Efficient offense and wins on the road. These are two things that have escaped the Philadelphia 76ers for a lot of the 2019-20 NBA season so far. This was the case yet again against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, as after playing a quality first half, the Sixers fell 95-101 for their sixth straight road loss.
Some of the Sixers’ offensive struggles came down to the simple matter of missing shots. This has been a trend in general lately, and they made only 6 of their 33 three-point attempts against Indiana, including an ice-cold 2-of-16 on wide-open threes (where the closest defender is at least 6 feet away). If the Sixers shot anywhere near average from three, they might have won this game.
As LB’s Kevin Love pointed out in this article, they also had their lowest assist total (17) since December 14 of 2018, which also happened to be against the Pacers.
There were clearly some other problems involved, though. Problems that have hurt Philly all season.
This loss isn’t on Ben Simmons. His first half was one of the best halves of his career, and he had a strong game overall. Over the first two quarters he produced 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, his usual disruptive defense, and the exact level of aggression he needs. Especially while Joel Embiid is out. Simmons was pushing the pace, barrelling his way to the rim on rolls down the lane, driving whenever lanes opened, and attacking mismatches on face-ups. He was assertive and physical, just as he should be.
The second half was the reverse. He was more passive and produced just 4 points. This drop in production isn’t all on Simmons, as Brett Brown looked to Josh Richardson to handle the ball more and other offensive issues ruined some opportunities for Simmons (which I’ll get onto), but he still needed to give Philly more to help close the game.
Take this play, for instance. Earlier in the game Simmons went straight through Aaron Holiday, but here he had a switch in the lane from a pick-and-roll and didn’t look to exploit it. The floor was spaced pretty well with Tobias Harris and Al Horford in the corners, too. With only a few minutes left in the game, this should have been an ideal opportunity for Simmons to back his way to the basket for good positioning and a close shot, or put his shoulder down and drive to the rim again. Harris wound up driving into traffic and losing the ball.
Turnovers were an issue that struck late. After turning over the ball at an ugly rate early in the season, the Sixers have actually taken far better care of the ball recently. In fact, over their last 15 games, their turnover percentage of 12.2 ranks 4th in the NBA. For the season as a whole, they’ve moved up from one of the worst few teams in the league to just below average, ranking 18th.
Until the final period against the Pacers, the Sixers were once again maintaining good possession of the ball, with only 6 turnovers through the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter, they had 5.
The following play resulted in a shot clock violation. If Richardson (who, to his credit, has played very well recently) was a more dynamic creator off the dribble, then this play might have been far simpler and resulted in an isolation bucket or quick trip to the free throw line. This is where someone like Jimmy Butler could have worked his magic.
After a ball screen for Richardson leads nowhere, Horford slips the re-screen and receives the ball as Myles Turner is rushing to recover. Horford has a chance to dribble straight down the lane or back to his left to catch Turner going the wrong way, but opts to pass to Matisse Thybulle with only five seconds left on the shot clock. With the Pacers locked in defensively and rotating well, Thybulle creating something isn’t the answer and the entire defense collapses on Simmons. A lack of decisiveness and perimeter creation can really cost the Sixers at times like this.
The Sixers rotation changes in this game are worth noting as well. James Ennis received his first DNP of the season as Thybulle played just under 28 minutes and Furkan Korkmaz played 23. Of course, it’s not like Ennis would have turned the Sixers’ play around earlier in the game or saved them down the stretch. But he’s been one of their top backups this season and may have had a little more composure to beat a closeout than Thybulle in situations like this, who is understandably shaking off some rust after missing a couple of weeks with injury.
Finally, there was this poor bit of late-game execution. As Richardson ran a pick-and-roll with Simmons to create a perfect mismatch on Holiday that Simmons moved down the lane to attack, Horford ruined the play with terrible positioning. Fortunately for the Sixers, Richardson came through with a last-second pull-up three to save an otherwise messy possession.
There’s no reason Horford should be anywhere but the three-point line on this play. He's pointlessly posting up in traffic, completely removing Richardson’s potential passing window to Simmons, and taking away all the space that Simmons should have to attack.
The Sixers using Simmons more as a roll man over the last few weeks has been a smart adjustment. It’s something he’s always had potential to do more of, and they’re finally putting his improved physicality as a screener, athletic finishing and elite playmaking to use on rolls to the rim (I wrote about this in more detail here). While Embiid is out and lineups featuring four shooters with Horford at center can be placed around Simmons, this usage should only increase. But for him to have enough room to dive through the lane, or simply set up down low to beat a mismatch, maximum spacing around him is essential.
Even though some blame should fall on Brett Brown's shoulders for not fully utilizing everything Horford has to offer, including more play from the perimeter as a playmaker (for example, as a roll man himself) or shooter, possessions like this are on Horford. Whether this was an inexcusable mental lapse of what play was being used, a disinterest in spacing, or a combination of the two, it shouldn't happen. Mistakes like this are puzzling, especially for a player with a high IQ.
Horford has upped his three-point attempts to a career-high 4.1 per game this season, but he still passes up good looks at times. And more importantly, he’s clogged up the paint too often in possessions like those above.
The Sixers are always going to have limits in terms of their three-point shooting, spacing and perimeter creation with their current roster. However, there are ways to improve with what they have. From consistent, full-throttle aggression from Simmons to Horford realizing how he needs to adapt to stretch the floor, there are several adjustments that would make life easier on offense.