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Sixers Science: GM For A Day

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A thought experiment describing what I would do if I had free-rein as the Sixers GM for one day.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

1. Trade For Kyle Korver

Since 2008, there’s only been two players who’ve eclipsed 42% from three on high volume (>5.0 3PA/game):

Kyle Korver and Stephen Curry.

In 2016, Senior Researcher of Analytics & Straetgy Alex D’Amour said:

“The moonshot is to get better models that can actually look at if you trade this player for that player... how would your team be able to play? But I think that we have to get to sort -of-like simulation level [models] to get there.”

While D’Amour is correct in asserting it’s difficult to project how well an addition will fit with your team, you don’t need a neural network to figure out that Kyle Korver will help tremendously with court spacing, which the Sixers desperately crave. He is also a much more capable defender than casual fans may think, a marked improvement over the likes of Fultz or even Saric.

Perhaps the package looks something like Jerryd Bayless + Future 1st (Top-20 protected).

2. Change the Defensive Coordinator

It’s easy to look at the Sixers early defensive struggles and blame the coaching staff — some would call this a “Monday Morning Quarterback” move. In the interest of being fair, they should probably get a few months to iron out the kinks.

Though the evidence suggests Billy Lange is much better suited as the offensive coordinator and should be relieved of his defensive duties effective immediately.

Lange became the Head Coach of Navy basketball in 2004, following a season Don DeVoe went 5-23 with a defense ranked 208th out of 326 in the country — pretty bad, right?

The year after Lange took over, they dropped all the way to 295th.

Actually, Lange’s team finished 200th or worse in the nation on defense 6 out of the 8 years he coached. Out of those eight, Navy was markedly better on offense seven times!

To make things worse: Current HC Ed DeChellis has turned Navy into a defensive powerhouse, finishing Top-40 in the country each of the past three years.

Losing Lloyd Pierce to the Hawks was a nail through the heart. Replacing him with Lange was the nail in the coffin.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

3. Trade for Jimmy Butler

I don’t think people need much convincing on the basketball side of things; Jimmy Butler appears to be a great player no matter which method of evaluation one uses.

He has great plus-minus figures, great counting stats, great positional versatility, a legitimate three-level scorer who creates his own shot, can attack off-the-catch, & pass exceptionally well for a SG/SF. In a vacuum, any non-tanking team in the NBA would benefit from adding him.

The two areas of concern I see most:

  1. He won’t re-sign if he doesn’t get along with Embiid and Simmons.
  2. Thibs played him too many minutes & he has a long injury history.

My position on #1 is that I believe Butler would love Simmons & Embiid. Butler has been consistent from Day 1, if you don’t give it your all, play every defensive possession with intensity, then you don’t belong on the court. This is what caused a rift between him and KAT/Wiggins, two players who are notorious for being Swiss Cheese on defense. On the contrary, the Sixers do not have an effort problem.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

To address #2, there are many other players who’ve logged similar minutes who people wouldn’t bat an eye at — Khris Middleton, Bradley Beal, and Paul George all have averaged among the most minutes in the NBA over the past five years. Yes, Butler averages around 60 games per season, but that is the modern NBA — the Sixers really just need him for four playoff series. He was actually better post-meniscus injury, so I’m not too concerned.

These lineups would be intriguing:

All-Offense

  • Butler
  • Redick
  • Korver
  • Simmons
  • Embiid

The Sixers starting lineup in 2017-18 generated 1.17 points per possession , which was 0.08 PPP higher than their season average of 1.09. For reference, the Warriors generated 1.14 PPP last season. Approximately five points extra per game could add several wins to a team’s expectation.

The All-Offense lineup pictured above would project to score in the ballpark of 1.20 PPP, an elite offensive lineup.

All-Defense

  • Simmons
  • Butler
  • Covington
  • Johnson
  • Embiid

The defensive potential of this lineup is astounding. Simmons and Butler as your point-of-attack perimeter defenders, who will seamlessly switch off-ball with Covington, funneling the opponent towards Johnson and Embiid in the paint.

Being able to throw out dominant offensive and defensive lineup makes you matchup-proof, which is the goal of any title-contender.

A trade package may look like Dario Saric + Wilson Chandler + 2021 1st (Miami) + Future 1st (Top-10 protected).

4. Address the Ben Simmons Jumper Dilemma

Taking a spin on a MLK Jr. quote:

“All we say to the Sixers, is be true to what you said this offseason.”

So Brett Brown says Ben Simmons’ jumper will undergo “intense refinement” in May 2018.

Less than five months later, Simmons essentially states he will not be shooting threes this season.

The only logical conclusion is that they meant the mid-range jumper, since that’s the only other type of jumper Brown could be talking about.

Thus far, he’s 4/22 from 3-10 feet or 0.36 points per possession (worse than a Shaq three). Sample is too small to draw any conclusion, but last year he shot 416 of his 998 attempts from that same range and hit 41.7% or 0.83 PPP. This is a very inefficient form of offense and almost irreconcilable, even with improvement.

Is Ben Simmons one of the best players on the Sixers? Yes! But I do not see how that absolves him from accountability for flatly refusing to shoot corner 3s or make any significant changes to his technique.

Add Differential Training to Shooting Practice

Ben Simmons does a ton of calibration training, AKA, shoot a bunch of practice free throws over and over. This is actually a good short-term technique. Calibration training is a solid technique to use, in say, a shootaround before a game.

On the other hand, differential training could involve:

Intentionally Hitting Front Or Back Rim

Intentionally Shooting With Too High An Arc (Above 50 degrees)

Intentionally Shooting Too Flat An Arc (Below 40 degrees)

Intentionally Hitting Left or Right Rim

Intentionally Banking In Shot

The neuroscience literature suggests that the best way to “hit the middle” may be by intentionally hitting all around it and then, over time, slowly closing in on the middle.

5. Inject the Offense With Some Gadget Plays

I must admit, I’m a glutton for trick plays or veteran savvy plays, like Andre Miller would make. There’s several wrinkles I’ve thought about adding to the Sixers offense, but I have no coaching credentials so this should be taken accordingly:

  1. Set Screens For Ben Simmons In The Backcourt/Halfcourt

When Ben Simmons gets the ball after a missed shot, he immediately becomes a threat. His defender is keenly aware that he has to pick up the ball every time.

When Simmons gathers the defensive rebound or gets a quick outlet, the opponent often plays extended pressure on Ben Simmons, to prevent him from gathering a head of steam at midcourt.

This is where the Sixers should be absolutely flattening defenders & create more odd-man rushes in transition. Since the big men are rarely going to be the first ones down the court, have them setting screens at halfcourt and getting Simmons downhill surrounded by shooters makes the best use of everyone.

I’ve seen the Rockets and Warriors run “freelance” sets like this for Harden and Curry that nets them a huge advantage on the defense without much effort. Check out this screen set two steps inside half court, allowing Harden to walk on a red carpet into the paint and hit the corner 3.

2. The Milwaukee Bucks Ball-Side Flip

I was scouting Giannis Antetokounmpo last season when I came across this play that was so basic, but generated a wide-open three-pointer a majority of the time, with little-to-no effort. Low-and-behold, I present the Milwaukee Bucks Wall-Off Three:

You could play endless clips of them just getting three after three with this action, which works because Giannis so damn big.

Well, guess who else is a ball-handler and pretty damn big? You guessed it — Ben Simmons. All he has to do is dribble down the court, do a quick head fake, pass to Redick Saric, or Covington on the wing and immediately wall-off their defender.

If the defender “toplocks,” meaning latches onto the shooter while facing their own baseline, in an effort to deny the shooter from using screens, then you can use the Redick-Embiid counter: JJ shoves his own defender into Embiid’s defender, who then waltzes in for the dunk. With Ben Simmons agility, this action may be even more lethal.

3. Run Dual-Action Sets and False-Action

After every Sixers timeout, the ensuing possession is a diagrammed play from Brett Brown, which is classified as an ATO or “after-timeout” set. These are practiced, diagrammed plays that are called in the huddle.

Have you ever noticed something funny when watching the Sixers?

Their plays only have a primary action.

Embiid is in the post, everyone is stationary around-the-arc.

Even their end-of-game “money play” is basically a two-man action with Redick and Embiid with not much going on the other side of the court.

Now, the counterpoint is that you want those guys spacing the court and staying still is good so their men can’t cheat off-the-ball.

This arguments holds some merit, but if you have creative off-ball actions, you can actually force the defense to use more resources to defend that and take them away from helping on the primary action. This simultaneously leverages the impact of lower-usage shooters like Saric and Covington while maximizing the space for higher-usage players Simmons and Embiid to operate.

4. Mike O’Connor of The Athletic detailed a great series called “Elbow Get,” which involves a player like Simmons getting the ball at the elbow, and running a skinny or snug pick-and-roll, with the option to finish at the basket, lob to the roll-man, or hit the man in the corner for three.

Basically, just run more of these for Simmons — he’s more impactful when he’s active and scoring, this will put him in a position to succeed.

Reform the Transition Defense/Offense

Like all great ideas, this is stolen, but I think a great way to systematically approach transition offense and defense.

There are 11 objects on the court — that is, 10 players and 1 ball.

Every transition opportunity is characterized as a race to the halfcourt line.

Transition Defense: The ball and the player dribbling the ball should finish tied for dead last across the halfcourt line.

How do you accomplish this?

Dedicate one player as your designated ball-stopper in transition. They will use a blend of aggressiveness and passivity to slow down the ball-handler.

Transition Offense: The ball should finish #1 in the race. Think Chino Hills.

The major tenants of successful transition offense are sequential:

#1 Ball Speed — Ideally, the ball should be the first thing that crosses halfcourt in transition.

#2 Player Speed — You want a majority of your players to win the race to halfcourt.

#3 Width — The players should fan out, actively spreading out the transition defense.

#4 Depth — The first players down court should cut to basket or go to corner while subsequent players fill the wings.

Like Tetris pieces falling into place, the four transition partners sprint up the court, actively fan out before occupying various depth on the court, whether that’s be the corner 3 or the wing or a cut to the basket.

Will I ever complain about a dunk? No.

Do I wish Fultz at least looked at Redick wide open in the corner for three? Yes.

So that’s my day as a GM! I know I would be run out of town, but I’m sure I’d have a better tenure than a recent Sixers GM.