The Philadelphia 76ers were never going to hit the ground running on offense this season. Their roster changed too much and they lost JJ Redick and, most importantly, Jimmy Butler, both of whom have the exact skill-sets the team needs. Through 13 games, the Sixers are 8-5, rank 18th in offensive rating, and have dealt with a mixture of issues.
Having some patience is critical at the moment. No contender with this much personnel change and supersized roster construction is going to be close to top form after 13 games. The fact that some problems — like simply having a high-level ball handler and shot creator — can’t be fixed only adds to the frustration in Philly.
However, there are constructive criticisms to be made for how this team can improve.
First, let’s get the obvious issue out of the way.
Making (and taking) enough three-pointers
The Sixers rank just 19th in three-point percentage at 34.1. That number can easily increase with likely positive regression, but the bigger problem right now is that they are only attempting 30.2 per game, ranking 22nd.
For a start, they lost their best shooter in Redick who averaged eight three-point attempts per game last season. Then there’s Ben Simmons.
Offseason workout videos never guaranteed that he was going to come out firing threes right away. Regardless, his total lack of interest in expanding his range is a problem. He’s attempted one shot outside of the paint, and after Brett Brown said this summer that Simmons would be positioned more in the corners, we haven’t seen any real effort from him to stretch the floor from there and try a few corner threes. It doesn’t look like this will be changing any time soon, and it can’t be ignored as the Sixers work to improve their shooting.
Another culprit for the low three-point volume is Tobias Harris.
Cold streaks happen. Unfortunately for Harris, his slump was severe. He missed 23 straight three-pointers and is still at 25.5 percent for the season after two strong offensive games against OKC and Cleveland. In 40 regular season games since joining the team now, he’s at 30.5 percent from deep. It’s important to remember that the far larger sample of him being a really good shooter — he shot 43.4 percent from three in 55 games with the LA Clippers last season, and 41.1 percent in 80 games in 2017-18 — outweighs the recency bias felt from his cold spell in Philly.
The bigger problem is Harris passing up too many good looks. Too often he’s received open catch-and-shoot opportunities and he’s passing or driving his way out of them. He’s not always been running off screens or relocating with enough purpose to find space. His average of 5.8 three-point attempts per 100 possessions is his lowest mark since 2015-16.
Here’s one of the most damning examples of his lacking three-point confidence. He had all the time in the world on this play to set his feet and line up a shot, yet hurtled into the lane and committed a charge:
While this trend can easily change and I expect it will soon enough (he already bounced back nicely against OKC on Friday with 21 points and three made triples), Harris can't reach a point where defenders are able to take an extra step back from him or go under more screens because he's displaying a clear preference to drive rather than shoot.
Some players on the team have made a strong effort to make a larger impact from beyond the arc. Furkan Korkmaz has improved at both ends of the floor. He’s third on the team in three-point attempts per game at 4.7 despite playing only 22.7 minutes, and he’s making 39.3 percent of them. Al Horford is second on the team with 4.8 threes per game, which is easily a career-high for him.
Positive regression from Josh Richardson (31.3 percent from three) and Harris (25.5 percent) alone would be huge for the Sixers. Harris also deserve credit for stepping up in other ways. For instance, he’s rebounding well (7.9 per game), providing improved on-ball defense, and shooting a career-high 77.8 percent at the rim.
But more than those other strengths, the Sixers need Harris to launch threes at a high volume. Without it, their shooting and spacing won’t be nearly as good.
Shooting leads neatly into the next area for improvement.
Smart off-ball movement
Clever cuts and impromptu screens create opportunities that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Off-ball movement can be a problem when it becomes entirely unnecessary, though.
Over cutting or players not spacing out to the three-point line has caused some issues for the Sixers. Plays like the following need to stop.
Joel Embiid is dealing with a double team and Harris has tons of space on the weak-side wing. With the paint cluttered, Harris needs to stay in position for an open spot-up three, which is how Embiid tries to find him. Instead, Harris opts to start cutting inside, causing Embiid’s pass to be high and fumbled through his fingers:
Players adjusting to new teammates can lead to this kind of uncertainty over positioning. Even though this should improve with time, shooters still need to recognize the importance of providing spacing when it’s needed. Two players can’t blindly cut during post-ups.
Brett Brown needs to instil the right mindset in his players in this area, and it’s up to them to know where to be and read and react accordingly on the floor.
Turnovers have been an issue through Brett Brown’s tenure in Philly. It was understandable the Sixers had some trouble last season, given their experiment starting Markelle Fultz to begin the year and how much their roster changed with major trades for Butler and Harris. The Sixers ranked 24th in turnover percentage, coughing up the ball on 14.4 percent of their possessions. Ranking high in ball movement and total passes per game (third this season at 308.2) also contributes to this.
This season, their turnover percentage is off to an even worse start at 17%, ranking 27th.
There’s reason for a little positivity. Some of these turnovers are, again, due to a new team simply not being on the same page all the time. Players anticipating the wrong movements has led to plays like the following. Richardson runs off a screen and appears to move into Nikola Vucevic to set a pin-down screen for Horford. Richardson doesn’t look back at any point expecting to receive a pass himself, yet Simmons, expecting a cut, is ready to rifle a pass to Richardson the second he curls around Horford:
Other turnovers can’t be explained so easily. Before a far more controlled game against Cleveland on Sunday, there have been frequent careless passes — I won’t make anyone sit through ugly clips of the film.
Blame can be assigned around the team. Brett Brown needs to utilize his personnel correctly, such as not asking Richardson to do too much as backup point guard — he’s averaging 2.7 turnovers per game, almost twice his career average of 1.4. And simply put, players need to be more composed. This is part of the reason Simmons is averaging a career-high in turnovers per 36 minutes at 3.9, but he isn’t the only one responsible.
The Sixers’ offense already has enough limitations in terms of perimeter creation and shooting — they can’t afford to waste possessions with messy play.
Using size correctly and limiting post-ups
The Sixers have successfully leveraged their size in some areas, such as leading the league in total rebound percentage at 53.3, but they’re coming up short in others.
One of which is free throw rate. They only rank 23rd in free throws per game at 21.8.
In the Sixers’ defense, some of their best players, such as Harris and Horford, have never excelled at getting to the line. Meanwhile, Simmons is only averaging 3.1 free throws per game, which is easily a career-low. Being assertive and embracing contact is still something he needs to develop.
If Philly want to establish themselves with a bully ball style, showing a little more aggression to attack the rim and get to the line is needed. The Sixers’ starting lineup will have size advantages whenever they take to the floor, from Simmons to the 6’6” Richardson often being guarded by point guards. There will be times when smaller opponents struggle to match up and are forced to foul.
There are schematic ways to help with the team’s free throw as well. One of which is the Sixers upping their pick-and-roll usage, which I’ll get on to next. It’s harder to catch players back-pedalling to protect the rim if you’re doing most of your damage from the post — Embiid is the only real exception here.
The Sixers also need to learn to not turn to any size advantage and think it’s a mismatch. They’re first in the NBA in post-ups per game by a mile at 15.1 (ninth in efficiency at 0.92 points per possession), well ahead of the second-place Lakers at 9.3. When Philly’s offense has faltered, it’s looked stagnant, sloppy, or limited. It’s fine having a physical identity, but embracing post-ups to the point that they’re being used with poor positioning or by the wrong players won’t work. The offense needs some diversity.
There are already enough strong post players on the team to prevent others like Mike Scott being dumped with the ball to try to make something happen. Except for the odd turnaround jumper, these are generally wasted possessions.
The Sixers look to Scott here when there’s still 11 seconds left on the clock. They have time to do something else. Instead, Scott tries to score on Terrence Ross (who’s only two inches shorter than him), staggers into an awkward fadeaway, and hurries a pass to a cutting James Ennis for a turnover:
Again, notice that every Magic defender has a foot in the paint at one point during this play. Post-ups can’t always be the fall-back option for this offense.
Run more pick-and-rolls
Yet again, the Sixers rank dead last in pick-and-roll frequency (12 per game) and 29th in efficiency (0.72 points per possession). Even though a fair amount of that inefficiency is due to the team’s personnel not being best suited to pick-and-roll play, it’s also understandable given how few opportunities they get to run it.
The Sixers’ star pick-and-roll player Jimmy Butler may be gone, but they still have players who can use these actions at a lower volume. For a start, Simmons as a roll man, and Harris and Raul Neto as ball handlers could all do more.
Harris has been pretty effective this season when running pick-and-rolls with Simmons. For the most part, Simmons has been setting stronger screens and rolling with purpose more often. It creates openings for Harris to use his pull-up game or make simple passing reads. He’s flashed some improved playmaking and currently has a career-high assist percentage (15.6) to show for it. The two passes — a perfect pocket pass to a rolling Horford, and a quick read to find Neto open on the wing after seeing Neto’s defender rotating to tag Embiid’s roll — at the start of the video below are good examples:
While Harris lacks the ball handling and playmaking ability to handle too much responsibility in the pick-and-roll, he can absolutely do more than the 3.2 possessions he's been getting per game so far — a fair drop from the 5.1 he ran with the Clippers last season. In LA, he ranked in the 86th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler in 2018-19 and the 82nd percentile in 2017-18.
We’ve had a taste of what Neto can do with spread pick-and-rolls during his start in Philly, too. He’s been a rock-solid contributor off the bench so far. He’s a sound decision-maker, capable of setting up roll men or skipping passes out to shooters, and nipping to the basket when there’s an opening. Letting Neto work with Embiid and three shooters like Richardson, Harris and Scott on the wings can help shake things up:
And, not that pick-and-rolls will become a staple of the Sixers’ clutch offense (which has been disoriented so far when Brett Brown isn’t working his ATO magic), but it could be an option at times to prevent more possessions like the following. With a chance to win a tied game against OKC in the final seconds, the Sixers failed to run anything to generate a good look, Embiid only set up just inside the arc against Steven Adams, and hurriedly threw up a contested jumper:
Extra pick-and-rolls can be one way to get Harris driving and attacking rim, creating the potential for more free throws against recovering bigs, open pull-ups and fewer post-ups. It’s good for the roll men, too. It can keep Simmons active as a screener, give Embiid chances to attack downhill with speed rather than banging inside quite as much, and generate openings for them to establish good positioning by the basket.
It was only against Cleveland, but the Sixers had their best performance in weeks at both ends of the floor in their 114-95 win against the Cavs on Sunday. Building better chemistry can help them reach the levels of ball movement and engaged, smothering defense they displayed in that game with consistency. Again, they need time.
If they can make any of these offensive improvements and partner them with locked-in defense, they can start looking more like the Sixers team everyone was expecting.