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Sixers Check-In: Second 10 Games

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A new star. A new injury for a young player. Same old Sixers.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Every ten games, we’ll be checking in with how the team has been playing recently, looking at trends in style of play, shifts in the rotation, etc. You can look back at the analysis for the first ten games here.

Can you believe we are (nearly) a quarter of the way through the season? Time flies when you’re having fun and hearing about new mysterious injuries to a former first overall pick.

A LOT has happened over the last ten games. In our last check-in, I analyzed Dario Saric’s early season struggles and the ineffectiveness of the Ben Simmons-Markelle Fultz pairing. Now, Dario and Robert Covington are in Minnesota as a result of the Jimmy Butler trade, and Fultz won’t be playing or practicing with the team, following Wednesday’s report via The Athletic that he also has a wrist injury and will be seeing a specialist in New York for both that ailment and the shoulder. Plus, you have the whole question of whether Zhaire Smith will be out for the year after the report that he lost 20 pounds as a result of his allergic reaction incident. You know, normal Sixers stuff.

Fortunately, Philadelphia’s on-court news has been brighter. The Sixers are still perfect at home (10-0), and went 7-3 during this recent ten-game stretch. They now sit at 13-7 on the season and have moved up to third place in the Eastern Conference. Jimmy Butler has said all the right things since his arrival and has been warmly embraced by the Sixers fan base (and Allen Iverson). Wilson Chandler has returned to health and is making a positive impact as a member of the starting lineup. Joel Embiid has entered the “We need to seriously consider him for MVP, right?” discussion, even in national media circles. Aside from the ongoing Fultz saga, everything appears to be trending up for the Sixers.

First, let’s take a quick look at the numbers (stats are for the last 10 games, compared to the first 10 games, and as of 11/22/18):

Offensive rating: 108.4 - 15th in NBA (First 10 games: 106.4 - 23rd in NBA)
Defensive rating: 108.5 - 19th (105.6 - 7th)
Net rating: -0.2 - 17th (+0.8 - 15th)

Pace: 102.21 - 8th (105.11 - 8th)
eFG%: 53.2% - 10th (50.2% - 22nd)
FTA rate: 0.367 - 1st (0.307 - 7th)
TOV%: 17.2% - 29th (14.4% - 18th)
OREB%: 27.8% - 15th (25.9% - 23rd)
OPP eFG%: 50.4% - 3rd (48.8% - 4th)
OPP FTA rate: 0.283 - 20th (0.266 - 15th)
OPP TOV%: 11.8% - 28th (12.9% - 24th)
OPP OREB%: 27.3% - 13th (25.8% - 9th)

Interestingly, the Sixers actually had a worse net rating over this most recent stretch than over their first ten games. Although the offense has improved back to the middle of the pack, the defense has been much worse recently. Let’s try to unpack things, starting with the positives.

Offensively, as anticipated, the shooting has bounced back after a slow start. Wilson Chandler has been hyper-efficient (55.6% from the field, 37.5% from three on the season), Ben Simmons is shooting a whopping 58.8% from the floor in his last 10 games, and JJ Redick has shot well above his career norm lately — 48.9 FG% over his last ten.

However, the biggest boost for the offense has been the Sixers marching to the free throw line like each game is the Thanksgiving Day parade. Over the last 10 games, Embiid has averaged 11.6 free throw attempts. He’s now easily leading the league with 10.8 attempts per game on the season, while shooting 80.9% at the line; James Harden is second and considerably behind at 9.8 FTA/game. Along with Jimmy Butler shooting 84.0% on 5.0 FTA/game as a member of the Sixers, the team is getting a boatload of easy points, while putting the opposition in foul trouble to boot.

Now then, what has been wrong with the defense? It certainly hasn’t been Embiid’s fault, as the franchise big man sports a 99.7 defensive rating over the last ten games. No, we need to take a long, hard look at Amir Johnson, whose 115.4 defensive rating over his last ten is easily the worst on the team. As our Jackson Frank noted in a recent piece, Amir’s defense in the pick-and-roll has been horrendous this season, and overall, it looks like Johnson may be well on his way along the road to washed-ville. If Brett Brown isn’t going to fully commit to going small with the second unit, Elton Brand may need to look for an upgrade in the trade/buyout market in a few months.

Brown has tried to prop up non-Embiid minutes by keeping Butler, now his best on-ball defender with Robert Covington in the North Star State, in the game, but it has not been successful. Per NBA Wowy, opponents have scored 1.104 points per possession in the 108 minutes Embiid and Butler have shared the court, and 1.183 PPP in the 66 minutes Butler has played without Embiid. That dynamic is something to monitor as the season progresses.

Iso-Jimmy

Finally, we take a look at the Sixers tweaking their offense since Jimmy Buckets’ arrival. The Sixers have used the fewest isolation plays in the league, averaging just 3.3 isolation possessions on the season, 2.8% of their total possessions. However, Butler has a lot of weapons in his offensive arsenal, working in isolation being chief among them. Last season in Minnesota, Butler averaged 2.6 isolation possessions himself, accounting for 0.93 points per possession. That scoring efficiency doesn’t sound great, but it’s really not bad for something that’s used as an option-of-last-resort when everything else has broken down in the half court.

Now, when Embiid is on the bench, or the opposing defense has tightened the screws in crunch time, Brown has the option to clear out a side of the floor and let Butler go to work. We saw it Wednesday night in the win over New Orleans:

And we’ve already seen that strategy succeed in the most crucial of moments.

Jimmy Butler is a 76er. What will the next ten games bring? I can’t wait to find out.

All stats as of NBA.com/stats, unless otherwise noted.