I’m not sure of the Sanskrit translation for “Talent does not trump time,” but Brett Brown might want to look into it, because he’s said it so many times over the last couple of months that it might as well be his mantra.
It’s not a bad thought to hold onto, given what we’ve seen out of the Sixers offense over the last few weeks. For a team attempting to incorporate two new starters into a lineup that was already built around two oddly fitting pieces, mid-November is far too early to panic, especially when you consider that they are on pace to finish with one more win than they did a year ago.
If the basketball that the Sixers are playing represents their floor, their current 52-win pace doesn’t look so bad, even before you factor in a schedule that ranks as the ninth toughest in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference.com.
At the same time, a lot of what we’ve seen during this recent rough stretch has been a microcosm of the larger structural concerns that existed entering the season.
Two key points:
1) The Sixers will look like a much sharper basketball team simply with some projectable positive regression to the mean in two areas.
If this 2-4 skid has been a microcosm of the worst-case scenario, Wednesday’s second-half collapse in Orlando is a microcosm of the skid itself. After turning an eight-point, first-quarter deficit into a 71-63 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter, the Sixers scored just 26 points on their final 34 meaningful (pre-garbage time) offensive possessions en route to a 112-97 loss.
Eight of those possessions ended in turnovers, and another nine ended in missed three-point shots, with the Sixers shooting 2-for-11 from long distance during that stretch. Look at it through this lens, and the problem is eminently — and perhaps imminently — correctable.
For the night, the Sixers scored an average of 1.09 points on each offensive possession that did not result in a turnover. So those eight turnovers cost them in the neighborhood of 8.75 points. Cut that in half, add in a couple more made three-pointers (36% instead of 2-for-11), and suddenly there’s something to play for in the last 1:11 of action. This, despite the fact that they were playing without Joel Embiid and coming off a hard-fought victory and flight to Orlando the night before.
I know what you’re thinking: Every NBA team would love to cut its turnovers in half and hit a couple more of the threes that it missed. Life doesn’t work that way. Which is true. It doesn’t.
But even with the way it does work, there is reason to think that their rates of both turnovers and three-point makes will improve. Heading into the loss against the Magic, the Sixers had connected on just 36% of three-point attempts classified by NBA.com’s player tracking system as “wide open.” That included a combined 14-for-62 (22.5%) showing from Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, each of whom shot at least 40% on wide-open threes the previous two seasons.
To put that in perspective, if the three of them had combined to shoot 40% vs. 22.5%, that would leave the Sixers with an additional 52 extra points over 10 games. It’s fair to expect that to normalize.
Likewise with the turnovers. Only the Heat are averaging more than the Sixers’ 17.5 turnovers per 100 possessions. Last year, the Sixers averaged 14.6 per 100. At that rate, they’d be scoring an additional 3.7 points per 100 possessions, good enough to move their offensive rating from 20th in the league into the Top 10.
Richardson, Harris, Ben Simmons — all are currently well above their career turnover rate. Given the circumstances, it is not unreasonable to think that the Sixers will play closer to that 14.6 mark than their current 17.5 mark.
2) That being said, Brett Brown needs to find a way to get Tobias Harris in a rhythm in his offense.
The Sixers still need to solve all the prominent questions they faced at the start of the season to live up to the hype. Can Joel Embiid dominate the offensive paint at a level equivalent with his talent? Can Ben Simmons take another step forward as a primary scorer? Can Al Horford co-exist with the two? Those are the sorts of things that will determine whether this offense is good or great.
First, though, it has to make the transition to good from middling, and the single biggest thing holding the Sixers back on that front is Harris.
It isn’t complicated. During their 2-4 skid, the Sixers have been outscored by 16 points. Harris’ 24 three-point attempts have generated exactly three points. If he’d hit a mere 33%, the Sixers would have scored an additional 21 points.
As we noted above, Harris is bound to improve. He’s missed 23 consecutive threes. Previously, his longest drought was 12 straight misses. Yet his struggles extend far beyond the first 11 games of this season. He’s shooting .239 from three since March 30 and .293 since he joined the Sixers. This, from a player who had shot better than 40% in the 135 games before he joined the Sixers.
Harris is a late bloomer as a shooter. In his first five seasons, he shot just .332 from three-point range. Even that would be an improvement over his first 38 regular-season games as a Sixer. But for this team to work, it needs Harris to lead the way from long range.
Given Harris’ epic struggles, and the turnover woes, and Embiid’s repeated absences, it would be folly to draw any conclusions about this team. The one thing we can say about these Sixers is we haven’t seen them yet.