A turning point in the season, often mentioned by 76ers broadcast duo of Marc Zumoff and Malik Rose, was a seemingly innocuous game against the Atlanta Hawks on January 31st. Facing a far more cohesive and skilled team, one that urged the Sixers to shoot at will in exchange for preventing shots inside the paint, Brett Brown urged his team to let the threes fly. The Sixers would make 14 of 35, good for 40%, and ultimately came up just short against a team on a 17-game win streak.
Since then, primarily without Michael Carter-Williams on the roster, the Sixers have become a different team, and a better one offensively.
The stats, like they usually do when context is provided, tell a clear story. I'll be looking at stats starting from six games after the Atlanta game, which represents the post-trade deadline environment with the majority of the current roster. An 18 game sample isn't large, but it's not too terribly small either. And adding the six games does not change the numbers significantly, but it does have two separate rosters included, so I chose to exclude them.
The first major change, as noted in the intro: the Sixers are catapulting threes like you wouldn't believe. Over the last 18 games, the Sixers are averaging 29.6 attempts per game and making a respectable 35.4% of them. The 29.6 attempts would be second in the league overall behind - wait for it, because you probably know this already - the Houston Rockets. It makes sense that organizations who think alike have the same tendencies and work well together.
Isaiah Canaan, for all his warts, is the impetus behind this all - with more than seven attempts per game as a Sixer, fueled by his inability to drive past anyone, he shoots much more than the alternatives used at point guard this season. The team was averaging 24.1 before the deadline.
And really, the number of attempts was stagnant before the deal. I plotted the average threes attempted per game at each point in the season. It's trending upward (x-axis is games played, y-axis is three point attempts), especially more obvious over the past 15 or so games.
Adding Isaiah Canaan helped in this regard, but there's more than him. Canaan's shooting percentage matches the team's to one decimal point over the time period. Hollis Thompson, for instance, is at 46% since the break. Either he's converting more shots and is on a hot streak, or his shots are better and more open. It's hard to conclude on a sample of just 65 shots. Overall, the rest of the team has improved too.
My first inclination is to assign the changes to not having MCW, a point guard who specialized in driving to the rim if only because his shot was, well, shot. The trade-off is threes from a guy who can't drive for a guy who can't shoot threes but drive. Comparing the two, you'd think it's easier to teach a jumper than athletic ability, so investing time in MCW would still be worth it if he figured the whole jumper thing out.
But there is an elephant in the MCW defender's (i.e., my) room, and it's the success the team's had with Ish Smith doing the same things as Carter-Williams.
MCW as a Sixer led the league in drives per game, as measured by StatVU, at 12.1 per game in about 34 minutes. He couldn't shoot, so the alternative was that he'd drive into the paint. Those drives were often reckless, if only because a 6'6" guy with a not-that-tight dribble fighting against point guards inches shorter than him on most plays just isn't a great idea when everyone's expecting it.
His drives only amounted in 11.7 points per game for the Sixers. Just in comparison to his competition, having fewer points resulting from drives than actual drives is not good, at all. But, I rationalized, he'd get better if he ever learned to shoot. And it's not like that's wrong, but it was a very fair question to ask if he'd ever improve.
Now let's look at Ish. In nine fewer minutes per game, Ish is driving even more as a Sixer, at 12.9 per game, and the team is scoring 13.5 points per game on those. It's not a great point-to-drive ratio, but it's telling in how much more effective Ish Smith, point guard available on waivers, has been than the previously anointed franchise point guard. Smith can get into the lane far easier and shoot with similar efficiency. That will improve your offense. So will the second major change, where Ish also has MCW beat.
The second major change: the team's turnovers also are trending downward:
Now, maybe some of that has a little to do with less Point JaKarr Sampson or Reckless Tony Wroten (get well soon, T-Wrote) rather than the change in point guards, or just general improvement. But MCW was also the primary culprit behind the team's turnover problems. The 15.6 they've averaged since February 20th aren't great, per se, but it's much more manageable than the 18+ they averaged at times during the year.
The decrease in turnovers means more shots are being taken, and in general, more shots and fewer turnovers are better things, especially when the Sixers are getting better shots and making more of them. It's not rocket science.
Moving away from the MCW character assassination and more into a "state of the team" thought, the hodge-podge, abominable Sixers are putting together a roughly league-average three point shooting clip on a boatload of shot attempts with a roster filled with castoffs, rookies, and undrafted free agents. They still need to improve in other areas, because they still have an offensive efficiency below non-Sixers league-worst on the season since the deadline despite this improvement, but they've improved over the course of the season with multiple moving pieces.
This all has happened after building a better than league-average defense in the first half of the year on the backs of one of the younger (and most inexperienced) rosters in the league. (I'll take a look at the defense since the deadline at some point in the future.) And it looks like they sold super-high on MCW, who continues to struggle for Milwaukee when also being asked to be a do-everything point guard.
Not great, Bob. I still have high hopes, but he's just not cut out for being a ball-dominant point guard right now.
What can you take from all of this, given the roster turnover and the lack of a solid foundation, for now? One, well, spacing is important, which could make things like the Joel Embiid-Nerlens Noel Superfriends front line something that will take work and patience to make effective, because this all supports the notion that spacing and shooting are important.
But it also gives me confidence they'll figure it out, because Brett Brown and his staff have done a really, really good job with an inexperienced and in-cohesive roster and have by virtue of coaching and effort coaxed out improvement. Brown is really, really good. I can't wait until he has more building blocks to play with.