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3-point play: A trio of Sixers observations

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Digging into Ben Simmons in the pick-and-roll, Landry Shamet’s prolific shooting, and the Joel Embiid-T.J. McConnell pairing

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an odd first 33 games for the Philadelphia 76ers. At 21-12, they’re third in the Eastern Conference, just two games back of the Milwaukee Bucks for the second seed. But their counterparts — Milwaukee, Indiana, Boston and Toronto — all have significantly better net ratings. Philadelphia is plus-2.2, while Indiana, the next lowest team, is at plus-5.1. The Sixers are out-performing their net rating by 2.1 wins (according to Cleaning the Glass), thanks to the All-Star talents of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler, to go along with a 13-5 record in the clutch. However, the lack of depth beyond those three and J.J. Redick is a chief reason they’ve been overmatched against the Celtics, Bucks and Raptors in four total games this season.

Nonetheless, there are worse positions to be in and while their record may belie the actual state of the team, the hope is reinforcements are on the way, either via the trade or buyout market. As the team is currently constructed, interest developments remain. Let’s explore a triad of them.

Has Ben Simmons been involved in more pick-and-rolls?

Full disclosure: this in an eye-test thing. I don’t have access to statistics to prove it, and I might be entirely off-base on this one. If you’ve got the resources to support or refute my claim, more power to you. Feel free to lambast/applaud me in the comments (or critique/praise respectfully, whatever floats your metaphorical — perhaps literal? — boat).

Anyhow, back to basketball and away from boats. It seems as though in recent games, Brett Brown has deployed Simmons in more pick-and-rolls, both as a driver and roller. The most frequent usage appears to be either in transition or early in the clock, when the defense isn’t entirely organized and primed to stymie side screen-and-rolls:

On other occasions, Philadelphia attempts to mitigate Simmons’ lack of off-the-bounce gusto by working near the elbows. While that shrinks the floor to a degree, it also means the momentum he builds coming around the screen fuels him even closer to the rim. He doesn’t have to shoot jumpers once he’s in close; finishing moves are realistic possibilities.

The outcomes have been varied and sometimes clunky — notably when the weakside is static or hosting a non-shooter — but it’s an intriguing wrinkle that’s more common in recent outings.

Brown has never been one to adhere to a traditional offensive mold filled with pick-and-rolls from the top of the key. That’s certainly true this season, with the Sixers ranking dead last in pick-and-roll ball-handler frequency, but there have been signs of honoring the antiquated hierarchy from Simmons and Embiid.

Again, it has been mostly funky results, since Simmons does not hoist pull-up jumpers and the floor spacing is rarely (never?) maximized. Although, the first play below, where Simmons draws a foul after curling around a high pick from Embiid with three average-to-good shooters around him, is probably the blueprint for success. Initiating right above the arc gives Simmons less time to rev up and blitz the paint. Stretching things out and utilizing his speed is the proper way for Philadelphia to execute a (somewhat) customary pick and roll.

Periodically, Mike Muscala, the team’s lone true shooting big man (sorry, Embiid), is getting in on the action. Philadelphia has run some quick-hitting pick and pops to open up the court and lay down a runway to the hoop for Simmons, twice sparking easy buckets for the second-year star.

Against the Pacers, Simmons was often utilized as a roll man. With his size and finishing skills, this is something many have clamored for, as he only registered seven such plays last season. So far this year, he’s already up to six (5-for-6 shooting). It remains a miniscule number, but is perhaps misleading, as rumbling to the rim on dribble hand-offs — something far more common than traditional pick-and-rolls for Simmons and part of the successive film — might fall under cuts in Synergy’s database.

The lineup most conducive to unlocking this facet of Simmons’ game is likely to be Butler-Redick-Shamet-Muscala-Simmons: a secondary playmaker who’s a pull-up threat (Butler) and three floor-spacers. Questions would circle around a Redick-Shamet backcourt defensively, but, given the lack of credible depth, any quintet is going to present challenges in some facet.

Landry Shamet can shoot, y’all

Fellow Liberty Baller Adam Aaronson unearthed a fascinating discovery earlier this week. Among rookies to play at least 30 games in NBA history, only Stephen Curry — yes, that one, the greatest shooter of all-time — has met or exceeded Shamet’s 3-point portfolio of 41.6 percent on 4.5 attempts per game. Toss out his disastrous post-Butler trade game against the Memphis Grizzlies when the Sixers were wildly undermanned and he went 1-for-11 from 3, and he’s up to 44.2 percent. Plus, he’s building steam, converting 51.6 percent of his 64 attempts over the past 15 games.

Shamet isn’t a one-trick specialist. On 115 catch-and-shoot attempts, he’s posting a 41.7 percent clip; on 34 pull-up tries, he’s at 41.2 percent. He ranks in the 89th percentile on spot-ups and 77th percentile off screens, both per Synergy. This is a 21-year-old rookie who played in a mid-major conference stepping into a top-four playoff seed, just raining buckets from anywhere and everywhere beyond the arc.

Yes, there are issues. Demetrius Jackson and Amir Johnson are the only Sixers with worse on-off splits than him. He is akin to a withered traffic cone defensively, ranking 93rd of 96 point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (not sure why he’s classified as a point guard).

But he was the 26th pick in last summer’s draft and has immediately provided a necessary 3-point stroke. He knows how to get open, is a perceptive cutter, and understands how to play defense, even if his slight 190-pound frame leaves him susceptible to constant targeting from the opposition. As time goes on, he will get bigger and his physical capabilities will eventually be closer to his defensive smarts. Ideally, he evolves into a viable, cost-controlled rotation piece when the Sixers refine their ancillary weapons.

Come this year’s postseason, when teams are sharper and wiser on both ends, there will likely be glaring problems to address with Shamet’s defense. Right now, though, the dude can flippin’ bomb it from deep. Enjoy that.

Joel Embiid and T.J. McConnell’s minutes together

Eleven teammates have shared the floor with Embiid for 200-plus minutes this year. Only he and Landry Shamet’s minus-0.3 net rating is worse than his plus-1.2 mark next to McConnell. That is not to absolve Shamet of any flaws, but he’s a rookie netting 41.6 percent of his triples who needs time to build an NBA-ready frame.

Embiid’s true shooting percentage drops 5.5 points when McConnell is on the floor, and his usage rate spikes up 4.9 points. Those are connected. McConnell can hardly create in the half-court, and it requires the big fella to shoulder a larger burden, though efficiency does tend to slide with more responsibilities.

Right now, the Sixers are short on replacements in the rotation. Markelle Fultz is rehabbing and Shake Milton hasn’t looked ready for non-garbage-time minutes. Among multiple necessary upgrades — a competent wing and backup center, to name a couple — finding a reserve guard who spaces the floor is near the top of the list. McConnell’s skill set isn’t complementary to the team’s best player and that could prove chaotic in the playoffs. He’s great as a leader and third unit ball-handler, but his current role isn’t conducive to the franchise’s seasonal goals.

McConnell is a Process Hero. He works incredibly hard and is a leader in the clubhouse. It seems every Sixers player migrates toward his unceasing smile. But he is absolutely killing Philadelphia’s spacing, particularly off the ball, and the worst part is that the team has no other option.

His lack of gravity — and its negative effect on Embiid — was especially apparent in Wednesday’s win over the New York Knicks. When McConnell relinquishes control, he usually fades over to a corner. Sometimes, his man acknowledges a bit of respect and just sags off. Not the Knicks. Every time Embiid operated in the post, McConnell’s defender either doubled or rotated into the paint to cover a teammate who was helping on Embiid.

A few examples highlight the added defensive pressure Embiid was tasked with:

Absorb how on each of those four plays, McConnell’s man — twice Emmanuel Mudiay, once Damyean Dotson, and once Frank Ntilikina — all give him ample space to host a picnic off the ball, preferring to protect the paint.

Unlike teammate Ben Simmons, McConnell is not a 6-foot-10 hyper-athletic freak capable of careening to the rim on cuts or residing in the dunker’s spot, snaring dump-offs for jams. While Simmons has his own issues without the ball, his size and build enable him to create plays most non-shooting primary initiators cannot.

McConnell is a 6-foot-2 guard with mild athleticism who rarely attempts 3-pointers, as evidenced in the final clip. It doesn’t help that Joel Embiid can struggle with passing vision at times, despite improvements this season. Yet the degree to which the Knicks exploited McConnell’s non-shooting tendencies is concerning and speaks more to his play style than anything Embiid does.