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:
Looking at Offensive fit using Play Type 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.
» READ MORE: Our 2019-20 Sixers season preview
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:
Transition: Plays in the fast break, or any non-halfcourt possession (think Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo)
Isolation: Where a player isolates a player 1-on-1 (think James Harden)
Pick-and-roll ball handler: When a player who is leading the pick-and-roll finishes the play himself (think Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard)
Pick-and-roll rollman: When a player who actually sets the pick gets the ball out of a pick-and-roll. So this can either be a pick-and-pop, where they space out for a jump shot, or roll to the rim, or catch an alley-oop off a pick-and-roll (think Myles Turner, Serge Ibaka, Clint Capela). This play type is a bit muddled because efficiencies vary between rim runners and floor spacers. Obviously, players who are catching lobs and dunking are going to naturally have a higher points-per-possession than some of the pick-and-pop guys. Synergy stats, unfortunately, do not break this out
Post-up: Old school, back your man down and throw up a hook, floater, dunk, fadeaway, etc (think Joel Embiid)
Spot-up: Not just catch-and-shoots, but any play where the primary action has started (think an isolation, or pick-and-roll) and then the ball is swung to someone else who then shoots or drives to the hoop after catching the ball. If a player gets swung the ball and then takes a couple dribbles to back it out and start another move, this will be classified as an isolation
Handoff: Kind of like a pick-and-roll, but when the one player actually hands the ball off to another. As an example, think about the Embiid-to-J.J Redick handoffs
Cut: Any kind of off ball movement where a player either cuts to or away from the basket: UCLA cut, v-cut, etc. These also can be alley-oops to the rim that don’t start off in a pick-and-roll
Off-screen: When a player catches the ball from an off-ball screen and then shoots or drives off this action (think Klay Thompson and Steph Curry).
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:
Points Per Possession is a measure of how efficient a player is at that specific play type.
PPP (Points Per Possession) Percentile measures how they compare to the rest of the league in points per possession.
Possessions Per Game measures how often a player uses this play type per game.
PPG (Possessions Per Game) Percentile measures how they compare to the rest of the league in possessions per game of that play type.
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.
Key takeaways from the Sixers starters play type data
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.
Ben Simmons: In the playoffs we saw Butler’s role here increased as Simmons was delegated more and more to the dunker role underneath the basket. Now, though, he will have to be more aggressive in leading this offense. If we look at his pick-and-roll ball handling numbers he’s actually at 80th percentile in efficiency but he doesn’t do it very often (33rd percentile in possessions per game). He also doesn’t even qualify on isolations (he had less than 1 per game).
Tobias Harris: While Ben’s jumper is still coming up to speed, I think Tobias will be tasked with the main duties of creation on the perimeter. Tobi has shown promise in these areas with 78th percentile in isolation and 67th percentile in PPP as a pick-and-roll ball handler. This is on a reasonable amount of attempts per game (around 50th percentile). With Butler gone, Tobias is going to need to turn up those possessions per game even more, particularly in a game’s closing moments.
Josh Richardson: Newcomer Josh Richardson showed promise last season in Miami, as Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters were sidelined at the beginning of the season. He was tasked to do a lot of ball handling and was in the 76th percentile in possessions per game as the pick and roll ball handler.
Redick was not only his lethal self coming off screens but on all the dribble handoffs Brett Brown used to love to run with him. J.J ranked No. 1 last season in those kinds of plays at 5.2 per game. But Richardson came in at sixth (92nd percentile) in handoff possessions per game on a very solid efficiency (1.01 Points per Possession, 72nd percentile). While Richardson is far from the shooter J.J. is, and doesn’t draw nearly as much attention on those types of plays, having someone with that skill set will meld nicely into Brown’s system.
Al Horford: One of Horford’s main strengths as an offensive player is his shooting ability, particularly his ability to thrive as a pick-and-pop option, as evidenced by his possessions per game (96th percentile in the league) as the pick-and-roll rollman. He does this at a little bit better than league average efficiency (56th percentile), but this play type is a bit deceiving because it includes both pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll. The latter is generally a higher-efficiency look. We know Brown doesn’t like to run many pick-and-rolls, but with the emerging pick-and-roll play of Simmons, Harris, and Richardson, this can be something they can utilize more.
Joel Embiid: As Embiid struggled with his three-point shot for the second year in a row (30%), his pick-and-pop remained uninspiring (14th percentile, on players who used this play type at least once a game). Embiid also loves to pump fake on these plays and drive to the basket. He frequently gets stripped or loses the ball when he puts the ball on the floor.
With the Sixers’ huge starting lineup, they obviously have a lot of guys who like to post up - 99th (Embiid), 81st (Simmons), and 54th percentile (Horford), respectively. With the lack of floor spacing, look for Horford post-ups to probably drop and for him to work as more of a floor spacer. Simmons’ efficiency on post-ups (11th percentile) is way too low for how often he does it - almost 3.5 possessions per game (81st percentile). Post-ups are generally a low-efficiency play - we know how much of a monster Embiid is here at 89th percentile in efficiency at over 8 post-ups per game (99th percentile).
Ben Simmons: We know about Ben Simmons struggles in the half court due to his lack of shooting, so it is not surprising he is among the league leaders in transition frequency (95th percentile). But his efficiency is not good here (12th percentile out of those with at least 1 transition play per game). Some of this probably can be attributed to forcing some looks in transition that others normally wouldn’t. Additionally, when Simmons can’t get all the way to the rim and dunk, he throws up odd-looking floaters. Even when he does get all the way to the rim, his layup mechanics are sometimes less than ideal and he misses some easy ones. This data doesn’t take into account Simmons’ playmaking for others on the fast break.
Projecting out the Sixers 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.