When you take a look around the NBA you see a landscape that is home to an array of offensively impressive basketball teams. In Golden State, the Warriors may have the best offense ever assembled. Oklahoma City has three of the best scorers in the league in their starting lineup. Houston shoots three-pointers at a blistering rate. LeBron James is still dominating in Cleveland. And Boston has arguably the league’s best finisher on its roster.
Over the last four years, when making your way down the list of offensive threats, the Philadelphia 76ers showed up last. Dead last.
Since 2013-14, the Sixers have registered the worst offensive rating in the league each season. While some of that may have been by design, and not putting guys on the floor that could make the shots necessary to generate wins, the team still maintained the worst offense in the NBA. On the other side of the ball, Philadelphia has made strides over the last handful of seasons, registering the 17th best defensive rating just a year ago.
But new days are on the horizon for the Sixers. With a host of new players at his disposal, head coach Brett Brown has hit the ground running during his first two days of training camp and likes the look of his team’s offensive potential.
“I think the personnel is going to help shield some of those problem areas that we have,” Brown said Wednesday at Sixers training camp. “Let’s go straight now to Ben (Simmons). I think with his skill package, talent, and height, that he’s going to see things ahead of him in a different sort of vision line, I’ve said that. I love the pace T.J. (McConnell) plays with, Ben can play fast as well. I think both T.J. and Ben are going reap the benefits of having a healthy Joel (Embiid), or J.J. (Redick) flying in. Or how do we use Markelle (Fultz) and Jerryd (Bayless)? I think all of those things will happen. I think we sort of expect our offense at some point will catch our defense.”
This offseason, the Sixers’ additions to their roster have been well-noted. 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz brings his silky smooth offensive game to the gym, J.J. Redick inked a massive contract to provide lights-out shooting from beyond the arc, and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons will finally be able to hit the court after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Simply put, Philadelphia shouldn’t finish with the worst offense in the league this season.
During camp on Wednesday, the team ran some live-action five-on-five scrimmaging. Simmons was acting as his team’s point guard, as Brown has been on record saying he will do, and for the majority was running with the likes of Fultz, Redick and Robert Covington as his perimeter players.
In a particular sequence, Simmons was able to grab a defensive rebound and used his ball-handling ability to push the tempo into a fast break situation. The end result was a corner three-point basket by Covington.
During the same span that the Sixers have been the worst offensive team in the NBA, they’ve actually maintained one of the league’s fastest paces. Last season, Philadelphia ran with the 5th ranked pace in the league, and during Brown’s first season with the team, they had the fastest pace of all 30 NBA clubs.
The bread and butter of Brown’s offense will be to outrun the opponent. With a 6-foot-10 point guard like Simmons now available and ready in the team’s stable, pushing a team into transition becomes a much easier task to accomplish. Running a well-executed transition offense can lead to a lot of open looks, and Simmons’ teammates are already taking notice.
“Ben puts a lot of pressure on defenses,” Covington said. “He can bust out get open ahead, kick it ahead, there are so many things he can do that come second nature to him. We’re just reading off of him. A lot of the time the ball’s going to be in his hands so we’re getting accustomed to him pushing the ball and attacking defenses and everything. He’s finding open guys, and a lot of guys been getting open shots.”
Through the first few days of training camp, Simmons wants to make sure that he stresses to his teammates if they are open in this new-look offense, he’ll find them.
“It’s not easy to play the point position, but I’m enjoying it,” Simmons said. “I’m getting better at that. Going up the floor, they know if they get to the corner I’ll find them.”
When the Sixers selected Fultz with the top pick in June’s draft, they did so with his potential pairing with Simmons in mind. Fultz is a scoring guard with the size to play either guard position and the shooting touch to play off of the ball. During his lone season at Washington, Fultz not only averaged over 23 points per game, but he also recorded nearly six assists a contest as well.
On the court together, Fultz and Simmons present a unique attack that defenses are going to struggle to stop.
“He played the one some, I played the one some,” Fultz said. “I love it. You don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s gonna push it sometimes, I’m gonna push it. I get to run the floor. I can set screens for him, he can set screens for me. It’s unpredictable. I feel sorry for the teams that have to go against that.”
Along with the culmination of Simmons and Fultz hitting the floor together, the Sixers are also returning this season their biggest free agent acquisition from last summer, Bayless. Last July, Bayless became the first notable player to sign a long-term deal with Philadelphia since the team embarked on The Process. However, a wrist injury forced Bayless to miss all but three games last season.
After coming over from the Milwaukee Bucks, who have an oversized ball-handler in their own right, Bayless brings another point of attack for the Sixers this season. Just two years removed from shooting 43.7 percent from deep, Bayless is looking to hit the court this season and remind the league why the Sixers gave him $27 million in the first place.
While it appears the noise around the Sixers and their budding potential has overshadowed the role Bayless could play this season, Brown certainly hasn’t lost sight of his potential to contribute.
“In the role that he’s at right now, and we’ve talked a lot about it, is trying to be that sort of lightning in a bottle scorer off of the bench at the start of the game,” Brown said. “We had Manu (Ginobili) do that, you see Jamal Crawford, everybody sort of has that type of guy.”
As the Sixers have shaped an offense that will focus on pace, they should be able to generate a lot of open looks on most nights. During training camp on Wednesday, that was on display more than a few times. As a result of that concept, the Sixers decided to pay Redick $23 million this summer to make sure that when they do get off and running, someone will be there to knock down the shot. A career 41.5 percent three-point shooter, Redick fills the mold nicely as a player who can make defenses pay for helping.
“Open the floor up, easy,” Fultz said of Redick’s ability. “Whoever’s guarding him can’t help, and if you do he’s gonna make the shot. He’s not only a shooter, he’s a playmaker, he sets screens, he drives to the rim. He does a little bit of everything.”
For a team that has struggled to fill up the scoreboard over the last four seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers and their new players are in a position to run all over opposing defenses this year.
NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact
Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.
Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts.
Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason.
- Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard).
- DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place.
- New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
- Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
- Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.
One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.
NBA Daily: Will Philadelphia Struggle From Downtown?
Do the Philadelphia 76ers have enough outside shooting talent to spread the floor on the offensive end? Jordan Hicks takes a look.
It’s only been one game, and this could likely be an overreaction, but will the Philadelphia 76ers struggle this season from beyond-the-arc? With the departure of two highly capable shooters in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, it might not be insane to say this could turn into a large problem throughout the season.
Last season for the 76ers, Belinelli finished 38.5 percent from three and Ilyasova finished at 36.1 percent. While neither of those percentages is staggering, both sit above the league average, and those players shoot and make threes at a consistent pace. Neither player was necessarily streaky from downtown, so you knew what to expect from them on a nightly basis.
What the two players brought more than anything was gravity. Each game, teams had to strategically plan how to stop them from making three-point shots. Players had to maintain certain spots on the floor defensively, which in turn left offensive players in advantageous positions. Losing both Belinelli and Ilyasova allows defenses to suck in closer to the paint so they can better defend Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at what they do best – attack the rim.
This is precisely what the Boston Celtics did to the 76ers on Tuesday night, and the final score definitely told the tale. The Celtics ended up winning, 105-87. Boston is a talented squad, and playing at the TD Garden is never an easy task, but the 76ers are too good to lose by high double-digits.
Apart from Boston’s stellar defense, Philadelphia’s mark from the perimeter paints a clear picture of what they might struggle with throughout the season. They finished 5-for-26, good for 19.7 percent.
It’s not like they don’t have any help from three. Robert Covington led the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage last season and J.J. Redick shot a scorching career 41.5 percent from deep. Their third option from three is likely Dario Saric, who finished last season at 39.3 percent. But after those three the drop-off is significant. Embiid might come in next, and he shot a poor 30.8 percent last season.
By the end of the season, the top three scorers for Philadelphia could likely be Simmons, Embiid and last year’s first-round pick, Markelle Fultz. Not one of those players can shoot the three consistently, certainly not at an efficient mark. Simmons and Fultz have never even made a three-point field goal in their young careers.
All three of those players have the ability to score efficiently around the rim, and they’ll likely get their buckets. But with fewer players on the roster to worry about as a deep threat, teams will mirror Boston’s success and crowd the paint.
If Brett Brown continues to play Saric, Covington and Redick in limited minutes – they played just eight minutes together on Tuesday – most of their lineups will only ever feature two above average three-point shooters. This can begin to get highly problematic for the 76ers as the season progresses. As previously mentioned, teams will just stuff the area around the hoop with great rim protectors and only worry about crashing the boards when mid-range jumpers clank off the basket.
Teams that had the most success last season, à la the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, had at minimum three high-level deep threats on the floor at all times. This allowed them to spread the offense, keep defenses guessing and find an open shooter after throwing the ball around from player to player or cutting to the basket. With the fact that multiple shooters on the court can spread out the defense and essentially keep them on their toes, all it takes is an intelligent cut or a crafty pass to find someone open at the rim. If teams don’t have enough efficient shooters on the floor, defenses can just suck in and stop players going to the hoop.
But when there are three or more plus shooters on the court, defenders have a really difficult decision to make. Do you try and play help defense by attempting to stop the shot at the rim? This can leave your opponent open for an easy three. Will help defense get there in time to defend the three? Maybe, but then another quick pass can find another open shooter. So do you stay on your man? Sure, but then you give up an easy basket at the rim.
That last paragraph was elementary. Most teams and fans understand this concept. The importance of efficient shooters in today’s league is at an all-time high. The 76ers have a very talented, young team. Simmons and Embiid are a phenomenal duo to build around. But their lack of players that hold any sort of gravity from three-point land could really give them struggles.
Alas, we are only one game into the season. A handful of teams have yet to play, so there is still plenty of basketball to be had. The 76ers are still monstrous on defense and can obviously generate baskets on the offensive end. Thanks in part to Simmons, they are one of the most electric teams in transition, and can often score with ease around the hoop.
Are the 76ers a playoff team? That’s essentially a lock. Can they go deep in the playoffs? It certainly appears so. But in order for them to make a legitimate run to the Finals, they’ll need to find more efficiency from the three-point line. Not simply because they could use those points, but because they need that spacing for their offense to function at an elite level.
NBA Daily: Warriors Depth Shines on Opening Night
The Warriors have lost some key veterans but opening night showed they still have the depth to reign supreme, writes David Yapkowitz.
With the Golden State Warriors emerging victorious on ring night behind big performances from Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, and the summer addition of DeMarcus Cousins, it’s easy to see why many have penciled them in for a three-peat.
When Cousins returns to the court, the Warriors will be able to play a lineup of five All-Stars with Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. With all of that star talent they possess, it’s easy to overlook the surrounding depth that they’ve managed to accumulate.
A successful organization like the Warriors becomes successful because they have a great front office in place who can identify talent and a good coaching staff who can develop that talent. Having superstars in place certainly helps, but all championship teams need to have that key depth.
Last night, the Warriors showed that they don’t just consist of their superstars, they’ve got some weapons on the team that are very capable of having big nights of their own.
The past few seasons, the Warriors depth in the frontcourt consisted of older veterans such as Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West. Pachulia and McGee signed elsewhere while West retired. With Cousins still recovering, that leaves the majority of the frontcourt minutes to younger, more inexperienced players such as Damion Jones and Kevon Looney.
Neither Jones nor Looney has seen much action during their first few seasons in the league. Looney had his fourth-year contract option declined a year ago, and this summer he received very little interest in free agency before re-signing with the Warriors. Prior to last night, it seemed as if Jones would follow the same fate as the team has until Oct. 31 to pick up his fourth-year option.
If last night was any indication, however, the Warriors would be wise to keep both around for as long as possible.
Making his first ever career start, Jones passed his initial test. He looked like a perfect compliment to the Warriors All-Stars. He ran the pick and roll to perfection, finishing with 12 points on 6-7 shooting from the field. He can finish around the rim, and he also had three assists.
Defensively, he blocked three shots and matched up well with Steven Adams all night.
Coming off the bench, Looney had a productive game of his own. He had a double-double with ten points and ten rebounds. Eight of his rebounds came on the offensive end, helping the Warriors gain extra possessions. He also had two assists and two blocked shots.
Both big men, Jones in particular since he’s the starter, will have a few more tests coming up as the Warriors travel to Utah and Denver. Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic await them. It will be interesting to see how they respond to that. For the duration that Cousins remains out, the Warriors will be relying quite a bit on their young big men.
Should either one falter at any point, the Warriors still have Jordan Bell waiting in the wings. Bell proved to be a second-round steal last season, but only saw six minutes of action on opening night. Bell brings a bit of a different skill set to the table than Jones and Looney. He’s a versatile big who can guard multiple positions.
As the season goes on, what was once thought of as an area of weakness for the Warriors, might turn out to be a position of strength. And if that occurs, that bodes ill for the rest of the league.