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How the addition of Trey Burke could enhance the Sixers’ offense

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Philadelphia 76ers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers had one roster spot left to fill and they chose to do so with point guard Trey Burke. For a team that has struggled to find a more offensively-talented backup to Ben Simmons (no disrespect to TJ McConnell, but he never had the scoring proficiency to really threaten a defense), they now have two competent veterans vying for the role in Burke and Raul Neto, both of whom bring offensive tools that could allow them to even share the court with Simmons at times.

But Trey Burke could offer more to Philly than merely being the 2A to Neto’s 2B within the point guard rotation. Outside of Jimmy Butler, Burke is arguably the most dynamic ball handler that Brett Brown has ever had as coach of the Sixers. That says more about Philly’s options over the years (Jerryd Bayless, Ish Smith, Tony Wroten, Michael Carter-Williams, Markelle Fultz, Isaiah Canaan, TJ McConnell, hell even Ben Simmons “dynamic-ness” is more so as a player in general than as a ball handler) than it does about Trey. Nonetheless, Burke’s ability to score in a variety of ways and out of a variety of sets could bring his addition closer to that of Al Horford and Josh Richardson than Raul Neto and Kyle O’Quinn in terms of significance and impact.

General shot distribution

Figure 1: Trey Burke FGA relative density and locations (2018-19)

Andrew’s Note: We can see that Burke is a middle of the floor player. He does most of his damage more or less in a 30 degree swath centered on the rim. He’s a midrange aficionado, although only shooting 35% between 6-20 feet (not great). Unsurprisingly, he does not have many corner threes as he was the prime initiator.

Pick-and-roll/pop

Before the addition of Burke, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris were about the extent of Sixers players who could hurt opponents out of the pick-and-roll with any sort of consistency. Now with Burke in tow, Brett Brown has at his disposal a player who is not only comfortable in the pick-and-roll but thrives in it. Last season, Burke scored .989 points per possession (86th percentile) in the PnR with Dallas and in New York he was even better at 1.02 ppp (91st percentile), per Synergy.

Burke utilizes his comfort in tight space, an impressive awareness of when to change speeds, and counter-intuitively, his smaller stature as he slips by tight screens, to find success coming off of picks. This next play was really impressive:

There’s a lot of nuance to what made that play a success. Burke recognizes Kanter’s intentions of first making Mo Bamba, who is responsible for calling out the screen, believe the pick is coming on Isaiah Briscoe’s left side and waits just long enough for Kanter to switch the screen to Briscoe’s right side. Burke takes the screen and then crosses Mo Bamba back into the lane, at which point Burke seems to have a green light to fire. But he feels Briscoe recovering and drops a stepback on the Magic to rid himself of a double contest (Bamba’s length and Briscoe’s trail) and instead shoot over a lunging Briscoe for two. He’s just got the feel, if ya’know what I’m saying.

The above example is but one from a pool of similar plays. Burke routinely scores out of the pick-and-roll by getting downhill with just a bit of space and then devastatingly manipulating defenses with changes of pace and dribble moves in close quarters.

If defenders go under screens on Burke or simply are too slow when trailing, he’s happy to make them pay as he’s not shy about letting it fly from deep:

Burke does take a LOT of mid-range jump shots when dribbling off of screens, but his statistics suggest he’s efficient enough to do so. On top of that, I feel comfortable saying his penchant to chuck from 18 feet with such volume was partially a result of the Knicks being really bad. While Burke generally doesn’t get to the rim often as you’d like from a scoring guard due to his size, the raw midrange volume was compounded by the Knicks’ lack of options. The numbers bear it out, too.

Last season as a Knick, Trey took 52% of his shots from the mid-range and connected at just 38%, per Cleaning The Glass. Compare that to his time with the Mavericks when he took just 34% of his attempts from the midrange and hit 48% of those, and it’s easy to see how Burke could become more efficient and selective on a deeper squad. And to reiterate, he’s decently efficient from that area and it’s an important aspect for the rest of his game.

Iso

When you go through Burke’s iso efficiency over the years, the numbers paint an erratic picture. In his first season with Washington, he was above average on a points per play basis, but in his second season with the Wiz, he was slightly below average. By the time he got to Madison Square Garden, he had taken a significant step back: in 2017-18 with the Knicks he scored just 0.79 ppp and in 33 games last season, he dropped even lower to 0.71 ppp. However, he was able to redeem himself in Dallas, scoring an exorbitant 1.55 ppp from iso over 25 games. All things considered, I’m again willing to give Burke the benefit of the doubt. But its not about playing for bad teams or workload. When I watch Trey Burke, I simply see the tools in place to be an isolation threat.

I touched on Burke’s understanding of pace and speed as a ball handler above, and I’ll do so again here. It’s such an enabling factor for Burke. He’s frequently able to get to his spots, rather than taking what the defense will give. When he isolates, he’s seeking out location as much as he is space, allowing him to essentially take the same exact shots over and over.

Figure 2: Trey Burke percent makes assisted (2018-19)

Andrew’s Note: This is pretty wild. He has a couple corner threes that are assisted and otherwise, pretty much does it himself. Stepbacks, getting to the rim, etc. Considering the quality of teammates he now has, he almost certainly won’t be asked to shoulder this kind of burden, but unlike last year’s backup PG in TJ McConnell, Burke can pretty much create his own shot no matter what. He’s essentially a slightly thicker version of Iverson, for all the good and bad.

Dependency

Developed by Andrew (@anpatt7), dependency is a measure of how independent or dependent a player in terms of scoring. The more negative a player’s dependency value is, the less dependent, or the more independent they are. The opposite is also true. Burke was the 33rd most independent player in the NBA last year.

Figure 3: Trey Burke dependency score (2018-19)

Gravity

As developed by Andrew, here is Burke’s gravity chart. For an explanation on gravity, check out this link. In the future, gravity will live at The Basketball Index (the same people that do PIPM)

Trey_Burke_Gravity

Rim Gravity: 223rd (between OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry)

Midrange Gravity: 78th (between J.J. Barea and Gordon Hayward)

Three Gravity: 194th (between Juancho Hernangomez and J.J. Barea)

Fit

Trey Burke brings to Philly a skill set that the team just did not have prior to his addition. That alone could see him rise from “literally the last player added” to an important rotation piece. Burke will have some competition with Shake Milton and Raul Neto early on for backup point guard minutes, but it wouldn’t be the least bit shocking to see Trey claiming higher into the rotation thanks to the layer of scoring and ball handling he adds to the team’s offense.

Of course, things could go in the opposite direction for the barely-over-six-feet-tall veteran point guard. Defense has never been Burke’s forte and if his efficiency scoring the ball is not at a level to counterbalance what the team sacrifices on defense, Brown’s patience may run out. But the Sixers are flush with plus defenders which could allow Burke to hide on that end.

You’re probably wondering, “If he’s such a good signing, how was he available at this stage of the summer?” It’s a good question. He probably hasn’t yet shaken the reputation he formed during his first few seasons in the NBA, when his approach to the game and desire to improve were called into question. Plus, he’s been putting up numbers on bad teams. But I believe that the level Burke has gotten to as a scorer should testify to the change in approach the now 26-year-old has harvested. Burke is a professional scorer these days.