It’s fair to say that up until a few weeks ago, Philadelphia was riding high in the sports world. Without rehashing the specifics, that high came crashing down simultaneously. For the Birds, the misfortune was largely out of their control; for the Sixers, the struggles fall squarely on themselves, and fans are justifiably looking for answers.
Just when they looked poised to establish themselves on the upper tiers of the Eastern Conference they’ve slowed to their roughest stretch of the season. Naturally, calls for Brett Brown’s firing continue to get louder. Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice recently wrote a great piece on why that’s an overreaction. He soundly debunks a few of the baseless arguments that Brown detractors often use. However, the one argument that he touches on that I feel warrants more attention is perimeter shooting. To summarize his point, he argues that they take a normal amount of threes – not “too many,” as some fans assert. He also argues that they generate plenty of open looks – which some disagree with. Both of these points are valid, but the intent behind the criticisms he’s debunking are also valid. Sitting at 22nd in the NBA in 3-pont percentage, the Sixers need to improve their three-point shooting badly.
As was detailed above, the Sixers take a good amount of threes and create plenty of open looks. While I fully support the point he makes, it shouldn’t satisfy a team whose self-professed goal is to be amongst the league leaders in three-point shooting. If the front office is committed to competing then there’s no reason they shouldn’t look into adding another shooter to the roster.
Although the raw numbers may not directly support it, it’s clear that there are instances when the Sixers struggle with spacing. With the team’s starting and backup point guard (Simmons/McConnell) lacking reliable jumpers – or in Simmons case, lacking a jumper altogether – it’s imperative that the wing players around them are not only high volume shooters, but high percentage shooters. And when you look at how our top 3-and-D wing, Covington, fits that criteria over the recent 10 game stretch, it’s pretty disappointing.
At 30% shooting on 9.2 attempts per his last 10 games, is he high volume? Yep. High percentage? Not even close. A few weeks back, “Big Shot Bob” – as he was originally dubbed – got paid a fat $62 million to be a knock-down shooter, instead, he goes out every night and puts on a bricklaying job that would make Bob the Builder proud.
This isn’t the first time he’s gone through a stretch like this, and it won’t be the last. RoCo is actively hurting this offense, and quite frankly I don’t care what the reason is for those struggles. If he’s not getting ‘open looks’, then we need to add a shooter to help spacing; if he’s just plain missing shots, then we better start looking for a replacement.
The rest of the Team
The rest of the pieces outside of Covington aren’t bad but leave plenty of room for improvement. Reddick is still a feared sniper, but at 38% (lowest since 2012) it’s clear he’s not getting the same open looks he got in LA. Bayless is a solid shooter but has only averaged more than four attempts per game once in his career. Outside of these three players it’s hard to find reliable shooting on this roster. TLC and Saric’s jumpers are still developing – although the latter hasn’t shied from picking up Covington’s slack recently. Not to mention Saric’s skillset will always be better served in other ways than as a standalone shooter.
Compare those three shooters with the top three shooters on any contender and the difference will be clear. Then compare our next three shooters with the next three shooters of that team and it will become even clearer. Due to the fact that the Sixers are built around two non-shooters in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, their need for perimeter shooting is greater than most NBA teams.
Life without Embiid
And speaking of Embiid, his health concerns present the Sixers with a whole other concern entirely. For the rest of his career, regardless of health, the Sixers will face many instances where they’ll need to win without him. Random nights of rest and minutes restrictions are a forgone conclusion, so the Sixers better start figuring out their identity when he’s off the court. The shooting concerns detailed above are made painfully obvious when Embiid is taking the night off, and I don’t need to tell fans that they only have 1 win in his absence. If the teams spacing is considered “league average” with him, it can only be described as downright awful without him. Watching the Bulls and Kings losses reminded me of 80’s basketball in terms of spacing, and those two games serve as a sobering and bittersweet reminders as to how much Joel compensates for our shortcomings. Life without Embiid is inevitable, and if we don’t add shooters to make that life easier then it’ll be a lot of the same.
The effect on Ben Simmons
Although spacing effects each player in some way, the biggest victim of the lack of shooters is Ben Simmons. When Reddick, Covington, or Embiid sit, defenses are able sag off the perimeter and focus on stopping Simmons penetration. He started off the season getting to the rim with ease but recently defenses have been able to stifle him at the point of attack due to the lack of shooting threats that surround him.
This problem isn’t revealed through poor shooting or assist numbers but rather through the high turnover rates of Simmons and the team as a whole. The primary skillset of Simmons is his ability to set others up for their shot, and he can’t do that without spacing. Furthermore, if his shooters continue to miss open looks it will get harder for him to create any looks at all. His ability to distribute and get to the rim is directly tied to his teammate’s ability to create space for him, i.e. their ability to knock down open threes. We’ve established that open looks aren’t the problem, and sooner or later Colangelo will need to start looking elsewhere for players who can hit those shots for the sake of Simmons and Embiid.