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How the Sixers have changed their offense post-James Harden

After running the slow through the slow, methodical pick-and -rolls of James Harden, the Sixers have sped up the pace this season, and turned Tyrese Maxey, Joel Embiid and the rest of this athletic roster loose.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023-24 Philadelphia 76ers are tired of waiting.

Tired of waiting to make it past the second round of the playoffs. Tired of waiting till the trade deadline to move off of Joel Embiid’s disgruntled co-star. And perhaps most importantly, they got tired of waiting so long to get into their offense.

The following argument must be prefaced with this — the Sixers had a great offense with James Harden and Doc Rivers.

During their one full season together in the City of Brotherly Love, the Sixers averaged 118.3 points per 100 possessions, which was good for the third-most efficient offense in the NBA during the 2022-23 season according to Cleaning the Glass.

But it was also very frustrating just how long everything took to develop. The Sixers finished with the third-slowest pace in the entire NBA last season according to PBP Stats. Harden was so slow moving the ball up the court that the Sixers were in danger of getting multiple eight-second violations each game.

Things are a whole lot different here in 2023-24. With the keys handed over to Tyrese Maxey, Nick Nurse and a much more wing-heavy roster, the Sixers have sped the offense up. They’re up to 13th in pace according to PBP Stats, and on average their possession time is down by nearly one whole second from this season to last. That might seem trivial, but in a world where you have only 24 seconds to hit the rim, every tick on the clock matters.

Obviously any transition possession off a miss or a turnover will lead to a fast possession on offense. But it’s in the halfcourt where Philly looks much different.

Nurse has leaned heavily on “FLIP” action so far this season, which is essentially just schematic jargon for a dribble hand-off where one player comes flying in downhill from the backcourt and “flips” the ball back to the player coming from the side. With how fast and athletic this new Sixers team is, they’ve punished teams with this simple action.

What’s great about this simple play is that practically everyone on the Sixers can run it. Most often it’s run with Maxey and Embiid — by far the two best players on the court — but guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tobias Harris will get involved too. All four can also switch easily between roles, either initiating the offense and flipping the ball back, or by running in from the side to receive the pitch.

The second option off this play is also very easily built in. The players bringing the ball up can just fake the flip, and drive to the paint themselves, or bee line to the opposite slot, and flip it to a different Sixers’ player for a DHO. In particular, Nurse and Co. love getting the ball to Oubre in the slot once they’ve started a play with “Fake Flip.” He’s perhaps the most vertically gifted athlete on the team, and a handful for defenses to deal with if he builds up steam going downhill. All it takes is an opponent getting beat by the normal way the Sixers run “Flip” a few too many times, and they’ll start cheating up, giving Tsunami Papi and the gang a runway to punish them with this counter.

It shows a great understanding of what this roster is and what it does best.

In 2022-23, the Sixers’ offensive identity was based entirely around having the league MVP and one of the greatest pick-and-roll passers the sport has ever seen. Guys like Maxey and Harris could play off of it, but they were never truly given the keys. Harden was in the driver seat, and he wanted to take things slowly, at his own pace, as he’s always done.

He’s not in Philadelphia anymore. Instead, it’s a roster with the best version of Maxey we’ve ever seen, a Harris who is driving and finishing at career-best marks, an athletic trio of forwards in Oubre, Robert Covington, and Nic Batum, and an Embiid who has looked ready to send a message from the jump.

Fans have loved Nurse’s new defensive philosophy, with the Sixers constantly rotating, closing out, and making extra efforts. This constant flow of dribble hand-offs and quick downhill actions are in line with that philosophy too. In 2023-24, the Sixers want to make their opponents deal with their athleticism and aggression every second of every game.

Even Embiid, who still operates at the most modest pace of anyone on the squad, seems to have taken the message in stride. One area that shows up most is in his pick-and-rolls with Maxey on the left side of the floor. Opponents will often play “Ice” coverage vs. Maxey on these plays, where the man defending Maxey forces the young guard to the corner, forcing him to reject the ball screen Embiid wants to set. It’s meant to keep Maxey from getting to the middle of the floor, and to force him to his weaker left hand.

Defenses will do whatever they can to take away the Kentucky guard’s runway.

So how does Embiid help counter? Well obviously, Maxey can kick it out to him for open threes behind the arc, which the star center has been shooting very well on so far this year. However, another way is with a “Stampede” on the closeout. That’s when as the ball is being thrown in the player’s direction, he starts running before he’s caught the ball. If the defender closes out to the perimeter with any kind of force, running into the catch like this virtually guarantees an easier driving lane.

Running into the catch like this is a step further than making a quick decision with the ball in your hands. It’s making a decision before the ball even reaches your hands.

Add all of this faster, downhill mindset the Sixers are playing with to start this young season, and you get the second-most efficient offense in the entire NBA, per Cleaning the Glass. Only Tyrese Haliburton and the Indiana Pacers score more than 120.3 points per 100 possessions like the Sixers do. Couple that blistering offense with the Sixers fifth-ranked defense, and you get a 6-1 squad with the second-best Net rating in the entire league.

There’s no guarantee that all of this holds up for the duration of the entire season. The Sixers have still played a relatively easy schedule. Some of their key players have shot unsustainably well from the three-point line. Heck, their season isn’t even 10% of the way over yet. A lot can change between now and April.

But it’s clear that the Sixers’ plan on offense in this post-Harden world is a different one. Harden said it — he’s a system unto himself. With him in Los Angeles, the Sixers decided to scrap the Harden-ball offense for the turbo charged Maxey, Embiid and wings group.

And at least so far, it looks like Harden might have needed the Sixers’ roster more than the team needed the Harden system.

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