Can this new 76ers lineup shoot? - Free Agency Review

July 9, 2019

       The Philadelphia 76ers have been making headlines for constructing one of the tallest starting lineups in NBA history. With the average height of their starters measured at 6’9½”, fans and analysts alike have lauded this team’s defensive potential. On the flip side however, fans and analysts have also been very critical of the lineup’s shooting ability. The bulk of this sentiment comes from the departure of shooting guard JJ Redick. Redick was an integral part of Philadelphia's offensive identity; he took a quarter of the entire team’s three pointers last season - all while hitting nearly 40% of them. It’s no secret that the 76ers will miss Redick’s signature off-ball movement and catch-and-shoot mastery. Losing key players always hurts. However, we must analyze what the 76ers still have and what they have gained in free agency before we can truly assess the damages.

 

       I’ll be using three main criteria in order to examine the 76ers starters' shooting ability. 

  1. Three-Point Shooting Efficiency

    -​ Can the player shoot three-pointers on an efficient percentage?

  2. Volume of Three-Pointers Attempted.

    ​- Can the player shoot multiple threes a game while maintaining solid efficiency?

  3. Shot-Creation Ability from the Perimeter.

    ​- Is the player strictly a spot-up shooter or can he create his own looks if needed?

 

Ben Simmons, Point Guard

       Ben Simmons doesn’t get a formal grading due to his abnormal shooting history. Quite frankly, he would fail in all three criteria. So instead, I’ll analyze the overarching problem. 

 

       In my opinion, the dilemma here is more mental than physical. It’s two-fold: Simmons is not comfortable shooting and he is not willing to challenge himself in-game. Here’s a table that breaks down the shots that Ben Simmons attempts outside the paint. 

 

       Two things stand out. The most obvious one is that Ben Simmons doesn’t take a lot of shots outside the paint. That shows that he isn’t confident nor comfortable as a shooter. But the second thing that stands out is that Ben Simmons has taken less shots outside the paint in his sophomore season than in his rookie season. Most players use their second season to address the faults in their game from their first season. Instead of improving on his shooting issue, Simmons has shied away further. To be fair, no one was expecting him to be a three-point shooter by his second season. But Simmons hasn’t even tried to become a competent mid-range shooter. In fact, he cut his mid-range shot attempts nearly in half in his second season. It's difficult to improve on something without experiencing it in a live game.

 

       To give some context, Giannis Antetokounmpo was also considered a non-shooter when he was drafted. In his rookie season, he took just 55 shots from mid-range and shot a horrific 18.2% on them. Yet, in his second season, Giannis worked on the weaknesses in his game and attempted 198 mid-range shots - almost quadruple the amount he took in his previous season. Concurrently, he improved his efficiency two-fold - shooting 40.4% on those attempts. Giannis is an example of a non-shooter who attacked his problem head-on. Ben Simmons is an example of a non-shooter who turned his back on his problem.

 

       Ben Simmons seems to have a severe lack of confidence in his jumpshot. He is playing into the exact narrative that the media and the fans have created for him. People constantly tweet, post, write, and report about how Simmons can’t shoot. Phrases, such as “Shoot a three, you coward”, have infiltrated Instagram comment sections. Maybe he has come to believe it. Or maybe Simmons is afraid of all the memes that will spawn on social media if he takes an 18 foot jump shot and airballs it. 

 

       And as a result, Simmons is negatively affecting his team’s offense. Because Ben Simmons is a non-factor outside of the paint, he’s simply too predictable in half-court sets. His defender is allowed to play free safety with little risk. His teammates are subject to double-teams with no open shooter to pass out to. In order to make his defender guard him, Simmons has to play near the paint. But having a guard camp in the paint without the ball creates immense spacing issues, especially with Joel Embiid at center. 

 

       This is a rough place to start in this analysis of the 76ers’ shooting ability. Luckily, everyone else in this starting lineup is much more capable of shooting the three than Simmons

 

 

Josh Richardson, Shooting Guard

Efficiency: Josh Richardson is an above-average three-point shooter. His career three-point percentage is 36.8%, which ranks above the league average of 35.5%. His highest three point percentage of his career came in his rookie-season, where he shot 46.1% in a limited bench-role. Last season, Richardson shot 35.7% from three in an expanded role as one of the primary options in the Miami Heat’s offense.

 

Volume: Richardson most impresses with his ability to shoot in volumes. While his 35.7% three-point percentage last season is lower than his career average, it came on a career-high volume. Richardson attempted 6.3 threes per game last season, which was tied-22nd most in the league. That’s more attempts than other sharpshooters, such as Khris Middleton, Joe Ingles, Chris Paul, and Wesley Matthews. And it’s more attempts than some notable scorers, such as Trae Young and Russell Westbrook. Josh Richardson has shown that he has no problem getting looks and he has no problem pulling the trigger either. Shooting above 35% on over 6 threes a game is something that many shooters cannot accomplish. 

 

       Filling JJ Redick’s shoes will be difficult simply because Redick accounted for so many of Philadelphia’s three-pointers. But if anyone is able to replace Redick, Josh Richardson might be the one. Last season, nearly half of Richardson’s shots came from the three (44.8% of his total FGA). He’s a willing and capable volume shooter.

 

Shot-Creation: Last season, Josh Richardson maintained a healthy balance of assisted field goals and unassisted field goals. 39.2% of his made field goals last season were unassisted, which shows shot-creating prowess. However, the bulk of that shot-creation came on shots inside the arc. When it comes to shot-creating on the perimeter, Josh Richardson isn’t as impressive. 88.0% of Richardson’s three point attempts came off of straight jump-shots. The other 12% were various forms of shot-creation: pull-ups, stepbacks, fadeaways, etc. A good sign is that on the 32 pull-up threes that Richardson took last season, his three-point percentage was nearly identical to his percentage on straight jumpshots (34.3% on jumpshots versus 34.4% on pull-ups). Another interesting statistic is Richardson’s efficiency on stepback three-pointers. On 17 stepback threes attempt, Richardson hit 10 - amounting to a 58.8% shooting percentage. It’s an extremely small sample size, but it’s a glimmer of potential.

 

       Richardson's bread and butter is the catch-and-shoot and there's a good chance that the 76ers will try to maximize that. The 76ers might run him in the same plays that they ran for JJ Redick - who shot almost exclusively assisted, catch-and-shoot jumpers. Josh Richardson was never much of a corner shooter in Miami - taking 17.1% of his threes from the corners last season. But he is a 44.9% shooter from the left-corner, so he might find himself becoming one. The 76ers have the playbook. Richardson just has to get comfortable past through screens and setting his feet quickly. 

 

 

Tobias Harris, Forward

Efficiency: Tobias Harris has been both an incredibly efficient shooter and an incredibly inefficient shooter throughout his career. His 36.4% career three-point percentage, while impressive, doesn’t tell the entire story. Harris started off his career as a below-average three-point shooter, never eclipsing 32% from behind the arc until his fourth season. After shooting 36.4% from three in 2014-15, Harris didn’t shoot above 35% from three again until 2017-18. Despite these streaky inconsistencies, Harris has developed into one of the best shooters in the league over the past two seasons. He shot 41.1% from three in 2017-18 and shot 39.7% from three in 2018-19. While his 39.7 3P% last season was great on paper, his inconsistencies did resurface. With the Clippers, Harris shot 43.4 3P% through 55 games. Had he kept that up that pace, Harris would’ve been 5th in the league in 3P%, just behind Steph Curry. However, he was traded to the 76ers midseason and ended up shooting a lowly 32.6% from three in his final 27 games. And in the playoffs that year, Harris’s 34.9 3P% didn’t exactly impress either.

 

Volume: Tobias Harris is undoubtedly a volume scorer. While he didn’t take as many threes as Josh Richardson did last season, Harris is definitely more accustomed to putting up lots of shots. Last season, in his 27 games with the 76ers, Harris took 5.0 threes per game. 5 threes a game is a relatively large volume, and that was with sharing the rock with Butler and Redick. With Redick and Butler gone, it makes sense that Harris’s three-point volume will increase significantly. Luckily, Harris has shown that he can shoot efficiently on high volumes too. Two seasons ago, Harris shot 41.1% on 5.6 three point attempts per game.  

 

Shot-Creation: Tobias Harris will likely be the 76ers’ best shot creator from the perimeter. Last season, more than half (50.1%) of Harris’s made field goals were unassisted. In his tenure with the Clippers last season, 11.6% of Tobias Harris’s offensive possessions were isolation plays and his isolation scoring efficiency put him in the 77th percentile. And while his isolation frequency and isolation stats were slightly lower in his 27 games with the 76ers, it was likely due to Jimmy Butler’s ball-dominant presence. With Butler’s departure, we’ll likely see Harris revert back to his style of play from when he was on the Clippers. Furthermore, Butler was the only player on the 76ers last season that could call an isolation and get a clutch bucket with the game was on the line. Harris, whether he likes it or not, will now have to become that player for Philadelphia. 

 

       Tobias Harris shot very well when creating his own shot from the perimeter. He shot 44.2% on 52 pull-up threes and 72.2% on a small sample size of 18 stepback threes. In comparison, he shot 37.5% on straight up threes. While only 21.9% of Harris’s threes come from varieties other than straight jump-shots, Harris’s frequent use of the pull-up jumpshot in mid-range shows us that he’s more than comfortable shooting off-the-dribble.

 

 

Al Horford, Forward/Center

Efficiency: Al Horford is one of the smartest shot takers in the league. He’s not going to chuck up contested shots or shoot early in the shot clock. As a result, his career three point average is 36.8% - which is a very respectable for a center. Furthermore, he had his best shooting season with Boston two season ago, where he shot 42.9% from three. Last season, he saw a 6.9% dip in his efficiency, shooting 36.0% from three. However, despite the drop in percentage from his previous season, Horford still ranked 10th in the league in 3P% amongst centers who have attempted at least 1 three per game. Horford also shot 54.7% from mid-range last season, further confirming his reliable shooting touch.

 

Volume: In terms of shooting, Horford’s biggest strength and biggest weakness are related to volume. On one hand, Horford is unselfish on offense. He doesn’t call for the ball and, as mentioned earlier, he doesn’t go out of his way to take bad shots. His pass-first mindset fit perfectly during his tenure in Boston because there were many young players who were trying to eat. But on the other hand, Horford can sometimes disservice his team by not shooting enough. Al Horford is one of the most offensively versatile bigs in the league, yet he shies away from displaying his virtuosity. In Boston, it seemed that every time Horford had a good scoring game, the Celtics would win. And more often than not, a passive offensive game from Horford came hand-and-hand with a Celtics loss. 

 

       The question is: will Horford need to increase or decrease his volume with the 76ers? When playing with the starters, I think Horford is going to have to take less shots than he took with Boston. However, Horford might find himself taking more threes, despite taking less shots overall. Horford will probably be playing on the perimeter more often now because he is switching to the power forward position and because Embiid will seize some of his post touches. Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris are all capable of driving to the rim - which can create drive-and-kick opportunities for Horford to shoot threes. This might become a “Chris Bosh in Miami” scenario for Horford (aka corner-camping).

 

       Additionally, Brett Brown might try to stagger Horford and Embiid’s minutes. Last season, the 76ers struggled in the playoffs because they lacked a competent back-up center. In fact, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Joel Embiid played 45 minutes and had a +10 plus/minus. Yet, the 76ers lost the game by two points. That means the Raptors outscored the 76ers by twelve points in the three minutes when Embiid was off the floor. Because of past liabilities at the back-up center position, Al Horford might find himself playing significant minutes with the bench-unit. And as a result, his shot volume could increase as a result. 

 

       Regardless, Horford has never been a volume scorer from three. Last season, he took 3.0 threes a game - with his career-high being 3.6 three point attempts per game. Obviously as a big, Horford isn’t going to create his own three-point attempts. He relies on other players to find him open, such as in pick-and-pops. The 76ers can’t rely on Horford to get them a three when they need it. Instead, they have to rely on other players to find Horford open for a three.

 

Shot-Creation: Horford is a big-man, so almost every shot he takes outside of the post will be assisted on. Last season, 93.3% of Horford’s made field goals from 20-24 feet were assisted on. 100% of Horford’s made field goals from 25-29 feet were assisted on. 199 out of Horford’s 203 three-point attempts were straight jump-shots. No one should expect Horford to be a shot-creator from behind the arc, especially due to his old age and fundamental approach to the game,

 

 

Joel Embiid, Center

Efficiency: Joel Embiid is the worst three-point shooter in the 76ers’ starting lineup, excluding Simmons of course. His three-point efficiency peaked at 36.7% as a rookie. Since then, it has been dwindling: 30.8% two seasons ago and 30.0% last season. He just barely kept his percentage from dropping into the dreadful 20’s last season. Additionally, Embiid shot a bleak 36.1% from mid-range last season, which doesn’t exactly make me faithful in his long-range ability. Embiid doesn’t have an awful shooting touch though - shooting over 80% from the line last season. Chances are, we’ll see Embiid’s three-point shooting efficiency rise this upcoming season because it simply can’t get any worse than what it was last season.

 

Volume: Even though Embiid is a below-average shooter, he still is comfortable shooting. He has a scorer’s mindset. When defenders purposely sag off of Embiid on the perimeter, Embiid will gladly pull the trigger. Obviously, Embiid is doing exactly what the opposing team wants him to do, but it’s reassuring to see him shooting confidently. Furthermore, Embiid can be a streaky shooter from outside. If he has the hot hand, he’s able to knock down at least a couple from downtown in the span of a few minutes.

 

       Embiid took a career-high 4.1 threes per game last season, which was the 3rd most in the league amongst qualified centers. Only Brook Lopez and Karl-Anthony Towns took more threes than Embiid. Even if Embiid isn’t making the threes at a passable clip, at least he is spacing the floor and trying to assimilate into a modern NBA offense. 

 

Shot-Creation: Only two-thirds of Embiid’s threes were assisted on. That means that Embiid isn’t strictly a catch-and-shoot big. It’s rare to see that from a center, but it’s not surprising to see it from Joel Embiid. Despite being listed at 7'0", Embiid is comfortable playing on the perimeter. Obviously, he isn’t going to break any ankles, but it would be ignorant to say that Embiid isn’t a good ball-handler for his size. When Embiid drags another big out to the perimeter, he is able to do a jab step or perform a couple dribbles to keep the defender guessing before launching a three. As a center, he took 14 pull-up threes and 11 step-back threes last season. And 22.6% of his straight jump-shot threes were unassisted. However, like Horford, a decent amount of Embiid’s threes come from him trailing the play or playing in the pick-and-pop.

 

Conclusion

 

       So the question still remains: “Are the 76ers a good shooting team?” Everyone in the starting lineup has merits to their shooting ability, except Ben Simmons. Josh Richardson is a proficient and efficient volume shooter. Tobias Harris is smooth shot creator from the perimeter. Al Horford has an intelligent shot selection and possesses a great shooting touch for a bigman. Joel Embiid is very comfortable taking threes as a center and can heat up quickly. I provided the evidence. I’ll let you decide whether this team can really shoot or not.

 

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