How many times have we seen it this season? A pivotal possession, the game clock ticking down, the shot clock following suit, and five players in Sixers jerseys reacting as if the ball is a toxic substance.
Monday night, it happened again. With 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining, the Sixers were down by one and needed a bucket. Twenty-four seconds later, the shot clock buzzed, and they hadn’t even managed a shot.
They tell us this team is built for the postseason, but how many postseason games is a team going to win when it does not score a point in the final two minutes?
The No. 1 problem confronting the Sixers was on display throughout their 101-95 loss to the Pacers on Monday, and it wasn’t (necessarily) their 6-for-33 performance from three-point range. No, general manager Elton Brand’s top priority at the trade deadline should be finding a player who can consistently create for them an open look at any kind of bucket. That could mean a catch-and-shoot guard or wing who upgrades his current case. But it could also mean someone capable of breaking down a defense by getting to the rim. Because it should not be nearly as hard as the Sixers consistently make it.
Crunch-time performance is one of those things that is easy to over-value relative to its real impact on an outcome. The first possession of a game is worth the same amount as the last. Really, the significance of a crunch-time possession is a product of all the possessions before it. The real value is to us as observers, because it allows us to view a team’s true nature in an easily digestible format.
That is to say, the problems that plague a team during crunch time are no different from the ones that affect its production on every possession throughout a game. And for the Sixers, the inability to consistently generate quick, easy buckets is a 48-minute problem.
It starts where everything does on a basketball court: off the dribble. One of the tradeoffs the Sixers have made in putting the ball in Ben Simmons’ hands is that they have a point guard who cannot consistently beat defenders off the dribble in a half-court set. Would it be easier for him to do so if a defender felt compelled to guard him behind the three-point line? Sure.
But Simmons is never going to be an isolation/pick-and-roll scorer in the mold of Kemba Walker, or Kyle Lowry, or Victor Oladipo, or Jimmy Butler. And he’s never going to have the ability to break a defense down and create looks for others with the wizardry of his handle. That’s not a bold declaration, nor is it a suggestion that Simmons will never live up to his potential. He’s a player with a certain skill set.
The problem is that the Sixers do not have anybody else who has the traits that Simmons lacks. They seem to think Josh Richardson can be that guy, but the results thus far would suggest differently. He’s having a fine season, but he isn’t an elite finisher, and doesn’t have an elite handle, which is why so many of his shot attempts end up coming from mid-range (18% of Richardson’s shots have come inside three feet this season; last year, 32% of Butler’s attempts came from that distance).
You can find evidence of the Sixers’ primary shortcoming everywhere in their numbers. They are getting to the rim less frequently than nearly any other contender. To be precise, 54.9% of their two-point attempts have come within six feet of the basket. Only nine teams in the NBA have a lower frequency, and the only other ones with a winning record are the Pacers and the Thunder.
Percent of two-point shots within six feet of rim
The Sixers are also getting fewer unassisted looks from that distance than most of the rest of the NBA's best.
Percent unassisted on two-point shots within six feet of rim
The lack of perimeter creation was glaring down the stretch. There is no such thing as a quick bucket for this team, and that needs to be fixed.
Nearly one-fifth of the Sixers’ field-goal attempts have come in the last seven seconds of the shot clock. They lead the league in that category, averaging 19.4 attempts per game. Compare that to the Bucks, who are averaging just 11.3 shot attempts per game in the last seven seconds of the shot clock (Celtics, 14.5; Lakers, 16.6; Clippers, 13.7).
Brand’s top priority at the trade deadline should be finding a player capable of getting them quick baskets. That’s not an easy task, of course. Derrick Rose fits the profile, and plays for a likely seller in Detroit. But he is a below-average three-point shooter and a below-average defender, which raises questions about the net gain.
The other way to open things up is to add a catch-and-shoot player who can help spread the floor. The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey recently reported that the Sixers have some interest in the Pistons’ Langston Galloway, who is knocking down 41% of his catch-and-shoot threes this season. That’s a much better percentage than anybody in the Sixers’ starting lineup (Tobias Harris, 37.7; Richardson, 34.6; Al Horford, 33.6).
There is never a shortage of these sorts of wings on the market. The big question is whether any would be a significant enough upgrade, or if a Davis Bertans or JJ Redick is the level of shooter that would truly help the Sixers.
The bottom line is that the Sixers need to upgrade their scoring options for those must-have possessions. They are 11-9 in games decided by two possessions or fewer, but 3-4 against the Top 5 teams in the East and 4-6 against teams from either conference that have winning records. Last year, they went 21-11 in close games, thanks in large part to the contributions of Butler and Redick, two players with skill sets that they clearly have not replaced.