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The Sixers’ Three-Point Defense Isn’t Quite What it Seems

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The stats say they’re one of the best teams in the NBA at defending the long ball, but is that true?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

While working on tonight’s game preview post, I came across a stat that almost knocked me over. Seeing a Sixers team near the top of the league on any leaderboard is a welcome if unexpected sight, but the ingrained negativity inside me urges me to dig deeper.

For example, we are all very used to the Sixers being a bad shooting team, especially from distance. Right now, they’re shooting 39.9% from three, which is good for third in the NBA. That seems insane. It feels unnatural. But it’s true. And it makes sense. Dario has been lighting it up from long range recently, Robert Covington hasn’t missed a three-pointer since 1997, and both J.J. Redick and Jerryd Bayless are doing what they were brought here to do. It looks odd at first glance, but it checks out.

At the same time, would you believe me if I told you the Sixers’ opponents are attempting 33.8 threes against them this year - the third-highest rate in the league - but are being held to only 30.8% on those shots? 30.8%! That’s the best opponent 3PT% in the whole damn NBA. Teams use 40.6% of their shots against the Sixers to take threes, and they barely make ten shots.

Now, I have been watching a lot of Sixers basketball since Brett Brown came along, and while I believe he has the developmental skills to turn bad and okay defenders into good and great ones, there is one truth to Sixers basketball over the last few years: The absolutely suck at rotating and let up too many open threes. That’s a fact of life. But that can’t still be the case, right? Because if there were so many open threes, they’d be going in, and the Sixers’ numbers wouldn’t be nearly as good. That’s common sense. Well...

The Sixers - in their classic Sixer fashion - are allowing 11.8 open threes a game (shots where the closest defender is 4-6 feet away) and teams are only converting those at 28%. That’s absolutely atrocious. For comparison, on the offensive side, only two teams convert those shots at a worse rate (the Pelicans and Lakers). The Sixers are hitting 39.3% of those shots. Additionally, 14.2% of the threes attempted against the Sixers are judged as “open,” which is the 4th highest percentage in the league. The shots are there.

On 18.1 “wide open” looks per game (shots where there is no defender within 6 feet), the Sixers’ opponents are hitting 33.1%, the league’s worst rate (the Kings and Suns are the only teams making those at a lower rate on offense). 21.8% of the threes attempted on the Sixers are “wide open,” again the 4th highest rate in the league. The Sixers convert those shots 42.8% of the time.

Long story short, over 88% of the threes attempted against the Sixers are open or wide open (most attempted in the NBA are considered at least “open”), and opponents are sinking only 31% of those. That’s the definition of unsustainable. These below are all misses - by shooters of varying talent levels:

As great as this is - and oh man is it great - you can’t bank on it staying this way. Eventually, even bad shooters left open regularly will hit those shots. And if you leave 88% of your attempted three-point shots open? The points will begin to pile up.

A positive? When you split the season’s first five games from the winning streak (going into super small sample size territory here), opponents have actually shot better against the Sixers during their win streak, though still not incredibly well.