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Three reasons the Sixers lost to the Hawks

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers have been eliminated from the playoffs in devastating fashion: a home loss in a game 7 to a team that, before the series, seemed to be inferior. This comes after an embarrassing exit to the 2019-20 playoffs, being swept in the opening round by their arch rival Boston Celtics, and a heartbreaking end to the 2018-2019 playoffs, dropping game 7 on a quad-doink buzzer beater.

Such tragedy has fans out for blood. Ben Simmons is the subject of a lot blame and scrutiny and understandably so. We will touch on Ben’s shortcomings below, but there are two other areas which cost the Sixers the series. These weaknesses have existed for what feels like eons. Having a solution to any one of these three would have resulted in an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Let’s dive in.

Turnovers... what else is new?

The Sixers averaged more points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game than the Hawks. The Sixers also had a higher field goal percentage and three-point percentage than the Hawks across the seven-game series. The only two main statistical areas that the Hawks outperformed the Sixers were free throw percentage and turnovers. We are all well aware of Simmons’ poor free throw shooting — and by extension, that of the Sixers — so let’s tackle turnovers first.

In the Sixers’ losses, their turnover totals were 19, 12, 15 and 17. That’s an average of 15.75 turnovers per game, which for the regular season, would have placed the Sixers between the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 29th ranked 15.5 turnovers per game and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 30th ranked 16.1 turnovers per game. Three Sixers’ losses saw turnover rates of at least 16.5%, meaning that the Sixers pretty much gave away a bit less than a fifth of their possessions in three games.

Taking a look at their three victories, the Sixers turned the ball over 7, 10 and 11 times for an average of 9.33 turnovers per game — a rate that would rank as the best in the league in the 2020-21 NBA regular season and in any season in recent history for that matter. But the Sixers didn’t need to be historically good at taking care of the ball, they just needed to not be league worst. Too often, they failed to meet that extremely low bar.

How about the Hawks? They turned the ball over frequently in games 1 and 2, with 15 and 17 turnovers respectively. In Game 1, the Sixers failed to capitalize, outdoing the Hawks with carelessness (Sixers 19 TOV to Hawks 15). Game 2, things flipped and the Sixers claimed the turnover margin (7 to 17) and the win. But for the remainder of the series, the Hawks righted their ship. They turned the ball over no more than 12 times in any of the last five games. Overall, the Hawks won the raw turnover margin with 83 turnovers to the Sixers’ 95 and had less turnovers in four of seven games.

In all four of the Sixers losses, they lost the turnover margin. In all three of the Sixers wins, they won the turnover margin. Hey, that’s why it’s one of the four factors. And losing the turnover margin is especially detrimental when you are a team whose defensive identity rests in part on its ability to generate turnovers, as the Sixers led the NBA in steals during the regular season (their 655 steals tied the Grizzlies).

What makes the Sixers’ turnover woes so painful is that it’s been the team’s Achilles heel for the last 8 seasons. Ever since Doug Collins left town, the Sixers have been a turnover machine. There’s truth to arguments that the Sixers have so many turnovers because they make so many passes as a team. In 2020-21, the Sixers led the NBA in passes per game with 308.0 and during the Brett Brown years they were always near the top of the league, if not at the top. But as this offensive philosophy has now spanned two coaching regimes, at some point, the players, coaches and front office have to wonder if the easy shots they generate from so much motion is outweighed by their propensity for turnovers. After all, the Sixers, despite passing more than any team in the league this season, finished the regular season 23rd in assists per game at 23.6 and against the Hawks averaged about the same at 23.7. It’s a lot more hot potato than strategy.

Ben’s free throw shooting… what else is new?

When it comes to free throw shooting, the Sixers converted poorly not just against the Hawks but in the playoffs more generally. In fact, they had the worst free throw percentage of any playoff team at 68.5% and shot a smidge worse than that against the Hawks at 67.0%.

Clear to all who watched, Ben Simmons played a large role in drowning the team’s efficiency. Simmons shot 15-45 (33.3%) from the charity stripe against the Hawks, which means he left at most 30 points at the line. (The Hawks point differential combined in all four of their wins was only +17 points.) For me, this is the single biggest area of criticism of Ben Simmons. Not passing up an open dunk with the nearest defender being little ol’ Trae Young, not a shortage of shot attempts, not an absence of aggression. I mean, for crying out loud, even 60% from the line on Ben’s part (about his career average, so not asking a whole lot) might have propelled the Sixers to victory in the series. For example, in games 4 and 5, the Sixers lost both by three points. Ben combined for 5-19 (26.3%) on free throws in those two games — 14 points forfeited from the box score.

It is almost unbelievable that an NBA player could shoot 33.3% from the line over 45 attempts. Simmons has recently stated that he feels his shooting woes are mental and it’s hard to explain it any other way. And on some level, it’s understandable. The opposition is intentionally putting Ben on the line, he’s uncomfortable, the stakes are high, the whole world is watching and things can pretty easily spiral from there. Any one who has ever been in a high pressure situation can understand this to some degree. Ben’s a human being, too.

But if — and that might be a big ‘if’ at the moment — the Sixers are to move forward with Ben as a member of the team, he HAS to fix his free throw shooting. His redemption story must start there. His discomfort is very obviously become untenable for a team with championship aspirations. It’s not just about missing free throws. It’s that other aspects of Ben’s offensive game suffers from his unwillingness to be put on the line and that free throw shooting is fundamental to establishing a context for shooting.

Bench depth… what else is new?

The Sixers bench does not present the team a strategic advantage. I don’t think this is breaking news. Shake Milton can get hot, but when he’s not scoring 16 off the bench, he’s a liability. Similar-ish rule of thumb for Furkan Korkmaz, though I appreciate his quick trigger and shot selection. Tyrese Maxey, god bless his heart, is not yet a reliable backup point guard given his defensive flaws. So as I am about to focus on the backup center predicament, let it be known that I acknowledge the rest of the bench has its flaws too. Doc Rivers made some very questionable rotation decisions, like leaving Shake Milton in games when he was clearly costing the team points. But I have to wonder whether the Sixers would lose the series if they had a stretch big to fill in for Embiid when he needed a breather.

Liberty Ballers community members have been skeptical of the Simmons-Howard pairing since Dwight Howard was signed in the summer of 2020. Over the course of the season, their skepticism has been proven valid as the Sixers hemorrhage leads when the duo takes the floor. Doc Rivers deserves some credit for going away from the pairing as the season progressed and looking to Mike Scott to play small-ball five. But landing on Mike Scott because, well, who else? ... this is not a reliable course of action for the playoffs!

Scott played just a single minute in the Hawks series during garbage time of game 2, and (maybe) rightfully so. Howard’s minutes were limited and especially so when Simmons was on the court. Still, even with Doc Rivers limiting Howard’s minutes and the decision not to play Scott, the backup big situation presented issues against the Hawks.

Howard simply is not the player he once was offensively. When Howard was on the floor against the Hawks, the Sixers offensive rating was a horrid 89.5. Howard is a brick shithouse of a screener, but the Sixers do not have a consistent pick-and-roll ball handler, negating some of Howard’s offensive value. Outside of screening and grabbing the occasional offensive board, Howard is mostly relegated to being a lob threat. But again, you need a reliable and crafty ball handler to get Howard those lobs.

With his options limited to Embiid and Howard at center, Rivers upped Embiid’s minutes as the series progressed. Through the first four games, Embiid averaged 35.7 minutes per game. In the final three games of the series, Embiid was up to 39.6 minutes per game, about four more minutes per game. Joel was also playing on a partially torn meniscus. The minutes and the state of his health started to add up as Embiid was visibly fatigued late in the series. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

In games 1 through 4, the Sixers 4th quarter offensive rating with Embiid on the floor was 109.8 while Embiid’s true shooting mark was 52.6%. Across games 5 through 7 (when Embiid’s minutes were up), that 4th quarter offensive rating plummeted to 95.5 while Embiid’s true shooting was down to 47.2%. More importantly, Embiid averaged 13.75 free throws per game in games 1 through 4 versus 9.00 per game in games 5 through 7 — certainly, I’d say, a symptom of fatigue as his willingness to bang and draw fouls declined.

If the Sixers had a sexier offensive option over Howard, someone who could complement Ben Simmons rather than exacerbate his flaws, we might be preparing for a Bucks-Sixers Eastern Conference Finals. For one, it’s likely a stretch big is an instant offensive upgrade over Howard, who turns the ball over left and right and misses free throws often. And if one is the case, then two is that Doc Rivers may have been more comfortable playing Jo around 36 minutes.

Sixers fans have known the backup center position to be a major source of instability for the team going on four seasons. The answer is not to bring in another starting center for $109 million and move him out of position for large portions of the game, nor is the answer scrape the bottom of the barrel for the carcass of Greg Monroe or in-the-twilight-of-his-career Dwight Howard. A nice middle ground seems appropriate. The Sixers need to find a Chris Boucher or Nemanja Bjelica of their own this offseason (again, presuming Ben Simmons is a Sixer next season).

Insanity, it has been said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In the NBA, you are strong as your greatest weaknesses, because coaches are smart and they will scheme against them relentlessly over seven games. The issues that cost the no. 1-seeded Sixers their finals run are the same issues the team has been dealing with for four years. Maybe a big shake up is what’s needed. Or maybe small but meaningful adjustments to issues that have existed and been exploited for years is what’s needed.

But one thing we can all agree on is that the Sixers need to take a serious look in the mirror as an organization this offseason and figure out what kind of team they want to be, before they risk losing everything the Process worked toward. If they are to keep their core intact, the three issues laid out above absolutely must be addressed or we are likely to find ourselves having the same discussions following next postseason as the Sixers sit on the outside looking in.

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