (21st among the NBA's 30 teams) and averaged 5.8 made threes per game (20th). They've improved their shooting percentage from long range to 35.8, good for 14th, a modest increase. On defense, however, Collins' crew rates second in three-point percentage shooting defense (33.3), a quantum leap from the 39.3 percent (30th) that the team allowed under Jordan. Opposing marksmen are not getting nearly as many open looks from distance as they once did.
"The way we play defense, we don't scramble and double-team," Collins said after a practice session yesterday at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "You can get caught in that when teams swing the ball and they're getting that weakside corner three-point shot, which is the closest three."
Perhaps the prime beneficiary of Collins' philosophy is second-year pro Jodie Meeks, a 6-4 guard whom the Sixers acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 18, 2010, with the idea that the stroke that enabled him to average 23.7 points as a Kentucky junior, including a school-record 54-point game boosted by a school-record 10 threes, could help cure the team's anemic perimeter offense.
Not that Meeks got onto the court often or for very long in the early weeks of Collins' makeover, and his limited use was not because he had lost his touch.
"The reason he didn't play early is because he was not good with our defensive concepts," Collins explained. "But Jodie and Thaddeus Young have made the biggest jumps in team defense of anybody we have. That's why Jodie's in the rotation and playing 30-plus minutes a night now. He could always shoot."
The Sixers you see now are young (eight of the first 10 players in the rotation are 23 or younger), quick, committed to Collins' vision. They space the floor well and swing the ball in such a way that, more often than not, it winds up in the hands of an open shooter.
"You can't just stand on the weak side of the floor when the ball has to be swung and just hold your hand up, thinking that the defender is going to let you catch the pass," Collins said. "You've got to work to get yourself open."
Meeks, who leads the team in three-pointers made (116) and three-point shooting percentage (41.1), remains a work in progress.
"We hope to expand his game," Collins said. "Right now he's not real comfortable playing with the ball in his hands a lot. We don't run a lot of screen-roll with him. That's the next area of his game that has to grow."
Meeks' emergence has come at a cost to 6-8 veteran swingman Jason Kapono, who won the three-point shooting contest during NBA All-Star weekend in both 2007 and 2008. Kapono has played in only 21 games this season, averaging 0.7 points, with only one made trey in five tries.
"I'm sure it's very frustrating for Jason," Collins said. "He's one of the best three-point shooters of all time. But as the season went on and Jodie and Evan [Turner] continued to grow, I also had Jrue [Holiday] for 35 minutes, Dre [Andre Iguodala] for 36 or 37, Lou [Williams] for 20-something. There's only so many minutes to go around."
Andre Iguodala is expected to play tonight against Atlanta at the Wells Fargo Center. Iguodala, battling right knee tendinitis, practiced yesterday and scrimmaged for about 5-6 minutes. He did not play Saturday night in Portland in order to get some extra rest with 4 days between games. *