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How the Sixers can use their size to create space

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NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers are off to a hot start, getting four wins in as many games to begin the season. They’ve found success exactly as we expected they would: suffocating defense and relentless rebounding. But their weakness is exactly what we expected as well, with the team unable to count on consistent 3PT production.

There are two reasonable lines of thinking that could lead us to assume the Sixers would struggle to convert from deep. No. 1 is because they don’t have an abundance of personnel who create space via their shooting gravity. Here are the Sixers’ Gravity+ rankings via Andrew Patton, and here is the explainer on what these mean.

Gravity+ Rankings (2018-19)

Player Rim Total Rim Per Game Three Total Three Per Game
Player Rim Total Rim Per Game Three Total Three Per Game
Ben Simmons 5 8 459 459
Josh Richardson 147 194 26 32
Tobias Harris 41 68 36 62
Al Horford 90 100 143 161
Joel Embiid 15 11 129 132
James Ennis 240 262 205 224
Mike Scott 334 432 107 134
Furkan Korkmaz 346 370 219 182
Total is a cumulative number that values the number of games played and production, whereas per game does not. Andrew Patton | @anpatt7

Essentially, the Sixers do not have players with the optimal combination of usage, efficiency, and shot selection from deep to be a substantive problem. Compare those ranks to the ranks at the rim, where the Sixers are elite (and since this does not include free throws, underrates Joel’s impact).

No. 2 is because they don’t have an abundance of personnel who can hit threes on volume at an above-average rate. But here’s the thing: no. 1 hasn’t been as much of an issue as expected. The Sixers’ 32.3 3PT attempts per game ranks pretty much right in the middle of the pack across the league, which I think is commendable given their roster construction. Of those 32.3 attempts, about 52% are classified as “wide open”, the 10th highest percentage across the league. The quality looks just aren’t falling. Tobias Harris has been solid with a relatively high volume of wide open shots and a decent conversion rate (one more attempt and make put him above 40%). But others like Al Horford and Matisse Thybulle haven’t made the most of their wide open opportunities.

Wide Open (10ft+ Defender Distance) Three Point Shooting

Player 3PM 3PA 3P%
Player 3PM 3PA 3P%
Al Horford 4 13 31%
Tobias Harris 4 11 36%
Matisse Thybulle 2 10 20%
Joel Embiid 3 7 43%
Shake Milton 3 5 60%
Mike Scott 2 5 40%
Furkan Korkmaz 2 5 40%
Kyle O'Quinn 1 4 25%
James Ennis III 1 4 25%
Josh Richardson 0 3 0%
Jonah Bolden 0 0 -
Ben Simmons 0 0 -
NBA.com

The Sixers are creating space. And one way they’re able to do so is by using their size, packing the paint with a bunch of large men who are a threat to score, draw doubles, and pass out. Consider the following law proposed by Radius Athletics:

In the Sixers 105-103 win against Atlanta Hawks, the strategy of packing the paint led to a couple of successful threes. In the following clip, Ben Simmons sets up the play starting from the post and eventually kicks out to Josh Richardson for a wide open three:

When Ben Simmons is handling the ball above the arc, he’s often a repellent: defenders sag off of him and into the paint. But when Ben is in the post handling the ball, he’s more magnetic because he’s dynamic from that location. It doesn’t matter if you can’t hit jumpshots when you’re a 6’10” freak athlete positioned 8 feet from the rim and converting 74% of your shots at the rim (per Cleaning the Glass). Opposing defenses feel pressure to send help your way. Just look at the attention Ben is drawing:

Alex Len provides help to De’Andre Hunter and John Collins is waiting under the rim just in case Simmons squeezes through. Cam Reddish and Trae Young are transfixed by Simmons and all told, four Hawks defenders enter the paint and the fifth is at the foul line before Simmons dishes off. By the time the Hawks realize what’s going on, Embiid and Horford have set screens that trapped the Hawks’ backcourt defenders inside the perimeter like a couple of border collies herding sheep.

The Hawks didn’t play great defense in that sequence, but they were also in a really difficult position given how deep Ben Simmons was with the ball. Ben’s length and vision allow him to take advantage of the smallest windows and Al Horford is ready for the dropoff should Simmons need it. Meanwhile, Embiid’s gravity only grows the closer to the rim he gets. The Sixers had three players in the paint that can all credibly draw a double team.

The Sixers again used their three front court players’ gravity near the bucket to get an open look from deep in the same game. This time, it’s Joel Embiid passing out of the post:

The Hawks defense is constricted inside the arc, this time with all five Hawks defenders dropping into the paint. Embiid draws the double team and kicks out to Josh Richardson. Horford checks out to the top of the key, sending the defense scrambling, to help link the swing over to Tobias Harris for the open look.

Here’s a final look at a similar set up against the Timberwolves, although Tobias Harris was unable to convert as Karl-Anthony Town’s length offered an effective closeout:

Having spot up shooters with 3PT gravity around the arc is one way to create space. Packing three players who are at least 6’10” (in shoes) and convert at a high rate at the rim is another way to do it — at least, for now. It’s early in the season and teams may catch on to this and figure out a way to combat the strategy. It’s not as if the Sixers are getting all of their 3PT looks from post passes. But so far, Ben Simmons has been aggressive in getting to and converting at the rim. If Ben continues to draw the attention of multiple defenders and if Embiid consistently finds the right man when he draws a double team, the Sixers could generate a lot of open looks from behind the arc by inverting how most of the NBA has created space over last half decade.