During the Sixers’ 16 game sprint toward the third seed in the 2017-2018 Eastern Conference standings, Philadelphia played fast, shot in volume and converted long-range attempts at high percentages. Aside from the January 2017 emergence of Embiid, Covington, McConnell and company, few stretches offered greater signs of progress for a team grasping at its first winning season in five years.
Unlike the January 2017 breakout run, progress did not present itself in the form of an emerging offensive identity or attention-grabbing individual performances (think T.J.’s buzzer beater against the Knicks and Covington’s late-game heroics against Portland). Progress, this time around, felt balanced and sustainable, a genuine offensive threat on the drive, in the post and on the kick out. Often times progress requires a catalyst. The Sixers found one on Feb. 10, 2018.
Fresh off of a buyout agreement with the Atlanta Hawks, Marco Belinelli cleared waivers. He was looking for a team in need of his specific skill set: off-screen, spot-up and off-the-dribble shooting in a fringe-starter to reserve capacity. Multiple teams were interested in his services, including the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors. The Sixers, too, were interested, and offered a unique package.
More than halfway through the season, Ben Simmons, the team’s highly-touted, big-bodied point guard, began to find the lane with consistency, forcing defenses to collapse which resulted in open looks for perimeter shooters. Over a 10-game stretch, capped by a 14-point win over the Clippers on Feb. 10, 2018, Simmons averaged an offensive rating of 122.6, a measure of Simmons’ points produced (field goals, free throws, and assists, weighted to consider offensive rebounds resulting in additional plays) per 100 possessions. For context, James Harden averaged an offensive rating of 120.4 for the entire season. With Simmons living up to the billing, producing open looks for teammates with regularity, the Sixers had won four of their last five games while relying heavily on three-point-shooting production. Observing a natural fit, Belinelli made his decision, signing with the Sixers for the home stretch of the regular season.
Entering their 55th game, the Sixers boasted a 29-25 record while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three, sitting slightly above the year-end league average in both categories. During this stretch, five players on the Sixers attempted three-or-more threes per game, with three of those players attempting greater than five per game. On this night, the Sixers would play their eventual playoff foe the Miami Heat, trailing the Sixers by a half game in the playoff standings and presenting a team that would end the season ranked seventh in opponent field goal percentage and 13th in opponent three-point percentage. Despite possessing a recent win streak, Miami’s staunch defensive mindset would pose a challenge to the Sixers hot-and-cold three-point shooting attack. Little did the Heat or, frankly, most Sixers fans know, but Marco Belinelli’s first game in a Philadelphia uniform would prove to be a memorable effort against the Heat’s rigid defense.
Belinelli opened his debut by converting on a fast break opportunity and a backdoor cut for his opening two baskets, two scores that would offer little more than a blip in the Sixers early 24-point deficit. Late in the fourth quarter, however, the Sixers made a run, spurred largely by several high-degree-of-difficulty, contested shots by the Sixers’ new acquisition.
Down by eight with just over nine minutes remaining in the contest, Belinelli runs Josh Richardson off of consecutive screens, first by T.J. McConnell and next by Richaun Holmes, softly receiving a pass at the top of the key from Trevor Booker. Fading to his left, Belinelli buries the jump shot to cut into the late-game deficit:
On the next possession, now down by seven, Belinelli starts in the left corner, Josh Richardson pressed tightly to his chest. With Booker possessing the ball beyond the three-point line, vertical to the left elbow, Belinelli makes a beeline toward the ball, ultimately receiving a Trevor Booker hand-off. With Richardson colliding with Booker in pursuit, Belinelli springs free for a brief moment and elevates into yet another left-fading shot. Wayne Ellington flies by and Belinelli releases, tumbling backward and rattling home another contorting jumper in the process:
On this night, Belinelli’s timely shooting turned the momentum. He would prove capable of doing it again, eventually doing so with enough regularity to consider the “run-breaking jump shot” and the “momentum-turning jump shot” legitimate pieces of his arsenal. The moment against Miami didn’t quite elevate to the excitement level produced by Justin Anderson’s Knicks game against Carmelo Anthony (ironically Anderson and Anthony ended up in the same trade more than a year later), but Belinelli’s moment produced an immediate acceptance of the same variety.
The Sixers went on to win the contest and, more importantly, recognized a valuable piece to their emerging offense. Subsequent to the Belinelli signing, the Sixers posted a 23-5 record, good for an 82 percent winning percentage. While multiple players across the team elevated their level of play during the stretch run, few put forth a greater span of productivity than Belinelli.
During his final 28 regular season games with the Sixers, Belinelli ranked fifth on the team in offensive rating, trailing only Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington and Amir Johnson (due to production in limited possessions). Additionally, he ranked third in three-point shooting percentage at 38.5 percent, trailing only J.J. Redick and Dario Saric, and second in true shooting percentage, a metric capturing the impact of three-point field goals in calculating field goal percentage, trailing only J.J. Redick.
While his lackluster defense remained as advertised, with only J.J. Redick posting a higher defensive rating, Belinelli’s ability to provide additional spacing while converting in a J.J.-like fashion proved valuable. On the season, Belinelli would produce 1.19 points per possession off of screen plays — for context, Marco’s 15.9 percent frequency of off-screen possessions ranked 28th in the NBA to Redick’s 26th — a value that ranked sixth among players in the top 50 in off-screen frequency who participated in at least 20 games.
During his time in Philadelphia, the team increased its averages in field goal percentage, three-point shooting percentage, and offensive rating, among other metrics. Comparing closely to Redick in many of his most relevant statistics, Belinelli afforded the Sixers the luxury having two specialists on the court at the same time, presenting a unique challenge for defenses looking to cut off Simmons’ driving opportunities and Embiid’s low-post touches.
In many regards Belinelli’s most valuable ability, and perhaps his most challenging contribution to replace, was his knack for mirroring Redick’s style of off-ball movement, running tightly, shoulder-to-shoulder, around screens to find his spots. When Belinelli signed with the San Antonio Spurs during the 2018 offseason, the Sixers were, once again, faced with the task of identifying a floor spacer to spell J.J. Redick and, at times, play primarily alongside Redick and Ben Simmons.
During the past offseason, the Sixers acquired two relevant pieces who will look to aid in replacing Belinelli’s production. Mike Muscala, acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a three-team trade headlined by a swap of Carmelo Anthony for Dennis Schröder, shot 53.5 percent of his total field goal attempts from three-point range last season, while essentially splitting time between the power forward and center positions. Perhaps most importantly, Muscala shot at an above-league-average clip, converting on 37.1 percent of three-point attempts and 49.1 percent of corner three-point attempts. Muscala offers an evident positional variance from Belinelli, yet his role might end up operating in a similar capacity, albeit with a notable decline in off-the-dribble scoring opportunities.
For obvious reasons, many believe that Muscala will attempt to fill the minutes vacated by Ersan Ilyasova. However, multiple facets of Muscala’s game offer noteworthy contrasts to Ilyasova’s workman-like efforts. While certainly a competent long-distance shooter, Ilyasova consistently emphasized scoring on mid-range opportunities during the past season in a Sixers uniform, shooting 31.1 percent of his shots between 3 feet and the three-point line, compared to Muscala’s 23.7 percent.
Along with his comfort shooting from mid-range, Ilyasova’s activity on the offensive boards proved to be one of his most valuable areas of contribution. During his time with Philadelphia, Ilyasova’s 1.9 offensive rebounds per game nearly doubled that of Muscala, whose per game average finished at 1.1. Perhaps the most positive sign for the Sixers comes in the form of Muscala’s 115 offensive rating, summarizing his ability to score efficiently and successfully involve teammates at a rate that bests both Belinelli’s and Ilyasova’s.
With Muscala expected to pick up a portion of the minutes vacated by Belinelli, the remaining minutes balance appears set for allocation between in-house players and another offseason acquisition, Wilson Chandler. Despite possessing a below-average three-point shooting percentage for his career, 34.1 percent versus the 35.8 percent league average during his 11 active years, Chandler’s contributions come in a different form, primarily adding value through defensive versatility and around-the-rim finishing.
During the 2017-2018 season, almost 50 percent of Chandler’s shots came from within 10 feet of the basket. Standing 6-feet-8-inches tall and playing 99 percent of possessions at either the small forward or power forward position, Chandler provides a switchable defensive background that allows him to defend big men in small lineups or to defend guards and smaller forwards in larger lineups. To support the notion about Chandler as a defensive upgrade, during the 2017-2018 campaign, Chandler posted the highest defensive win share total among the group of Belinelli, Muscala and Ilyasova (during his time with the Sixers).
The Sixers made moves during the offseason to fill the void left by their productive shooting guard. Stylistically, however, the team seems due for some rearrangement. At some point the Sixers will miss Marco’s ability to create his own shot. But the Sixers will point to his replacements’ abilities to stop opponents’ shots as their barometer for replaced value.