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What the Sixers need - Part 1

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Philadelphia 76ers Unveil Charles Barkley Sculpture Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Take a look at this list of players and ask yourself what they have in common:

Bradley Beal
Jeff Teague
Isaiah Thomas
Devin Booker
D’Angelo Russell
DeMar DeRozan
Spencer Dinwiddie
Austin Rivers
Marco Belinelli
Lou Williams

If you said “veteran players that fans and media have been pushing the Sixers to obtain or gnashing their teeth that we failed to obtain,” give yourself a gold star.

But, interestingly, that’s not how I compiled the list. This is actually a list of the worst defensive players in the NBA, as of this writing and according to 538’s RAPTOR, the most complete defensive rating system I know of.

Got that? The players everyone seems to want us to get are not just bad defensive players, they are literally the worst defensive players in the entire NBA.

Did I game the system to get this result? Only a tiny bit! Here’s my complete methodology:

  1. Access the RAPTOR “Best Players” list and hit DEF to sort the best defensive players to the top to see how My Main Man Matisse Thybulle ranks defensively as of the time of his injury. By default RAPTOR only lists players who meet a minutes cutoff, around 400 minutes as of this writing. Matisse had a couple of subpar games prior to his injury so has fallen out of the top spot, but he’s still right up there with Kawhi, Jimmy, Beverley and the like — nice!
  2. Accidentally hit the DEF key a second time so that it sorts the worst defensive players to the top rather than the best.
  3. Gasp as I see it’s all the favorite players of the commentariat.
  4. Decide to drop first- and second-year players, even though that list includes plenty of guys — Trey Young, Miles Bridges, Kevin Huerter, etc. — who fit the pattern, those all being players many were upset we didn’t find a way to draft; realistically it’s too late to get Trey Young now!
  5. Drop the one big man (Cody Zeller) who made the top 10 as he’s probably there by small-sample fluke.
  6. Substitute in Lou Williams, who was just below the top 10, for Bryn Forbes, who was inside it, this was the only actual cheating I did!
  7. Regret that Jamal Crawford does not have a contract this year since he’s the apotheosis of everything this list is about but since he’s not playing, I can’t put him on it!

And, that’s it! Look who’s on there. Bradley Beal, whom people want us to trade half our team for. Devin Booker; people are still crying that we didn’t take him instead of Jah. Well, OK, I do wish we’d taken Booker instead of Jah, but mostly because if we had Booker we could trade him; I wouldn’t actually want to be spending $30M/year of cap space for him at this point, though admittedly he’s still very young and so could be great someday. Lou Williams, who is probably the #1 player people think would magically improve our team. Marco Belinelli, mentioned idiotically on every national Sixer broadcast as our prodigal free agent. Jeff Teague, whom the otherwise-awesome Spike Eskin mentions on seemingly every-other podcast as a potential addition for the Sixers. Austin Rivers, whom folks were angry chose Houston over us when he was released last season. D’Angelo, still to this day frequently mentioned in these parts as a potential trade target for the Sixers if we could somehow make the money work. Etc.

So that’s my first point: fans and media really, really, really seem to privilege offense over defense in basketball. The usual caveats apply, RAPTOR is not perfect, it’s only a third of a season, etc. Maybe you think one or two of these guys are actually non-terrible defenders, and if so, it’s totally possible that you’re right. But, look, it’s been years now, we know that Marco and Lou and D’Angelo and Beal are legitimately bad defenders. And yet fans continue to pine away for them.

Sometimes those desirous of such a player grasp the nettle. ”Look,” they will begin their argument, “I know he’s not a great defender, but....” The “but” is usually followed either by:

a) a statement minimizing how bad the player is defensively

b) a statement about how the Sixer defense is so good that they can afford a less-than-stellar defender

c) an argument about how since he’ll only play 3-4 minutes a quarter, his poor D won’t hurt us that much.

d) some stuff about how we need a “closer”

It’s all nonsense. Well, not all, but mostly. All these guys are currently down around -3 to -5 on RAPTOR defense, and my oft-stated rule of thumb is that if a player is a negative on defense, you can probably guess that, come the playoffs, when teams game-plan to exploit bad defenders, whatever negativity they offer on defense will be tripled. So even taking account of the fact that the bottom of any list likely had some bad luck as well as lack of skill, these are probably all -2 (or lower) defenders who will, using my totally made-up analytical tool, deliver -6 defense in the playoffs; i.e. cost their teams 6 points per 48 minutes, or 1 point for every 8 minutes they’re on the court. If a player defended that poorly but had the mega-level offensive talent of a Harden, say, they’d still be a star, but none or these guys are that good offensively. The star-level offensive players on the list are likely net positives in the playoffs, but not by so much as to be worth a big trade and big contract. It could be Beal is an exception, the team he’s on is so screwed up that it’s possible his awful D this year is a reflection of the situation rather than his own play, or that it represents a perfectly understandable choice on his part to relax on D given the circumstances. I don’t think it’s at all clear the Sixers would have a better chance in the 2020 playoffs with Beal at SG than with Josh Richardson, but if you think we would, I won’t tell you you’re crazy. Since the Wiz are not offering us Beal for Josh and since salary-cap rules would not allow such a deal, the point is moot.

Even for Beal/Booker, likely the best of these guys, it’s iffy; with the rest of them, the value added is modest if we got them for nothing, and negative if we traded the package we’d actually need to give. As I say, the a-b-c-d points above are wrong or weak. I know of no evidence whatsoever that good defensive teams suffer less from the addition of a terrible defender than bad ones do. Indeed one would think the reverse; a chain with 3 weak links is not weakened much more by the addition of a fourth, whereas a chain that is flawless is hugely impaired by the addition of a single problem area. The argument about time is even more absurd. People will say, “he’ll just come in for a couple minutes, hit a couple of threes, how much is he going to hurt us on D in that time? But, really, there’s just no reason to think basketball performance doesn’t scale with minutes. It’s like Homer Simpson saying “the secret is to take tiny little bites.” Fundamentally, if you put a bad defender out there for a couple minutes, you’re going to get a couple minutes where the opposition has increased expected scoring. If the player’s offense is good enough to make up for that, then fine, but breaking it up into small chunks does nothing to affect the per-minute quality. Of course if you increase the number of good players on the team, everyone can play fewer minutes and hopefully be fresher, but that has nothing to do with O vs. D.

I’ll talk a bit about the closer issue in Part 2 of this essay. This series is called “What The Sixers Need” so let me say what brought me to that subject. I read lots and lots of articles and comments on the team, and everyone seems to think we need to add a player, and people act as though they agree on what kind of player that would be, but when you read their words carefully it becomes clear that opinions vary widely. Here are some things that people seem to think it’s obvious the Sixers need:

1) A veteran backup point guard like Jeff Teague

2) An additional three-and-D wing like Josh Hart

3) A distance shooter like Bogdan Bogdanovic

4) A primary initiator/closer like Chris Paul

That’s not counting the people who just note, correctly if unhelpfully, that the team would be better if we had another superstar player — looking back, we really should have pushed hard to send the Kings a package for their pick in 2018 so we could have taken Luka Doncic. Oh, well!

Now, more talent is better, so none of these positional ideas is terrible. But nothing is free; in every deal you’re giving up a combination of players, picks, cap space, and roster spots, and our excess supply of these resources is extremely limited. It’s critical that we use what we have optimally.

In Part 2, we’ll look at each category of possible upgrade and see which players in which categories are the best combinations of attractiveness and attainability. Feel free to suggest your favorites in comments so I can be sure not to miss anyone important!