We've talked a lot in this space about the difficulties of evaluating Brett Brown's coaching tenure thus far. His Win-Loss record is atrocious, but it could hardly be expected to be otherwise given the talent he has been provided. But, as we have written elsewhere, there have been positive developments elsewhere, even beyond merely getting buy-in from his players.
The defense was the one aspect of the team that could be pointed to with pride last year - the Sixers spent chunks of the season ranked in the top ten in defensive efficiency before settling in at 13th to end the season. The offense was another story entirely. The 76ers ranked dead last in ORtg last year at an abysmal 95.5 points per 100 possessions. In fact, they were so bad that the 29th placed Knicks ranked closer to the 21st team (the Miami Heat) than they did to the Sixers.
The Sixers sported an historically inefficient offense last year, displaying the third worst ORtng in the lsat 15 years.
But while the raw numbers look bad, there's actually a lot to like about last year's Sixers' offense. NylonCalculus created a statistic by which we can measure the quality of a team's shot selection called "Expected Effective Field Goal Percentage." This determines the quality of the shot by looking at the distance from the hoop, taking the added value for a 3-pointer into account, and applying a league average field goal percentage to all shots from a player or team. Some teams and players, such as the Warriors and DeAndre Jordan, perform considerably better than expected. The Sixers, meanwhile, are considerably worse than their projections.
Expected eFG% projected the Sixers to be the third most efficient team in the NBA, but they were actually dead last. Thiswild underperformance is indicative of a dearth of talent, which, again, isn't a surprise to anything. But it's to Brett Brown's credit that he was able to get such a young team (the youngest in the NBA) to take such good shots, even if they didn't go in.
The question for this season is whether that can continue. With the growth of Nerlens Noel and the additions of Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and Richaun Holmes (and Christian Wood??!?) in lieu of replacement level players Henry Sims, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Thomas Robinson, the talent has undeniably been upgraded. The question remains whether these players will continue to follow Brown's coaching and take wholly efficient shots.
Okafor could hurt the Expected eFG% if he continues to struggle with the increased physicality of the NBA. In three pre-season games, he hasn't been able to take up residence in his preferred real estate on the block. Jah had two poor showings against Cleveland and Brooklyn and his one efficient game didn't provide the kinds of looks near the basket that fans expected to see.
70% of his field goal attempts against Washington were exactly the types of mid-range jumpers that can torpedo a team's efficiency, expected or otherwise. Jah will need to demonstrate a better ability to work his way towards the basket if he hopes to take good shots, and if he doesn't, and if he doesn't, it could hurt the team's offensive growth.
It's obviously still early, and Nerlens certainly didn't look comfortable at all at this point last year, but this could be a key thing to monitor as Okafor's season progresses.
Of course, the Sixers will take many more shots than just what Okafor attempts. The team ranked 6th in the league in 3-point field goals attempted last year, and with an improved outside shooters with the returns of Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, and Isaiah Canaan, plus the additions of Nik Stauskas and Kendall Marshall, that's a trend that is likely to continue this year.It, too, should see better results for the Sixers than last year's attempts, allowing them to perform closer to their Expected eFG%.
Another area for potential improvement for the Sixers is in assisted field goal percentage. The Sixers' ball movement looked strong at many points last year - largely a consequence of lacking players with the ability to create on their own. However, it could certainly improve, as placed 14th in assisted 2-pt FG% and 10th in assisted 3-pt FG% last year. Assisted field goals are an easy way to increase a team's efficiency, as Kirk Goldsberry covered in-depth for Grantland yesterday.
The large majority of assisted field goals are easier looks than unassisted field goals, which decreases the difficulty of the shot and increases the expected efficiency. This could be a manner in which the Sixers show much improvement this year, given Kendall Marshall's supremacy as a passer, and both Noel's and Okafor's strengths in this area. Watch these two categories as they relate to other teams to see if Brown has managed to keep putting his stamp on this team.
It's unlikely that the Sixers will be largely improved on the offensive end this year. Yes, there's better talent and better familiarity than the past two years, but the team is still operating at a disadvantage as compared to the other 29 teams. The best way to determine how much their offense has improved will be if their Expected eFG% continues to remain as high as last year, and if they can improve their passing numbers from the last two years. If the Sixers can do that, we'll definitely be headed in the right direction as we bring a lot more talent on board for the 2016-17 season.