Moore: The Sixers’ Move Away From Analytics Won’t Solve Their Bigger Problems
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Joel Embiid (left) and Ben Simmons.
There’s a weird kind of twisted irony in the Sixers firing Brett Brown and hiring Doc Rivers as coach.
The Clippers basically opted to pin the team’s foibles on not only the supporting players like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, but also on the star players they were so proud of acquiring in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
When you don’t know what else you can do, you fire the coach.
Now the Sixers have taken the same approach, hiring Rivers in large part to fix the same kinds of problems the Clippers had that led to Rivers’ dismissal, and much like with the Clippers, the problems are only going to be solved by their best players.
The new front office that’s taken shape under Elton Brand is going to be a far cry from the Trust The Process days under Sam Hinkie. Take this quote from Brand when discussing the future of the team after its first-round exit and the planned overhaul of both the coaching staff and front office:
“As I’ve been taking a deep dive in where we failed, what went wrong, and how we can get better, I felt like we need to strengthen our organization from top to bottom, and that starts with the front office,” Brand said. “Balancing our strengths and analytics and basketball strategy with more basketball minds, and whatever happens. My goal, with whatever happens going forward, is making sure we are in position to truly contend.”
That’s pretty clearly code for moving away from an analytically minded approach to more of an old school one. And here’s where Rivers fits in. One of the points of contention with Rivers and the Clippers upon their season review was the use of Harrell in the Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets. Every piece of empirical evidence said that Harrell was unplayable in the series, but Rivers stuck with Harrell and defended that choice.
It’s a matter of instincts.
Brand is signaling a turn towards instincts.
Enter the Dynamic Duo.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are undoubtedly two of the 20 most talented players in the NBA, but most would not include both in the list of the top 20 best players in the league.
The Sixers outscored their opponents by more last season with Embiid on the floor without Simmons than with both on the court, and the Sixers outscored their opponents by more last season with Simmons on the floor without Embiid than with both on the court.
There are absolutely reasonable assertions to be made about who is on the floor with those two and what players they’re facing when they play together. The data, however, does signal that they don’t thrive together enough to think that it’s working.
Much of this is obvious. Simmons is not a shooter, not now, maybe never. Embiid is a big man, who too often opts for letting the defense off the hook with mid-range jumpshots. Simmons is a demon in transition, Embiid is an unstoppable force when he actually gets his ass into the post as maybe the one player in the entire NBA whose ass belongs in the post full-time.
The defense of that combination is that the Sixers surrounded the two with limited shooters despite having Al Horford (who shot above 35% from 3 each of the past three seasons), Josh Richardson (who shot above 35% in three of his five seasons), Tobias Harris (who shot 37% from 3 last season), Furkan Korkmaz (40% from 3), Raul Neto (39% from 3) and Shake Milton (43% from 3).
Milton was installed in the starting unit in the restart to try and provide another shot-creator in the backcourt. The fact that with two players considered to be at the top level you are in need of a third creator should signal there’s a greater problem.
This isn’t to say the roster was perfectly built around those two, but when Horford has been a productive and impactful player every spot he’s ever been in his career and then is suddenly an anchor, it’s weird.
When Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris go from productive, efficient players (albeit a bit overpaid) to disappointing with more limited roles, it’s odd.
Sixers fans remain fixated on the failures of ownership since letting Adam Silver influence them on the decision to first insert Jerry Colangelo into the front office structure and later push Hinkie out, issues they were very much proven right on. However, for all the concerns about ownership, or the front office, or too much analytics, there remains at the heart of the Sixers’ myriad disappointments the reality that their stars have not been optimized.
Simmons seems close. He became an all-world defender this season and is so talented and so athletic, he has stretches of games he outright dominates.
Embiid is… Embiid. He’s dominant in some games vs. overmatched players, often times vs. conceptually good bigs like Andre Drummond. He plays well enough to be talked about as a fringe MVP candidate if he went on a run, which he never seems to. For years the discussion has been about his health holding him back, but at some point we need to look at his game.
His points, assists, rebounds and shooting percentages all dipped this season. He took the 10th-most mid-range field goals per game. That alone isn’t bad; analytic-forward people don’t actually hate the mid-range the way media discussions about them make you think they do.
However, Embiid shot just 40% on those 4.7 shots per game. If you’re Khris Middleton (53%), Devin Booker (46%) or even DeMar DeRozan (46%), those shots are perfectly fine, in your wheelhouse and among the most efficient shots you can take.
For Embiid, it’s not just that he doesn’t shoot them well, it’s that he clearly could be taking better shots. He’s the most efficient, most dominant post-up big man in the league. It’s not that that is all he should take, but the Sixers would undoubtedly be better off if he weren’t top 10 in attempts on another shot with that kind of low efficiency.
The answers to all of these problems are difficult.
“Well, maybe if we add a guard who can create his own shot and score efficiently…”
Moving beyond the fact that Markelle Fultz was supposed to be the answer to that particular riddle, adding a player like that fundamentally means you’re saying Embiid and Simmons together aren’t enough.
The Sixers will probably add some sort of guard who can contribute if they can find suitors for their bloated contracts.
But ultimately, they still have to figure out how to make Simmons and Embiid work.
There’s been a great deal of speculation about Embiiid and Simmons’ relationship. J.J. Redick has said it’s great, with the struggle being they are both introverts. There was speculation from Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard that the two have a jealousy issue between them, which Embiid shot down. Locally, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer said the two “didn’t always get along,” which a Sixers executive refuted.
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters much. Relationships between players are fluid. Bradley Beal and John Wall didn’t get along great for a while, and then a stronger relationship formed over time. Likewise, relationships that seem like they start out great are often poisoned later.
The bigger problem is that you can’t say the relationship is great, on or off the court. You can’t make the argument they shared a bond. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson are pretty clearly close, that comes through all the time. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have consistently had one another’s backs, despite being very different.
You cannot say the same for Embiid and Simmons. They can work together, but it’s not a natural fit in the locker room or on the court.
If you surrounded Embiid with four shooters, that would be a better fit, but I’m also not sure it naturally works. Embiid still struggles with double teams four years into his NBA career. That it remains a way to at least limit him is a significant knock against him. Whereas Simmons has found more and more ways to counter his limitations and has figured the game out, Embiid is largely the same player he was two seasons ago.
Embiid would benefit from better spacing if the Sixers traded Simmons, but it wouldn’t matter if you could still double him effectively.
Simmons, on the other hand, looks very much like he could be a dominant force if the Sixers moved Embiid and put four shooters around him. There’s no reason you couldn’t build a “Milwaukee Light” with Simmons surrounded by shooters the way the Bucks have with Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can rightfully counter with the Bucks’ issues with the postseason, but that’s a problem to be solved in the postseason. You need to get to “our team is good enough to win a title” first, and the Sixers have not been.
You can also pursue the path Brown did during the restart, moving Milton (or preferably, a superior guard) into the starting lineup, and moving Simmons to power forward. That move only works if you don’t have Embiid clogging the paint. If you move Simmons into more of a role like Draymond Green’s in Golden State, you need floor spacers and a lob threat, which Embiid is not.
Moving on from either player is terrifying, however.
If Embiid gets himself in shape and takes a leap forward, he’ll be an MVP candidate. (I say this as someone who absolutely put in a preseason MVP bet on him and subsequently set that ticket on fire by January.) Simmons is a Defensive Player of the Year caliber player already, and impacts the game in ways that don’t make the box score.
So, the Sixers will continue to do what they’ve done and make moves around the margins. The hope is Rivers will coach the team into a disciplined approach that Brown could not, and that he’ll get the most out of a combo that may simply not make sense.
One of the key problems is, again, ironically, that the Sixers may need to pay more attention to the data, not less.
The eye test tells you that Harris is a good complementary scorer who can spread the floor around the two stars. The eye test tells you that Al Horford is a consummate, consistent veteran who can add to the Sixers with his big-to-big passing (which is how the Sixers used him consistently to terrible results… and somehow Horford got all the blame for that).
The eye test tells you that the Sixers have a championship-caliber team, and maybe the right coach who can get the most out of them will unlock it.
The data, however, usually tells you more meaningful things about the subtle, under-the-hood mechanisms than it does about big, broad strokes assertions about players.
The Sixers are betting that old school hoopheads can save the day. And, again, ironically, it’s going to be the data that tells whether that approach was right or not.