One of the Philadelphia 76ers’ biggest flaws throughout last season was a lack of perimeter creators. Players who could simply handle the ball, shoot, and generate shots off the dribble for themselves or others. The Sixers’ offense was harder to watch than ever in the playoffs when they lost Ben Simmons to injury, leaving their remaining perimeter players struggling to create much at all around Joel Embiid.
Alec Burks’ skillset was an incredibly welcome addition to the Sixers’ bench when they acquired him from Golden State in February. For a team so lacking in creation, Burks quickly proved that he was a useful spark plug for their second unit.
For one, Burks provides reliable three-point shooting and a fairly quick trigger off the catch (something else the Sixers need more of). He’s 36.4 percent from three for his career and shot well throughout last season — after shooting 37.5 percent from deep on 4.7 attempts per game in 48 contests with the Warriors, he upped that percentage to 41.6 on 4.3 attempts per game (7.6 attempts per 36 minutes) through 18 regular season and seeding games with the Sixers.
It’s Burks’ ability to shoot a little off the bounce that provides more value. Pull-up threes were a rare sight for the Sixers in 2019-20 (their team total of 127 made pull-up threes for the season ranked dead last), but Burks can fire a bit off the dribble, whether he’s isolated against his defender, or shooting out of dribble hand-offs or pick-and-rolls. He attempted 2.5 pull-up threes per game last season and made 39.4 percent.
Having players who pose some threat to pull up from distance is important even when they aren’t making shots (and it’s fair to expect Burks to cool down somewhat next season, at least off the dribble). When defenders have to go over screens or teams send an extra defender to the ball-handler to prevent quick pull-ups, it helps create clearer driving lanes and space for others. And with Doc Rivers, a coach who implements a lot of pick-and-roll in his offenses, the Sixers should be turning to this more next season.
Take the following play. As Burks dribbles to the wing and Tobias Harris slips the screen and cuts to the lane, Wesley Iwundu has to leave Harris and help Markelle Fultz to take away an opening for Burks to pull up for three. Once Burks sends the ball to Harris, Nikola Vucevic is forced to help below the basket and Harris can hit Mike Scott for an open layup:
Besides his shooting and ball handling, Burks’ ability to get to the line is key. He recorded a Free Throw Rate of 34.5 after averaging 4 free throw attempts in 26.6 minutes per game (5.4 per 36 minutes) last season, making them at a 88.7 percent clip. This is something else the Sixers missed last season, ranking only 21st with 22.4 free throw attempts per game. Besides Embiid (and Simmons during his more aggressive stretch later in the regular season), the Sixers had no one who could consistently penetrate, fight through contact, and draw fouls. Philly still need more, but Burks helps here as a complementary ball-handler and pick-and-roll player.
When the Sixers arrived in Orlando to join the bubble, getting the ball in Burks’ hands more was a priority for former head coach Brett Brown.
“The second he got off the plane and in a bus and went to our very first day of practice [in Orlando], I had him with the ball,” Brown said after the Sixers’ last seeding game against the Rockets. “We had a chance to revisit a lot over the pandemic as a staff, myself, like, ‘if you had to do it again, what would you do?’ That was one of the things we talked about is let’s give him the ball. He’s very creative with the ball.”
Burks, like most of the Sixers, wasn’t at his best in the playoffs. In Game 1 of the first round against the Celtics, Burks shot 6-of-15 from the floor and added 2 assists to 2 turnovers. He tallied 18 points, flashing his creativity off the dribble while getting to the free throw line 7 times. He cooled off after Game 1, though, averaging just 8 points on 29.4 percent shooting (15.4 percent from three) and 1.7 assists to 0.3 turnovers for the rest of the series. As you’d expect, Burks showed some of his weaknesses as a decision-maker and passer in Simmons’ absence. Burks generally gets by on basic passes, he misses reads at times, and opts for overly tough jumpers off the bounce at others. But there’s only so much you can expect from Burks in such overworked circumstances with a flawed roster.
In a controlled role off the bench, Burks has proven he can be effective. The issue for the Sixers is whether he’s affordable.
Since they first acquired Burks, it’s always been fair to view him as a rental. He and Glenn Robinson III only cost three second-round picks, he put together his best year yet with career-highs in scoring (15 points per game) and True Shooting Percentage (56.1), and seemed to be gearing up to capitalize on it in free agency.
For a Sixers team that’s well over the salary cap, left with minimum deals and the taxpayer mid-level exception (worth around $5.7 million), Burks taking a larger, longer deal elsewhere seemed inevitable. And that may still be the case. The salary cap for 2020-21 staying at $109.14 million, rather than the original projection of $115 million, only hurts the Sixers’ financial flexibility moving forward (although the NBA lowering luxury tax payments in proportion to any basketball related income decline below league projections provides some relief here).
The Sixers aren’t alone in being tight on funds, though. Only a handful of teams have cap space this year. ESPN’s Bobby Marks even estimated in his recent free agency predictions piece that Burks could make between $4-6 million, which would make him more affordable.
If that figure is accurate, the Sixers might be able to sign Burks with their MLE. But after the season he put together, it’s still very possible that A) he could make slightly more money elsewhere, and B) he won’t be the Sixers’ primary free agent focus for the best contract they can offer. Given the team’s need for not just scoring punch off the bench but improved playmaking, using the MLE on a backup point guard/superior passer would make more sense. Even with this year’s unprecedented circumstances and altered market, there’s a pretty good chance Burks is leaving.
Over the coming days, we’ll be breaking down some of the players the Sixers could target in free agency.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.