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10 Days Till Sixers: Operating in Zero Gravity

Explaining what gravity is, why it matters in the NBA, and why the Sixers will be a terrible offensive team because of it.

Arms, arms everywhere.
Arms, arms everywhere.
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

"Gravity" is a term used often in the NBA's lexicon. Most times, it's associated with super-athletes with seemingly no sense of the scientific measure. Steve Francis "defied gravity" a lot. So did Michael Jordan in the filming of Space Jam. Nowadays gravity is still used that way, by most people.

But stat nerds like myself have also adopted gravity as a term to represent an individual player's effect on spacing and the performance of others. Basically, in a basketball statistical sense, "gravity" means the defense bends or does something to pay special attention to a specific player. The NBA's player tracking technology, SportVu, measures two different gravity-related statistics. Grantland's Zach Lowe first introduced the statistics in a feature he wrote about Kyle Korver, who might be gravity's greatest cause. Here's the primer:

"gravity score," measures how often defenders are really guarding a particular player away from the ball. Korver had the fourth-highest score, behind only Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George. The second - "distraction score" - is a related attempt to measure how often a player's defender strays away from him to patrol the on-ball action. Korver had the lowest such score in the league.

The statistics are not publicly available - teams with access to SportVu technology, which include all NBA teams that pay for it, can access the ratings. The statistics are both attention-based, ones which seek to measure how much attention the defense is giving players away from the ball. Something thought to be unmeasurable now may be, though how well the statistic reflects attention given is still unknown.

Distraction score may be more important to the team structure than gravity score. Paying attention to one particularly threatening opposing player seems to be easier than having to contemplate all of them. Consider this: on a team where maybe 3 of the 5 players demand attention at all times, while the other two are non-entities, offenses can easily get bogged down due to extra help. Hello, Oklahoma City Thunder. Thankfully for OKC, they have 2 of the 10 best players in the league and can overcome through sheer athleticism and foul-drawing, but it's clear their offense shouldn't have to work as hard as it does.

Anyway, to wrap the 76ers into this, who exactly do the Sixers have that commands the attention of a defense at any given moment? Who will the defense key in on when that player doesn't have the ball? My best guess is Nerlens Noel, since he can sky for alley-oops, but who otherwise doesn't provide floor spacing. Is there anyone else?

Will it be Hollis Thompson, because he was statistically a good three point shooter at around 40% last season? Is it Alexey Shved? Or is it Elliot Williams, who is 7-12 from three this preseason but shot under 30% last year? Is it Brandon Davies, because I'm so desperate for a stretch 4 that I write things that look phenomenally stupid 8 days later? Or will defenses just not care enough about anyone, figuring that the talent isn't there to make a defense pay for clogging the lane with 5 bodies?

I assume it will be the last option. Teams will just pack the paint with anyone and everyone. The Sixers have one returning above-average three point shooter, that being Thompson. The Sixers added no shooters of note, and as a team shot 31.5% from three, over five percentage points below the NBA average. The best volume shooter from last season is an LA Clipper. Carter-Williams sat out most of the summer with shoulder surgery, taking away potential shot development time. The team's shooting does not appear to have improved. If anything, it might be worse.

That shooting deficiency will force Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, and even Noel, to force lots of difficult plays in the paint. It could lead to positive developments, like the development of coping mechanisms like floaters or runners. It could lead to Wroten finally realizing his right hand and touch around the paint are important things to have. It could also lead to negative developments, like quick triggers on ill-advised jumpers or forced turnovers.

The Chicago Bulls do this to everyone, but here's a pic from Jake's post on floaters on how bogged down the lane can become:


Look at the bodies surrounding Carter-Williams, and look at the players standing behind the three point line. Spencer Hawes is actually a good shooter, especially above the break. Turner and Anderson weren't great, but leave them open often enough and you don't get a great result.

Now, replace those players with Hollis Thompson, who can shoot but struggles to get shots off, Noel or Henry Sims, and one of our shooting guards. The spacing has gotten worse, and less attention should be paid to off-the-ball personnel. It should make the offense even more difficult to watch, and will probably make the offense even less effective than last year's abysmal showing.

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