Just over two years ago, Marcus Hayes of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “Trust the process, if you like. The Sixers trust the numbers.” Hayes described the 10 page analytic “bibles” (based on billions of data points) Head Coach Brett Brown was given by the team’s analytics department before a key matchup. Back then, on their 2018 first round opponent the Miami Heat. The more things change....Maybe Brown took time during the hiatus to do some real soul searching. I don’t mean on himself, although like you or I, he probably did some of that too. I mean his Sixers’ team identity.
There will be necessary innovations to the team’s rotation with a new starting unit featuring a 23 year old guard instead of a 34 year old five-time All Star center. Al Horford has played 87 more NBA games than Shake Milton has played NBA minutes. Horford has only not started 8 times in 966 active career games. That’s more than 99 percent of the time.
That nobody finds any of this even controversial tells you all you need to know about how the Sixers 2019 off-season looks today.
The move slides Ben Simmons over to power-forward and will change the complexion of the Sixers lineup as we once knew it. The Ben Simmons as point guard design may be officially over. But this time there aren’t billions of data points suggesting the lineup will work. This group with Shake Milton in for Al Horford has never logged a single minute together. Though the gamble is worth it.
reclassifying simmons’ position just means putting more complementary personnel on the floor—he doesn’t need to change a thing. (ideally, he and jo would be out there with three swingmen/guards) https://t.co/NMsicWbhqc— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) July 20, 2020
Liberty Ballers sources procured access to one of these analytic dossiers Hayes described. Here’s the only quote team CEO Scott O’Neil has allowed us to share: “there is a 91% chance that if you watched the Sixers offense all year your face still really hurts from all the wincing.”
Just kidding we have no dossiers. But I did look into some stats from Cleaning the Glass and NBA.com to see why their 16th overall offense looked so ugly. Let’s gOoOo!
Overall shot profile
The Sixers ranked 26th in the league in what Cleaning the Glass refers to as “location effective field goal percentage.” So what does that mean? Basically that your team took a lot of shots that don’t tend to produce a lot of points on average.
The Sixers had the 10th highest rate of long two-point attempts. For all midrange shot attempts they ranked 6th overall. More than one third of every shot they took this year was classified as a midrange jumper. Analytics nerds from MIT to Houston might well recoil in horror.
So who is shooting all of these mid range shots? Per NBA.com:
It’s really those four dudes: Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson who all love to fire away from Houston’s no-fly zone, although Furkan Korkmaz will get into the act as well. Harris in particular hasn’t fared too well, making just over one-third of his midrangers this year.
Enjoy your Philadelphia Midrange Philharmonic orchestra:
The problem here isn’t that midrangers are horrific shots. It’s just the opportunity cost that arises. Unless the shot clock is winding down and you have to hoist a 20 footer (something that felt like happened a ton this year) you’re probably better off probing for higher value shots a little more.
Getting to the cup
The Sixers ranked 22rd in the league in shots at the rim (less than 5 feet away) with 29.1 attempts per game. They were not efficient there, ranking 23rd in field goal percentage from close range. They don’t get to the rim much and they don’t make ‘em that often when they do.
More 3s please
The Sixers ranked 21st in the league in 3 point attempts per game. As a team they have the 14th best percentage from deep at 36.2 percent. That implies there may be more room to heave from afar.
How about the coveted corner three? Not great, Bob. They ranked 23rd in frequency of their shots that are corner 3s.
You can see in the video above at least a couple of instances where a player opts for a contested midranger and misses the open shooter in the corner, or misses a hockey assist that could be quickly swung to a corner. (Horford to his credit does seem to always spot the right pass though, the other three less so).
More free throws please
Free throws are crucial too and round out that analytic holy trinity of shots: 3s, layups, free throws. And you guessed it, the Sixers didn’t get to the line all that much. They ranked 21st in freebie attempts per contest with 22.1. A year ago they were second overall in this category.
“…with Joel Embiid on the floor their free throw rate is number one in the NBA. With Joel Embiid off the floor their free throw rate is number 30 in the NBA. He is the only driver of free points that they have on their team.”
As cumbrous as they are, the Sixers are not a bad transition team at all. In fact they ranked 9th in the league in transition points per game with 19.8. But they also have the lowest frequency of drawn shooting fouls in transition, and post the 4th lowest scoring frequency overall when they get out and run.
That’s odd. How could they rank top nine in transition ppg but bottom 4 in scoring frequency when on the run? In short, they’re a persistent if not efficient transition team.
It appears they buttress their low scoring rate in transition by simply pushing the pace every chance they can get. That’s not a bad idea either, considering they average 10 more points per 100 possessions in transition than they do overall (120.9 in transition vs. 110.9 overall). So inefficient transition play is still good cause it’s better than the team’s average shot. A crappy piece of chocolate cake still tastes better than a hunk of boiled asparagus, or something?
But how would you explain the dichotomous data? My hunch would be that Embiid, who is often the defensive catalyst for much of their tempo game, isn’t really a transition player, which is OK. That’s where Simmons, a punishing tornado on the run, complements Embiid more than most people realize.
Given Embiid’s size and rim protection duties, he’s rarely the first one up the court on a break. Partly because of this, the Sixers (who we learned don’t draw many fouls if Embiid isn’t involved) see that crazy-low shooting foul rate on breaks.
This might also be partially explained by the crystal clear visual you have in your mind of Simmons making a steal and accelerating just before an opponent takes an annoying “Euro-foul” at half court to stop the break. Or the times he takes on three defenders himself because so few of his “wing” teammates (as the front office might refer to Tobias Harris and Al Horford) are built to keep pace, leading to a missed floater or kick-out for that bummer-barrage of Horford-Embiid trail 3s:
The Spurs “beautiful game” is rolling in its grave.
Whatever the case, the Sixers probably have a little room to grow here. If they could regress to the mean even a little bit in terms of transition efficiency, they could really get cooking with gas these playoffs:
Brett Brown identifies defensive versatility and the ability to play fast as reasons why he likes the Simmons-Thybulle-Korkmaz-Harris-Horford lineup and will have it as part of his rotation. pic.twitter.com/bgW5rD5A0L— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) July 17, 2020
Pulling it all together
I’m sure the team has considered all of this more thoroughly than I have. And to their credit, despite the suboptimal shooting profile, they boast an above average (13th overall) eFG%. So maybe they figure they have the midrange shooters to reliably connect from less-than-juicy spots and the defense to do the rest... like a football team with an elite D and Alex Smith as the QB, who just wants to eek out his 17 points, no turnover and a win. The dangerous flip side here might be the risk that facing playoff comp they suddenly regress to the mean from midrange during the playoffs and their eFG% utterly plummets.
I don’t think anything we looked at here would be newsworthy to this team. I’m sure they would have loved to get more looks at the rim, more corner 3s, and more free throws. The simplest answer is that the front-office’s mystifying off-season personnel moves just made it too easy for defenses to take away the highest value shots.
For a team who prides themselves on data, they’ll be flying a bit blind here down in the bubble. For Brown, I almost imagine it may be refreshing in some way. Now unencumbered by history, routine, data dossiers, player positions, resumes or contracts....Rip up the speech, go with your gut, speak from the heart, let the chips fall where they may. Shake it up and go make history.
 It’s a bit harder to knock Embiid for this. He’s 6th in the league in free throw attempts per game, so it’s entirely possible some of his midrange looks lure defenders into him and are then susceptible to rip throughs, pump fakes, and blow by’s.