The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference last season, but the Sixers’ lack of consistent spacing was a factor that kept them from being better than the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.
With the Sixers adding Al Horford and Josh Richardson in free agency this summer, they have renewed their efforts to contend for the title in the 2019-20 regular season.
As the Sixers prepare for a season filled with high expectations, they’ll need to focus on improving their spacing and creating more easy buckets. For a team that shared the ball well last season, the Sixers didn’t always space the floor well.
The Sixers ranked fourth in the NBA for assists per game (26.9), but they struggled against teams that defended well down low and around the middle of the floor.
Ben Simmons hasn’t shown he’s capable of shooting decently enough, and his lack of a respectable jumper contributed to the Sixers occasionally getting stuck on offense last season.
For example, when Simmons wasn’t handling the ball, he’d sometimes be thrown down low in the dunker’s spot. In the video below, the Sixers were playing the Boston Celtics. Joel Embiid received the ball from Jimmy Butler just below the three-point arc. Embiid took Horford down low on an isolation, but Horford played good defense.
One way the Sixers have sought to expand Jimmy Butler's involvement is by putting the ball in his hands. It's a reasonable approach, but comes with the downside of moving Ben Simmons off-ball and into the short corner. This can often cramp up the spacing around the paint. pic.twitter.com/yBoFmsmFIR
— Positive Residual (@presidual) February 21, 2019
The rest of the Celtics were looking at the matchup, ready to help if necessary. No action happened away from the ball, which made it easy for Horford and the Celtics to hone in on Embiid. Tobias Harris didn’t give Embiid the best angle for a pass out the post, staying near the top of the three-point arc.
Simmons has been rendered ineffective on plays like these because he thrives with the ball in his hands. He needs the ball to create for his teammates and be the best player he can be.
But the Sixers’ average spacing last season wasn’t solely because Simmons struggles to play without the ball. The offense sometimes revolved around Embiid too much, and this caused the Sixers to occasionally not get good shots.
Another video shows a different situation where a play for Embiid doesn’t work. Embiid came to screen for JJ Redick, and Redick quickly passed the ball to Embiid, who briefly popped out. Embiid took the ball to the hoop, with Simmons down low and Harris and Butler on the wing.
On this play Embiid was simply out of control, and it’s not a situation where he’ll likely make a good pass. Harris and Butler seemed to cut from the wing to help rebound because they saw Embiid was intent on scoring.
Sixers went to Redick/Embiid in P&R here with Simmons at the dunker. Surprised he didn't get a post touch vs. Lowry. Either way Kawhi has to commit to Redick because of the pullup 3. On Embiid's drive Lowry is able to step up and help, both Harris/Butler cut instead of spacing. pic.twitter.com/A35OyUe2My
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 5, 2019
Embiid needs to be the focal point of the Sixers’ offense — Philly isn’t nearly as good without him being the team’s No. 1 option. But going forward, the Sixers need to do better maximizing other players’ talents.
Harris and Simmons have the most to gain from the Sixers having more fluidity and variety in their offense next season. Harris isn’t a high usage player by nature — he has a career usage percentage of 22.0%. He thrives without the ball, but he also can’t be relegated to being a spot-up shooter.
Harris was primarily a floor spacer for Philly during the playoffs. He averaged 5.3 three-point attempts in the playoffs, and he averaged 5.0 in the regular season. He shot below 35% from the three-point line in the regular season and playoffs.
During July, Harris told Marcus Hayes of The Philadelphia Inquirerthat he was “underutilized” last season, and coach Brett Brown acknowledged that Harris was.
Butler or Embiid usually got the majority of isolation looks, and while Harris isn’t necessarily a pure isolation scorer, he should benefit from having more touches this upcoming season.
For Simmons, having Horford complement Embiid down low, along with Richardson and Harris helping space the floor, will help him facilitate as best as possible.
Horford is a better shooter than Embiid, while Embiid is a better post player. This means the Sixers need to use Horford in as many pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops as possible. He’ll help limit Embiid’s high ball screens, and he’ll be a better option for Simmons to work with.
Horford is better at passing out of the pick-and-roll than Embiid, which means he can help Simmons operate the middle of the floor. If Simmons and Horford run a high ball screen, Horford isn’t likely to get stuck rolling into open space.
Simmons could also benefit from Richardson occasionally running the offense. While Simmons needs the ball, he can be effective as a screener in certain situations. In the video below, Simmons screened for Redick, rolling hard to the middle of the floor to pass to Harris for an easy dunk.
Philly using Simmons as a screener again here. Good counter vs. teams playing off Simmons. Redick comes off of Floppy into it so it forces you to recover from distance to take away the shot. Russell/Harris both help on the roll, nice dump to Tobias for a dunk. pic.twitter.com/91oWp1qPwk
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) April 19, 2019
With the Sixers’ current team, Richardson could take the place of Redick here. Mike Scott, who is waiting in the corner, could be in the same position; or, if Horford is in the game, he could also be in Scott’s position. For Simmons to be effective, nearly every player around him has to be able to shoot well enough — that’s why he and Embiid sometimes don’t always produce peak offensive output.
Though the Sixers weren’t terrible offensively last season, they still have much to improve to succeed on that end of the floor.
Going forward, Brown must find better ways for his players to complement one another. For the Sixers, elevating their spacing and cohesion will be a huge step toward a shot at winning the title.