So far this season, Nerlens Noel has been among the best rim protectors in the league.
In fact, as Max Rappaport pointed out yesterday, nobody who has defended at least 7 field goal attempts per game at the rim has held opponents to a lower field goal percentage than Noel's 27.3%. Roy Hibbert, who has held opponents to 32.4% at the rim on 11.3 attempts per game, is the closest.
The impact this has had on the 76ers team defense has been incredible. Last season, Sixers opponents had the third best field goal percentage within 5 feet of the rim, shooting an incredible 61.7%. So far this season, that has flipped: Sixers opponents have the third worst field goal percentage within 5 feet, shooting only 50.9%
That pace is somewhat unsustainable, as Roy Hibbert led the league (among players defending at least 7 field goal attempts at the rim per game) last season at 41.1%. Still, the impact of an elite level shot blocker can have on a team defensively is undeniable. After finishing 26th in defensive rating a year ago, the Sixers are now at a much more respectable 18th. With Noel on the court, Sixers opponents are shooting only 41.6% from the field. That jumps to 52.7% when he's on the bench.
But Noel failed to have the same impact defensively against the Heat as he did in the previous two games.
Part of this was no doubt fatigue, which Brett Brown cited after the game.
"I'm going to put that into fatigue," Brown said. "[Noel] plays with such high energy, and he's competitive. I think when I looked on the floor tonight I felt that there wasn't an energized, A+ athlete."
The Sixers were on the second half of a back to back, having returned to Philadelphia after playing in Milwaukee the tonight before. It was also their third game in four nights, with Noel playing 35 minutes per game in the previous two games.
There may have been another factor at play, however: The Miami Heat's personnel. With big men in Chris Bosh and Shawne Williams who can both hit from three point range, the Sixers defense was stretched out more than it normally is, with Nerlens Noel recovering to the perimeter to try to contest shots. Williams shot 3-5 from three point range on his way to 15 points for the Heat, and Chris Bosh shot 2-5 from distance, scoring a game high 30 points in the process.
In the Sixers first game, the Pacers attempted 7 shots at the rim with Noel defending, of which they only made one. The second game against the Bucks saw Noel tested 12 times, with the Bucks only connecting on 3. On Saturday, the Heat only challenged him 3 times all game.
Part of that was the Sixers own undoing. The Sixers committed 26 turnovers, which was as many as the Indiana (11) and Milwaukee (16) games combined, which led to 19 fast break points and 34 points off of turnovers, both of which are the highest the Sixers have given up on this short season.
But part of that was also style of play. With big men so proficient at shooting from the perimeter, Noel wasn't in the paint as much as he was in other games. It's those kind of matchups that are destined to cause the Sixers trouble, as it neutralizes the Sixers greatest strength, and exposes their youth and relative unfamiliarity with each other, placing a premium on crisp team rotations that aren't likely to be there yet.
The combination of fast break points the Sixers gave the Heat, as well as their proficiency from the perimeter and the limited effectiveness of Nerlens Noel due to the Heat floor spacing resulted in Miami having a 115.3 offensive rating, the highest mark of a Sixers opponent so far this year.
"In my head I'm going back and forth trying to feel which one is better, all under the umbrella of I'm not sure I like any of them," Brown said when debating whether he preferred going small in an attempt to defend the perimeter or go big to try to control the boards.
Beyond the immediate defensive concerns, the bigger picture may be whether the Sixers can ever attain that level of floor spacing and mismatches in their own offense. While Joel Embiid may show some positive signs in his ability to develop a jump shot, and the coaching staff continues to work with Nerlens Noel day in and day out to develop any form of a reliable jump shot, the odds of either of them becoming near what Chris Bosh is from the perimeter is incredibly unlikely, much less having both who can hit from the perimeter and cause havoc on a defense like the Heat can.
On the season, Noel is shooting 1-8 beyond 5 feet.
Obviously, the Sixers version of the twin towers will have other, incredibly unique, strengths. And the pair may not be on the court as much as anticipated, as Brown is likely to want to keep an elite shot blocker on the court for as much of the game as possible. Still, while the defensive pairing of Embiid and Noel is potentially jaw dropping, it's impossible not to wonder whether the two can co-exist offensively.
Tony Wroten's Ridiculous Shot Chart
One of the pleasant surprises to start the season has been Tony Wroten, who has averaged 19 points and 7.7 assists so far this season, getting to the line at a staggering rate, with a free throw rate of 69.8%.
30 free throw attempts to 43 field goal attempts is patently absurd, but it highlights what has been Tony Wroten's greatest strength: getting to the rim.
Wroten has made 19 field goals so far this season. Of those 19, 17 have come from within 3 feet of the basket. The other two? Three pointers.
Wroten is the biggest beneficiary of the Sixers frenetic style of play, as 12 of his 17 field goals made within 3 feet of the hoop have come in transition. 9.3 of his 19 points per game have come off of turnovers, with by far the most points coming from turnovers on the team: Nerlens Noel gets the second most points off turnovers on the team, at 2.0 per game.
Wroten's efficiency plummets in the half-court, where he is shooting less than 30% from the field, and where he has nearly as many turnovers as assists, although this has been buoyed by the previously mentioned incredible free throw rate.
How much of this is sustainable is an open question. You would have to expect his free throw rate to decline, as getting to the line at his current rate would be unprecedented, although you would hope he could bring his free throw percentage up above the 56.7% he's currently shooting, which should help offset a drop in free throw rate.
Still, you would have to imagine that at some point he's going to have to make a shot between 3' and the three point line. You would also have to assume that, at some point, he's going to need to drive the ball to his right: taking a look at the 5 previously mentioned made half-court field goals within 5 feet, 4 of those 5 have been with him going to his left.
Even if we can't yet determine what is sustainable with regards to Tony Wroten, the human wrecking ball has been fun to watch in this early season.