The 76ers’ offense might be in trouble this season
If you were asked who the most important players on the Philadelphia 76ers are, at least with respect to their chances of long-term contention, one of the first people who usually comes to mind is the big-mouthed, freakishly-gifted center, Joel Embiid. After that, you might think of the redshirt rookie of the year and playmaking phenom, Ben Simmons. Finally, you would list the former number one overall pick who currently happens to be one of the most polarizing players in the league, Markelle Fultz.
Embiid is a physically dominant behemoth whose spectacular, cerebral play on both ends of the court is bolstered by top-tier athleticism for his size. While he’s adept at scoring from the low post, which is expected from him, he’s also displayed a capability to expand his range out to the three-point line, hoisting up 3.4 threes a game and connecting on 30.8 percent of them.
Simmons, on the other hand, is a 6’10” point guard whose blinding speed and thunderous fast-break dunks have drawn many comparisons to a young LeBron James. Also, due to his size, Simmons possesses a court vision that is unparalleled by almost anyone else in the league, and since most point guards are incapable of properly defending him, Simmons’ presence forces opposing teams to switch their own big men on to him, which makes Simmons a walking mismatch.
Fultz has had a rough go of it in the NBA due to a rather mysterious shoulder injury, but one doesn’t need to look too far back to his college days at Washington, where he was a jack-of-all-trades star. Fultz could create shots for himself and others, efficiently score from any point on the court and has the athletic versatility to guard multiple positions on the floor. While his professional career hasn’t panned out to be anything close to this picture so far, Fultz showed enough flashes of potential during the few games he played his rookie season to keep the Sixers’ front office optimistic about his future; for instance, he was the youngest player in league history to record a triple-double.
With a big three of budding stars that hold such a wealth of talent, one then wonders why the Sixers are so offensively inconsistent. We saw it in the season opener, where they only mustered up 87 points, in an 18-point loss against a Boston squad that showcased a rusty Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. We saw it in last year’s playoffs, where a depleted Celtics roster managed to rather easily dispatch a healthy Sixers squad in five games, despite the talent disparity between the two teams. We even saw it a little over halfway through the past regular season, when the team had a record of 25-25 despite possessing the 4th best defensive rating in the league.
So… what gives?
The answer most likely lies in the fact that the Sixers rely on offensive spacing more heavily than any almost any other team in the league. If Simmons or Fultz wants to have their playmaking talents maximized, they need elite shooters surrounding them, especially if the two are sharing time on the court. Philadelphia’s unconventional backcourt will likely wind up taking by far the fewest threes per game out of all the starting backcourts in the NBA. While Fultz can be described as a reluctant shooter at best, Simmons has completely abstained from shooting threes at all, only attempting 11 throughout last season.
Last season, Ben Simmons was able to thrive by starting alongside elite shooters in J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric, who combined to hit roughly 7.3 three-pointers a game at a clip of 39.2 percent. Factor in the decent shooting that Embiid also provides, as previously stated, and it’s no wonder why Simmons was able to capture Rookie of the Year when he had all that space to work with. Beyond that, the Sixers became a legitimately deadly offensive team and boasted a record of 23-5 after picking up Marco Belinelli, and later Ersan Ilyasova, to bolster their shooting off the bench. After the acquisition of Belinelli, the Sixers hit 37.6 percent of the threes they took and made 12 per game, which would have ranked second in the league in efficiency and third in the league in the volume of threes taken.
Unfortunately, despite all this spacing, Philadelphia still faced a rather ignominious defeat at the hands of Boston in the playoffs, bowing out in just five games. The team only made 30.9 percent of their threes and connected on just 8.4 of them a game. Covington, Embiid, Ilyasova, and Belinelli all shot poorly, which was in large part due to Boston’s physical defensive scheme. When Simmons was holding the ball at the three-point line, the Celtics looked off of him as if he were an oversized Rajon Rondo, and instead focused on more closely defending the perimeter shooters, since the threat of Simmons’ elite inside game was mitigated by Embiid clogging the paint. Without other talented playmakers to ease the offensive load, Simmons looked underwhelming against Boston and was seemingly outplayed by his backup, T.J. McConnell, at times.
In the months that have passed since then, Belinelli and Ilyasova have been replaced by Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala. Incoming rookies Jonah Bolden, Zhaire Smith (currently injured), and Landry Shamet are expected to shore up the end of the bench. Most notably, however, Markelle Fultz has usurped the starting shooting guard role from J.J. Redick.
Chandler and Muscala are very curious acquisitions. Chandler is a willing shooter from distance and fits the mold of the Sixers’ past gunners by hoisting up 4.7 threes a game over the past four seasons he’s played, but his career three-point percentage is 34.5 percent, which is very slightly above the league average efficiency. Muscala is likely one of the best pure shooting big men that Simmons has played with, connecting on 39 percent of the threes he took over the past two years and attempting 4.3 of them per 36 minutes. Will they be enough to fill in the gap left behind from Philadelphia’s two previous mid season acquisitions? Probably not, but they could very well come close.
The rookies will not make much of an impact this season, especially with Smith injured for an indefinite amount of time with a broken foot, but Shamet was an elite shooter from distance in college, doing his best Redick impersonation by hitting 44.1 percent on just over 5 three-pointers attempted per game in the two years he received significant playing time. If Shamet manages to catch fire during the early portion of the regular season and earn extended minutes, it could very well change the complexion of the team. Bolden also showed promise with a shot from distance in his years playing overseas, but it’s evident that will be a work in progress, much like how Richaun Holmes flirted with adding a three-pointer to his offensive arsenal for years.
Most interestingly, Fultz has taken over the role as the starting two guard. This move has been justified as a part of getting Fultz up to speed with his team and the NBA itself, and while it is likely going to be beneficial in the long-term, this will hurt the Sixers’ offense for the time being. Fultz is still very raw to the professional game, and not yet finished reworking his jump shot to the point where he has regained confidence in it. Suddenly, the Sixers offense that saw Ben Simmons surrounded by three-point snipers is now composed of two non-shooters, one average shooter, and two good-to-elite shooters. However, with the compromised spacing between Fultz and Simmons, opponents can key in on Covington, Saric, and Embiid with a renewed intensity, thus likely forcing them into taking worse shots. If this issue isn’t resolved, we could see some regression in terms of their three-point shooting percentages. If Fultz can regain even a semblance of his college magic and trust his shot again, or in a more likely scenario, if Embiid takes a step forward with his accuracy and becomes an above-average three-point shooter in his own right, this could pay dividends for the Sixers. In that case, they have an added playmaker on the court in Fultz, and Redick’s elite shooting can support both the starters as well as the bench if his minutes get staggered properly. As we saw in the season opener, though, it appears as if the Sixers have a long way to go before reaching
If Philadelphia wants to reach the same offensive peak that they did last season, where they looked like a well-oiled machine led by a deadly conductor in Ben Simmons, they have their work cut out for them. They will likely face plenty of early struggles on offense, especially with their spotty health to start the season off, although having a disciple of the legendary Gregg Popovich coaching them in Brett Brown means that this challenge is far from insurmountable. And, who knows, anything is possible if you trust the process.