Tonight, the Sixers will attempt to escape a four-game West Coast road trip with an even 2-2 record by toppling the league-leading Utah Jazz. It will be a matchup of the number one seeds in both conferences.
A tall task lies ahead of the Sixers. The Jazz are 22-5, have won 7 straight games, and 17 of their last 18. Despite missing point guard and likely All-Star Mike Conley, the team has continued to move the ball with Spursian aptitude and play better defense than nearly any team in the league.
The Sixers have now lost two straight. They let a heartbreaker slip away in Portland, and were most recently outdueled on Saturday afternoon in Phoenix.
Joel Embiid has continued to look like the MVP — his scoring average for the season is flirting with eclipsing 30 points per game. Ben Simmons has been especially aggressive with the ball in his hands lately, rattling off an impressive stretch of play that’s washed most of the taste of his poor performance to start the year out of Sixers fans’ mouths. Tobias Harris has kept up his steady and efficient scoring, and rightly vaulted himself into consideration for his first All-Star appearance.
So why is there some tepid concern emerging about this Sixers team?
Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey was widely hailed for his swift effort to reshape the team’s roster on draft night. He swapped out Al Horford and Josh Richardson for Danny Green and Seth Curry. The fruits of that labor are already showing, as the changes can be held at least somewhat responsible for the aforementioned hot starts for the team’s core players.
Lately, however, a troubling trend has surfaced that’s proven difficult to overcome for the East-leading Sixers: the team’s three-point marksmen have gone cold, and worse, they’ve stopped firing at the rate that the existence of entrenched stars like Simmons and Embiid demand them to.
The #sixers have fallen down to 27th in the league in 3-point attempt rate, while having a below average 3-point % (35.8%, 19th).— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) February 12, 2021
They're being outscored by nearly 7 points per game from behind the arc.
The Sixers have not hit more threes than an opponent since their January 27 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, when the Sixers made 9 threes to LA’s 8.
In the 8-game sampling since, the Sixers are 5-3 — still winning games but at a lower clip than they’ve proven capable of this season.
So why has this been happening?
It should be acknowledged that a team with Embiid and Simmons as its lead initiators is unlikely to be a top-5 team in three-point attempts. One player is a back-to-the-basket center who, while he can shoot and make threes, is best working in the midrange, in the post, or at the free throw line. The other player refuses to shoot threes altogether, despite generating a great deal of them for his teammates.
But the trend we’re seeing is a troubling one, and one that could ultimately hinder the team of the progress necessary to hold onto its number 1 seed and make a deep playoff run. In today’s NBA, shots from deep are prioritized more than ever before, and the Sixers cannot bank on being the one team to buck that trend and beat other good teams despite losing the battle from beyond.
So who, exactly, is to blame for the reason paucity? Let’s highlight some stats courtesy of my colleagues David Early and Tom West for a closer look:
On bright side the #Sixers starters have shot the 7th most 3s/min (0.6 3pa/min) for all 5 man units logging at least 250min. It’s the bench.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 12, 2021
They should continue to load Mgmt Jo, and that would mean adding a reasonable stretch big or small ball 4 for “let Ben cook” lineups https://t.co/nxg6C3evPN
The player-by-player numbers mostly support Early’s claim. Here are the three-point numbers for the non-Embiid and Simmons members of the team’s starting lineup, per 36 minutes:
Tobias Harris: 1.8 3PM / 4.4 3PA / 41.6 percent
Danny Green: 2.8 3PM / 7.5 3PA / 36.7 percent
Seth Curry: 2.7 3PM / 5.6 3PA / 48.3 percent
There are nits to pick. Harris and Curry are both making and attempting fewer threes than they did last year, but the incredible accuracy with which they’ve been firing helps to offset the dip in volume.
Looking to the bench, more worthy culprits stand out. Here are the three-point numbers for the team’s most commonly-used bench guys who aren’t named Dwight Howard, per 36 minutes:
Shake Milton: 1.5 3PM / 4.8 3PA / 30.6 percent
Matisse Thybulle: 1.1 3PM / 4.3 3PA / 26.5 percent
Furkan Korkmaz: 2.6 3PM / 7.9 3PA / 33.3 percent
Howard, of course, is a nonentity from beyond. He’s in Philadelphia to provide post defense, rebounding and hopefully not this much fouling in his bench minutes.
Korkmaz is firing about on par with his impressive season last year, he’s just making fewer.
Milton (who’s now out with an ankle injury) has struggled to find his shot from deep this season, and that’s likely affected the frequency with which he gets them up. Last season, for example, he attempted 6 threes per-36, sinking a scorching 43 percent of them. Doc Rivers and his staff must encourage the guard to keep firing, as he’s proven throughout his college and NBA careers to be a very capable shooter, and this team badly needs guys who are willing to let it fly.
Thybulle’s shot has regressed badly since his hot start at the beginning of his rookie season. He’s now completely ineffective on offense, as his three-point shot has plummeted nearly ten full percentage points from three point range, year-over-year. Were it not for his game-changing outlier wing defense, he’d find himself outside the rotation completely.
So what can the Sixers do to reverse this trend?
For one, Rivers can do away with any and all Simmons-Thybulle-Howard lineups. Playing three non-shooters at once is a death sentence, offensively, in the league today.
Lineups featuring Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and Dwight Howard have played 138 possessions this year, per @cleantheglass.— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) February 14, 2021
They’ve been outscored by 14.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 4th percentile leaguewide. pic.twitter.com/JOzbEi9Uei
Additionally, Rivers can mandate that players like Milton and Korkmaz ought to continue firing away; that their percentages will ascend with a larger sample size, should they keep after it.
The team can further prioritize ball and player movement, and capitalize when a shooter becomes uncovered from three.
Danny Green says the Sixers' lack of 3-point attempts is impacted by their ball movement or lack thereof. He says they need to get that going to help them generate more perimeter shots.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 13, 2021
Maybe Rivers can tinker a bit with his rotation — throwing some minutes Isaiah Joe’s way here and there (the rookie is attempting a healthy 9 threes per 36 minutes, making them at an even 40 percent clip).
Finally, Morey can get back to work on bringing in some more shooters.
He could look back to his old stomping grounds in Houston to try to acquire PJ Tucker, a versatile defender who would give the Sixers another option to play at the backup 5. Tucker has attempted 4.3 threes per-36 minutes since 2016, hitting 36 percent of them.
Last week, Sam Amick of The Athletic reported that the Sixers are keeping tabs on Nemanja Bjelica in Sacramento. Throughout his NBA career, Bjelica has attempted 5 threes per 36 and made 39 percent of them. He’s another bigger player with experience in the past playing some backup center.
Finally, the Sixers could reunite with JJ Redick. I’m on the record in saying I wouldn’t trade anything of value for JJ — who, at 36, has had a subpar season and recently fell out of the rotation altogether in New Orleans. While he’s a zero (at best) defensively and is certainly somewhat nearing retirement, he remains a conscious-less shooter whom opposing defenses continue to respect, if not fear. He’s still averaging 9 attempted threes per 36 minutes, and his addition could reignite the deadly dribble-hand-off two-man game he perfected with Embiid during his years in Philly. The Athletic’s Sham Charania recently reported that Redick and the Pelicans were nearing a divorce, and the Sixers were listed among the guard’s preferred destinations once he’s free.
However it happens, the Sixers need to shoot more threes. I’m looking forward to seeing how Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey might be able to solve this problem.
(All statistics within this piece are courtesy of Pro Basketball Reference.)