One of head coach Doc Rivers’ most common refrains in support of Ben Simmons throughout much of last season was Simmons’ penchant for creating threes, despite his own aversions to the long ball. And Rivers is factually correct here. Since Simmons entered the league four seasons ago, only Russell Westbrook has assisted on more threes, according to PBP Stats.
Yet for someone who regularly offered a tagline implying the importance of threes, the shot profile of his Philadelphia 76ers last season did not reflect that sentiment. League-wide, their three-point rate of .347 ranked 25th. Many of their losses felt like an uphill climb in a losing battle against math.
In defense of Rivers, his team’s two top scorers, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, gravitate toward and excel from midrange. Constructing an offense with those two at the core is going to enforce some constraints on three-point volume. But 25th can’t suffice for a team whose offense was its undoing a season ago and touts a bevy of capable shooters across the rotation.
Embiid is aware of these dynamics and has acknowledged them in each of his first two appearances with media to open the 2021-22 season. At Monday’s Media Day, he said he plans to take more triples this year after notching a career-low three-point rate of .171 in 2020-21. Thursday, he reiterated those intentions.
“I’m usually pretty wide-open. I just want to take advantage of it and help the team. I feel like over the years, probably except my first two years here playing, when we had JJ (Redick) and Marco (Belinelli) — we used to launch threes and shoot a lot of them — and then I feel like since then, we haven’t taken advantage of it,” said Embiid, who shot a career-high 37.7 percent from deep last season. “It has to be on all of us, not necessarily (just) me. Seth (Curry) has to shoot; he’s a great shooter, one of the best ever. He has to shoot way more. Tobias (Harris) definitely, he’s just got to let it fly. And then obviously, we’ve got Danny (Green), who’s not afraid to let it fly. But I think as a team, we just need to shoot more of them.”
To Harris’ credit, he said two primary areas of focus for him during the off-season were growing more comfortable taking contested threes and threes off the dribble. His inclination is typically to attack when the ball swings his way, but it would behoove him and the Sixers to exchange some of the midrange buckets for threes.
Rivers’ response to his offensive focal points stressing the value of threes was to suggest that conclusion did not arise internally, but rather from him, noting they “emphasized it too last year.” If that’s the case, though, such an emphasis didn’t translate to the offense.
Seven of the 11 Sixers who received rotation minutes at varying points were sufficient shooters. Some of them — Curry, Green, Harris, Furkan Korkmaz and George Hill — ranged from good to excellent. Rivers often says he doesn’t worry much about how the offense comes, just that it comes. But those concepts are intertwined. How the offense comes helps shape that it comes. And following Saturday’s practice, he harped on the vitality of quality looks all over the floor, not just beyond the arc.
“Last year, we wanted as many threes as we could get,” Rivers said. “But we want layups, too. I always go back to (the) Golden State (Warriors) and I use that as an example. Golden State led the league in layups, too, and drives and taking the ball to the basket. You need both. If you only shoot 3s, you’re not gonna win. That’s been proven. If you only shoot layups, you’re not gonna win, so you gotta have both, but you gotta get it organically in the right way.”
Again, Rivers is correct here. An overreliance on threes can be a pitfall, while layups are a prolific well of offense. The issue, however, is that prioritizing layups and drives did not manifest in the Sixers’ approach offensively last season.
According to NBA.com, they ranked 19th in drives per game. They also ranked 18th in rim frequency and fifth in midrange frequency, according to Cleaning The Glass. The latter is notably influenced by Embiid’s and Harris’ preference for the intermediate zones, but the point remains that the Sixers aren’t exactly eschewing threes in favor of layups.
Simmons’ absence stands to further limit this team’s volume from deep. His transition playmaking, dribble hand-offs and inverted pick-and-pop game paired well with Philadelphia’s glut of bombers. Both Rivers and Embiid have talked about the progress of Tyrese Maxey’s assimilation to the starting point guard spot and how trying to replicate Simmons’ uptempo nature will be crucial, in part because of how he generates so many threes with that style.
Simmons is predisposed to simply play in the open floor and spray passers to shooters on the break. For the Sixers to fashion a more palatable playoff offense, predisposition cannot dictate their game plan. There must be a concerted effort — one borne through the actual numbers, not just shared through soundbites — from players and coaches to hunt better shots.
“If we score 130 by taking more threes in a game, I’m fine,” Rivers said. “We score 130 by driving and getting layups, I’m fine. But we gotta score. What we can’t have is empty possessions.”
Nor can they have a shot profile that starkly skews away from the rim and the arc, while still expecting to actualize their championship vision.