I’m generally a pessimistic person. Just a fact. Some of you may have reached that conclusion after reading my articles the past two weeks, often highlighting the Sixers’ problems rather than their bright spots.
Well, for a change of pace, I decided to write about the Sixer-y things that do bring me joy. But not just the basic, “at least Joel Embiid is awesome” water cooler talk that’s been popular this past week (which is understandable, he was awesome prior to suffering his minor ankle injury against Portland).
I want to talk about the small stuff, tendencies and plays so minuscule that they often don’t make the post-game highlights on YouTube, but warm the heart of a basketball nerd like myself.
Let’s get into it.
1. Al Horford’s passing
As I told Sean Kennedy in episode two of Talking About Podcast, the Sixers’ penchant for putrid passing is the most unattractive thing about them. So many post entries that get picked off. So many missed swings of the ball around the perimeter. So many high-lows that get bungled by poor accuracy and pass velocity.
Even Ben Simmons, whose 8.0 assists per game put him at fifth-best in the NBA, is more of a passing guru when it comes to finding cutters along the baseline, or whipping the ball back out after he has drawn several defenders in the paint. He excels in exploiting crevices during moments of chaos and movement, yet standstill, half-court passing from the top of the key leaves me wanting more from him, as he too can struggle at times with things as basic as a post entry.
Then there’s Al Horford, who’s much maligned in every sense of the word, but has impressed me with his reliability in distributing the ball to teammates.
The below kick out to Tobias Harris for an open 3 off the screen-and-roll with Ben Simmons was an absolute beauty.
The Sixers are filled with slow decision makers. Possession after possession, the ball gets swung around the perimeter, but not without each individual player taking his merry time, performing jab steps that gain him no leverage, and visibly pondering either a shot or maybe even a dribble (gasp), only to give up on said ambitions and pass the same burden on to his teammate. It’s the antithesis of the 2014 Spurs’ philosophy of half-a-second-or-less offense — that every time a player catches the ball, he has to either dribble, pass, or shoot within a half-second after receiving the pass, as any second spent making a decision after that is wasted time that usually leads to worse offense.
Horford eschews this problem that besets the Sixers, as he’s already decided based on his body positioning and the collapse of the Wizards’ defense that the ball must next find Harris, and whips it to him without a second thought.
Horford will even have subtle moments of manipulative passing, as he does here by staring down the high-low to Embiid just long enough to force Edmond Sumner to commit, only to reverse course and whip it to Furkan Korkmaz in the corner for an open 3.
Passes that bend the defense in uncomfortable directions like that are great, but Horford’s passing need not be so great every time in order for it to be appreciated. His ability to swing the ball to the open man without any hesitant thought and with proper placement and touch is enough that Sixers fans should take delight in the passing skills of the 108-million-dollar man (sorry, couldn’t resist).
2. The flare screen set for Tobias Harris
A complaint often levied against Brett Brown and his coaching staff is the lack of set plays that generate good looks for the few adequate shooters on the team. Most offensive possessions for the Sixers dwindle into five guys standing in place and doing very little as either Embiid backs down a man in the post or a perimeter player attempts an ill-fated drive straight into his defender’s chest.
Set plays, though they can be somewhat stagnant and restrictive, allow a team to generate pretty consistent scoring opportunities, as the Orlando Magic did in their game against the Sixers by running a staggered, double-ball-screen action on three straight possessions midway through the third quarter.
Tack on three made free throws from D.J. Augustin, and just like that, the Magic had scored eight points on three possessions, or 1.67 PPP (we could get into the Sixers’ absolute failure to defend said staggered-ball-screen action, but we’re gonna leave that alone in tribute to #positivevibesonly).
That’s why I really like this set the team often runs for Tobias Harris, having him first set a ball screen before receiving a flare screen meant to give him a shot from the wing for 3.
Just by the numbers, this play actually isn’t that great, as Harris has only shot 14-of-37 coming off flare screens this season, and overall, has only generated 0.881 PPP. However, simply beginning an attack with this play serves to contort the defense in ways they don’t necessarily want to, and can progress into some very good looks, such as a cleared-out isolation for Embiid or a ball reversal back to Harris for an even easier 3 than before.
Of course, it also can progress into a horrid Josh Richardson hook shot as it did in the final clip there, but hey, you live and you learn.
3. Norvel Pelle and his nasty screens
Pelle has endeared himself to the fanbase, as he’s equally likely to produce a ridiculous sequence of blocked shots as he is to foul the living crap out of everything in sight and drop routine chest passes. If anything, he would have been the perfect player for a “Hinkie special” contract.
Another place where his boom-or-bust chaotic energy translates is his ball screens, as he’s very aggressive in seeking out contact. Just watch here how he nails Cam Payne and completely takes him out of this play.
He admittedly might be a bit too aggressive as a screener, as in that same game against the Suns, he got whistled for two offensive fouls, first for sticking out his butt in an attempt to check Payne, and a second time where he straight up ran over Ricky Rubio in hilarious fashion.
But even if he’s mistake-prone, I would rather have a go-for-it type of screener that risks foul calls in favor of trying to create advantages than a softie who might as well just slip everything. One constant theme throughout the history of the league is that the refs can’t call everything and teams that take advantage, such as the Bad Boys Pistons with fouling and the ‘90s Sonics with their SOS zone defense, are rewarded.
Pelle even managed to get the upper hand on Mikal Bridges, one of the best ball screen navigators in the NBA, not once, but twice!
Two good screens, and the results are two made buckets for the Sixers’ struggling offense. There’s a lot of reasons to love Pelle, and his ambitious screening is just the most recent one for me.
(Also, completely random here, but Synergy tracks something called miscellaneous offensive possessions, of which Pelle has 15 and has scored a league worst 0.067 points per possession on said plays. Never change, Norvel!)
4. The Subtle Genius of Ben Simmons
Remember that awesome pass Simmons made to Neto during the Pacers loss? Well, if you don’t, here it is again.
It was so simple, yet so perfect. Neto hits Simmons at the elbow and cuts on his shoulder in picture-perfect fashion. Simmons turns his butt at the exact right time to block out Aaron Holiday, and then it’s an easy layup for the Brazilian point guard.
Of course, the chances of Simmons returning to the bubble are as close to zero as humanly possible following the surgery he had Monday to remove the loose body from his left knee. It sucks that we probably won’t get to see more of these kinds of special plays anytime soon.
And it is truly special. Just watch Horford, the next best passer on the team after Simmons in my opinion, fail to make the same play with the same opportunity presented three different times.
This isn’t even a knock on Horford. That’s a tough play to make and the offense he generated out of those elbow touches was ultimately fine. The greater takeaway is that Simmons is a special, special player that can do things on the court that probably only 10 other people on earth can do.
The Sixers, for all their flaws, have two incredible young players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Two guys, who in spite of the sentiment that’s been hammered home by non-Philadelphians that one of them must be dealt away, have posted a plus-12.16 Net Rating in 481 career playoff minutes together, according to our own Jackson Frank.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have a +12.16 net rating in 481 career playoff minutes together.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) August 9, 2020
So yes, it sucks for all Sixers fans that the transcendent point forward’s season is over before the postseason has even begun. But let us take solace in the fact that we cheer and root for a team that has a transcendent point forward to begin with.