General manager Elton Brand and the Sixers’ front office have made some big bets this off-season: bringing in Josh Richardson via sign and trade, signing Al Horford from the Celtics, and re-signing Tobias Harris. Everyone is eagerly awaiting to see how these new shiny pieces fit together with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
With no traditional point guard and four enormous humans in the starting lineup, some of you might be asking yourself, how is this all supposed to work? Is it even feasible to start this many big men in one lineup in 2019?
Let’s look at the data:
So, in trying to predict how this all might work, one approach is to look at play type data from the year before and see how all the starters could fit together. Offensive play type data refers to the types of plays a particular player uses to score. I pulled this data from nba.com’s synergy stats, using the fantastic R package, “nbastatR”, created by Alex Bressler.
NBA.com’s synergy stats have 11 different play types, two of which I removed (put backs and miscellaneous) from this analysis. By analyzing how efficient they are at specific play types and how often they use them compared to the rest of the league, we can start to understand the starters and overall team’s strengths and deficiencies. Some of these nine main play types (listed below) should be familiar, some might not be. I’ve tried to include players who are known for these types of plays as a reference:
A caveat: A player only gets credited with a play if they shoot, get fouled, or turn the ball over. If a player passes out of it and someone else scores he won’t get credited with that play type. So these are purely scoring opportunities.
One other caveat: I only wanted to consider those who were actually credibly doing this thing at some kind of consistent level. So if you didn’t use that play type at least once a game and play at least 20 games last season I didn’t consider you in this analysis.
Let’s look at the Sixers starters below. You can search, filter, and sort on specific players or play types. Here are key definitions of columns in the chart:
I’ve also included the rest of the league as well in a separate chart below. I had fun searching for some of my favorite different players here and seeing how they stacked up against the rest of the league.
Pick-and-roll ball handling and isolation
With the departure of Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick, the Sixers have lost their most important perimeter creator and floor spacer. With these guys gone, it’s going to fall on Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, and Josh Richardson to be primary ball handlers and initiate the offense.
We’ve already analyzed how the Sixers starters look by specific play type. But let’s look at how efficient they are overall, and also take into account their offensive workload. To measure shooting efficiency, I used true shooting percentage (which takes into account two-point and three-point percentage as well as free-throw percentage). To measure player workload, I used usage percentage (which measures the percentage of a team’s possessions a player uses while on the floor including shots, free throws, and turnovers).
Four of the five starters are above average in true shooting percentage. Richardson was asked to do a lot for an injured Miami team, which dropped his efficiency numbers. The easiest outlier here is Embiid, who posted a whopping 33.3% usage (2nd in the league) while still being incredibly efficient (59.3 true shooting percentage).
It’s very hard to feature a low-post player in crunch time, so Simmons, Harris and Richardson will have to take on some of these duties. Conversely, their usage stats have not been on par with star-level creators. Simmons and Harris were at 22.1% usage and 22.8% usage last season, respectively. The upper right quadrant of this graph isolates the star players in the NBA, those who can take a lot of shots (high usage) and do it efficiently (high true shooting %).
Harris is an efficient scorer in many areas, and overall he was at 59% true shooting, which is well above average. But Harris has been unable to consistently beat his guy off the dribble, draw help, and bend defenses. He likes to just get to his spots in the mid-range or from three and rise up (where he’s very good but not exceptional). He doesn’t get to the line at an above-average rate and struggles as a playmaker for others (12.5% assist rate last year).
Simmons’ lack of shooting has many ramifications. When off the ball, his lack of shooting allows defenses to help off him and makes life harder for his other teammates offensively. When he has the ball, defenses can sag off him, which consequently tightens up passing lanes, as they dare him to shoot. This leads to forced, low efficiency drives to the baskets and turnovers.
Conversely, his handle and athleticism are dangerous weapons for blowing by his primary defender when defenses don’t back off him. But a lot of times defenses do back off him and he too frequently looks disengaged offensively, passing up open drives and refusing to take open jump shots.