- The 76ers’ struggles behind the arc in losses are flukey and bound to positively regress.
- Marco Belinelli’s shooting ability has been a major plus, but Philly has to find ways to hide him on defense — or not play him.
- The Sixers have the third-highest turnover rate in the playoffs. Will opponents be able to take advantage?
The Philadelphia 76ers are the darling of the NBA playoffs. Their starting lineup was the best five-man unit in the entire league this season, and it features possible future MVP candidates in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Oh, and Markelle Fultz comes off the bench, and the 76ers have another top-10 pick coming in this summer’s draft. The Eagles are Super Bowl champions, and the 76ers look to have a potential dynasty. Not a bad time to be a Philly sports fan.
Still, it might be a couple years too early for the 76ers to really make a run. They have some very youthful flaws that could prove costly. To discuss those flaws and whether they’re fatal or merely flesh wounds, we have two of our NBA gurus on tap, Matt Moore and Bryan Mears.
A Game of Inches
By Bryan Mears
The 76ers have a modern offense already, which is incredibly encouraging as we look ahead to how these players will fit together in their primes. On the season, the Sixers ranked 12th in 3-point frequency, and Simmons’ brilliant passing has proven contagious even in his first season: They ranked second in the league behind only the Warriors with a 66.3% assist rate. Philly prioritized shooting around its superstars in the offseason, splurging for J.J. Redick and then acquiring guys like Marco Belinelli (more on him in a moment) and Ersan Ilyasova. They’re playing the right way already.
That said, in their two playoff losses so far this year — one to the Heat and one to the Celtics — the 76ers have struggled with the long ball. In their four playoff wins, they’ve averaged 12.5 three-pointers made per game; in the losses, they’ve hit just 6.0 per game. The attempts haven’t really gone down — they’re taking right around 30 per game — but in wins they’ve hit 41.3% of their 3-point shots versus just 19.4% in losses. So what gives? Are they just getting unlucky? Or are they struggling to generate good looks against intense playoff defense?
The data suggests this is very simple: They’ve gotten ridiculously unlucky.
Take a look at their frequency of shots with a defender 4-6 feet away — NBA classifies those shots as “open” — and their 3-point percentage on those in wins versus losses.
And here’s that data on shots with a defender 6-plus feet away — what NBA classifies as a “wide-open” shot.
At the risk of being too reductive, I don’t think this is a fatal flaw in the slightest. Teams go through hot and dry spells from the 3-point line, and smarter studies than this have shown that a lot of 3-point shooting is random, despite what defensive enthusiasts want you to believe. If the 76ers shoot less than 20% on open 3-pointers, they’ll likely lose. That’s true with literally every team in the league. But given their win/loss splits — which are more drastic than any team in the playoffs this year — I’ll be betting on positive regression in that area.
Weakness verdict: Flesh Wound
Marco, Oh No
By Matt Moore
Belinelli was a huge reason the Sixers advanced in the first round over Miami. The Italian vet-minimum pick-up from the Hawks was 4-of-7 from deep in Game 1, with a plus-27 mark. He was 4-of-8 from 3 in Game 3 and plus-20 to give the Sixers the edge by taking the first game in Miami and put them in the driver’s seat. Over the Sixers’ final two wins of the series he went 1-of-7, and the Sixers’ net rating was much closer, but they impressively found ways to win.
However, the Boston Celtics decided they were going to target Belinelli on defense. They went at him, over and over again, to the point where it became absurd. Usually when a player has a huge plus-minus differential it’s based on minute allotment. (A star player plays heavy minutes in a game they got blown out in, and the team goes on a small run in garbage time when he’s out, for example).
But with Belinelli, the minutes were about even, and the results were stark.
With Belinelli: 28 minutes, -23
Without Belinelli: 20 minutes +7
That’s a startling 30-point swing from when he was on the court vs. off. And even then, what plus-minus often misses is when it had to do with factors that didn’t involve that player. Instead, the impact of Belinelli was clear. He only got off two 3-pointers, and the defense targeted him.
If you’re a liability, you’re going to get found by Boston.
Terry Rozier is feeling it, but this is another level. He calls off the screen in the video below to isolate and just cooks the Italian into sausage.
Al Horford isn’t very often an “I’m going at you” guy, but he forces the switch with Belinelli, immediately posts him into oblivion, and finishes with an easy dunk.
Jayson Tatum — rookie Jayson Tatum! — gets Belinelli, and, again, absolutely annihilates him.
Oh, and for good measure, here’s Belinelli looking inept in transition:
Get the picture?
The Sixers need Belinelli to spark their offense; he’s a big reason why they took off so much after Embiid had his facial injury late in the season. But the reality is that for the Sixers to advance, they’re going to have to find ways to either hide him effectively, or get by without him.
Weakness verdict: Fatal
A Foul Stench
By Bryan Mears
While the 76ers are solid at drawing fouls, ranking 11th in offensive foul rate this season, they also commit a ton of them on the defensive end, ranking an atrocious 28th in defensive foul rate. Giving opponents free chances is a very easy way to see your Defensive Rating plummet, but oddly, the 76ers still rank third in Defensive Rating on the season. They’re first in effective field goal percentage allowed, so that small difference between first and third is likely due to committing a bunch of fouls. It’s important, but it seems to have a fairly small impact on the overall defense.
If go player by player, you can’t pin the defensive foul rate on guys like Embiid or Simmons. Rather, the issue is largely with the bench players. Here are the foul rates of the players in the current projected rotation for Game 2 and the percentile scores for their respective positions:
- Dario Saric: 2.6% foul rate, 94th percentile
- J.J. Redick: 2.3% foul rate, 85th percentile
- Marco Belinelli: 2.9% foul rate, 68th percentile
- Ben Simmons: 2.8% foul rate, 65th percentile
- Joel Embiid: 3.8% foul rate, 57th percentile
- T.J. McConnell: 3.0% foul rate, 56th percentile
- Ersan Ilyasova: 4.6% foul rate, 32nd percentile
- Robert Covington: 3.8% foul rate, 28th percentile
- Justin Anderson: 4.6% foul rate, 9th percentile
- Amir Johnson: 6.4% foul rate, 5th percentile
Other players, like Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless, Richaun Holmes, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who aren’t getting minutes in the playoffs due to shortened rotations, have even worse foul rates. In do-or-die games, Brett Brown is going to ride with his main guys, and those players haven’t especially struggled with foul trouble. As long as those guys can stay on the floor, the 76ers will be fine. Again, their main unit has posted literally the best net rating in the entire league among five-man units that have played 200-plus minutes together. This is a regular-season problem, but a lesser one in the playoffs.
Weakness verdict: Flesh Wound
Turnovers: Get ‘Em While They’re Hot
By Matt Moore
The Sixers have the third-highest turnover rate in the playoffs. In their two postseason losses, they gave up the ball 17.8 percent of the time. The bigger issue is that they give up live-ball turnovers and opponents are cashing in. Utah is averaging 15.7 turnovers per 100 possessions in the playoffs to Philly’s 14.8, but opponents are scoring only 0.1 fewer points per 100 possessions off the Sixers’ turnovers than Utah.
That’s a lot of numbers. Here’s the gist: The Sixers give away the ball to their opponents in positions to score. Simmons, rookie point guard that he is, gets himself caught in situations where he throws the ball going the other way, often high in the court:
Simmons tries to push the pace here and it’s just a pass the defender can make a play on. He won’t make these mistakes in coming years:
Embiid, for his trouble, has had issues holding onto the ball. He’s tied with six other players for the most lost-ball turnovers (losing your dribble) in the playoffs, despite playing in fewer games and with a significantly lower usage rate.
Aron Baynes gave him some trouble (though Embiid was 7-of-13 for 19 points vs. Baynes) in Game 1:
And again, just knocks the ball away:
The Sixers make a lot of mistakes; they’re a young team, that happens. It’ll be interesting to see as they continue through the playoffs if and how teams can take advantage of that, or if Philly learns on the fly how to limit them.
Weakness verdict: Flesh Wound
Pictured above: Marco Belinelli