Space Jam: The NBA’s Gravity Era Welcomes the 2017-18 Sixers

Photo credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Monstars were well ahead of the analytics curve in that they made all nine of their three-point attempts against Michael Jordan’s Tune Squad back in 1996. Even though they lost, the Monstars merit some credit for the modernity of their approach to the game. (Yes, someone from Harvard charted the game from Space Jam.)

Gravity – in basketball terms – wasn’t really a factor in Space Jam, as Jordan’s team didn’t attempt a single shot beyond the arc and still somehow beat a gang of efficient aliens with a crew of cartoons. The Monstars also jumped like 40 feet in the air, so even the Isaac Newton version of gravity wasn’t a factor in the premise.

What do I mean by gravity? In a basketball context, gravity is the propensity for defenders to be drawn to certain parts of the floor based on the quality and quantity of shooting threats. Dumbed down (for me, not you), gravity is the manifestation of how defenders respect specific shooters and scorers on the floor.

ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh detailed elite gravitational players back in 2014, and unsurprisingly, Stephen Curry led the league in this inventive metric. You’ll catch shit from your coach if you leave Curry too much space, which might be 10 inches. Kyle Korver was second in the gravity index that season, with Klay Thompson third. It’s the fear factor, sans Joe Rogan, of modern pro hoops.

As Haberstroh details, “by tracking how the defense shifts at every instance in the game, gravity score attempts to quantify how much defensive attention a player receives when he’s off the ball. In other words, a player’s gravitational pull on the opposing defense.”

When I was a kid watching players like Shaquille O’Neal dominate the paint, while also witnessing increasingly tall and proficient ball handlers like Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway excel, I was convinced the NBA floor would one day become too small to accommodate the size and speed of the NBA athlete, and thus game. How would the floor not become clogged? This was a valid concern for fans who spent their formative years watching the Knicks and Heat fill the floor Royal Rumble style into the late 90s. I also wondered how dragons have sex, but that remains unresolved.

Innovation was the resolution to my concern (the NBA part, not dragon boning); the floor didn’t need to be expanded by square footage, the players had to expand their shooting range in order to open up the floor.

Some have deemed the modern trend of NBA offense the “space and pace” era; teams are increasingly unafraid to push the tempo (as in increased possessions and working quickly with the shot clock) and even less fearful of jacking a high volume of three-pointers. Mike D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets epitomize the extreme usage of this trend, while the Golden State Warriors are perfecting the use of space as a weapon with dynastic results.

The Rockets led the NBA last season with 46.3% of all of their shots from the field coming from three-point range, an NBA record for such allocation by a wide margin. In 2013-14, the Rockets paced the league with 32.9% of their shots from beyond the arc. The league-wide shift in shooting volume from three-point range isn’t adhering to a linear path, as savvy teams are rapidly realizing how influential floor spacing has become in the Golden (State) Era of the game.

It’s telling that D’Antoni, the architect of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, was a short-lived assistant for the Sixers in the 2015-16 season. The Sixers badly want to excel in employing an effective space-and-space agenda, with an increased emphasis on the space element. The team hasn’t had many quality shooters – or gravity creators – during Brett Brown’s tenure in South Philly, but he’s had the team lofting from beyond without hesitation for several seasons now. Over the past three seasons, the Sixers have ranked fourth (in 2014-15, 32.1% of the 76ers’ shots were from three-point range), eighth (2015-16, 33.3%) and seventh (2016-17, 35%).

The Sixers sank 33.9% of their shots from beyond last season, 25th in the league, and yet were just 0.4% shy of the Warriors in their market share of three-point attempts. Imagine what might happen when, I don’t know, the team invests incredible short-term cash into an elite shooter like J.J. Redick and long-term draft capital into a gifted shot creator such as Markelle Fultz. Good things happen on the NBA floor when volume and efficiency converge.

The magnetism of a quality shooter such as Redick is apparent when using a new metric know as “Spacing Rating.”

A fellow NBA nerd named Nick Sciria developed Spacing Rating by incorporating three-point efficiency and volume into a formula. By his own admission, the model is “more of a rough draft than a final thesis,” but Sciria does offer a cool tool to help us tinker with how certain lineups around the league might fare in regards to the quality of collective gravity. (This reminds me of when I use the preset substitution changes on NBA 2K and select the “shooting roster” so I can jack three-pointers on every possession like I’m D’Antoni on the sticks.)

The way the Spacing Rating formula works in regards to results is that it spits out a percentile for how “good” a given five-man lineup is at creating spacing relative to the league.

So, for example, the Warriors’ lineup of death: Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, earned a 100% factor in the metric. There just isn’t a lineup in the world that demands more respect from all over the floor. A Clippers lineup featuring Redick ranked 11th in the league in Spacing Rating, per the chart below.

Last season, the Sixers’ top gravity gang ranked 20th in the league in the 67.7th percentile of Spacing Rating and included Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova and Joel Embiid.

Sciria evaluated the 76ers’ potential playing the space game in a recent video breakdown. We slid into his DM’s in order to get additional Sixers-specific intel.

“Given that Brown’s scheme is one that produces a high frequency of three-pointers,” Sciria wrote. “I think Philly’s offensive spacing will be a bright spot this offensive season. The Sixers have a great combination of shooters (Redick/Covington), playmakers (Fultz/Simmons/Dario) and a big with a ton of inside-out gravity (Embiid) to collapse the defense.”

“I haven’t seen anyone look into the numerical aspect of inside-out gravity in the public sphere,” Sciria told me. “Which is why I can’t really add that aspect to the Spacing Rating at this time. I know players like Gobert and Embiid have that type of impact; you could *see* it when you watch their games.”

The impact of Embiid as a shooting threat beyond the arc and as an inside-out spacer (drawing additional defenders on the block) is simply massive. Just look at the chart above and marvel at Memphis’ newfound spacing; it’s all about Marc Gasol’s ascent as a shooter. It took Gasol nearly a decade to develop such range, and yet Embiid’s prodigious touch simply arrived. Stay healthy, Jo.

Let’s test how the Sixers’ potentially main lineups for 2017-18 might fare using Spacing Rating as a predictive measure of sorts.

It’s difficult to assess how Fultz’s three-point shot will translate to the pros, but thanks to another hoops nerd named Andrew Johnson, we can approximate this transition and assume Fultz’s 42% clip at Washington results in a rate around 34 to 35% in the league. This rate might even appear generous when we consider Fultz didn’t take many deep three-pointers in college and often toed the line, but given his effectiveness in a small sample from pro range in Salt Lake City this summer, the sweet stroke could capably survive the transition.

It’s even more difficult to approximate the quality of Ben Simmons’s range from beyond. Although, according to this video, he’s matched the Monstars by going nine-for-nine from three-point range. That’s all I need to see. But really, Simmons doesn’t need to be a proficient three-point shooter to garner gravity, as a player such as Dwyane Wade ranked among the elite gravity factors in 2014 despite sub-optimal efficiency from beyond.

In another piece by Haberstroh examining Wade’s outlier status as a gravity asset, the star himself was a bit perplexed, “I don’t think anybody has ever called me that term, a floor-spacer, before,” Wade said. “But honestly I’ve always known that I’m a floor-spacer, just in a different way.”

This different way manifests itself in Wade’s unique off-ball cutting skills and dynamic handle and passing abilities, elements Simmons might be apt to pursue in lieu of becoming an efficient shooter. Every player claims some degree of gravity, and for Simmons to mimic Wade’s ascension as a spacing weapon during his prime, his ability to create plays off the dribble and cut to the basket could prove valuable for the Sixers’ space aspirations. Simmons might not need to become a respected shooting threat to be treated like one if his game is as dynamic as some suspect.

“The increased playmaking this season might be one of the biggest factors in Philly’s spacing improvement,” Sciria wrote. “As guys like Simmons and Fultz can ‘move’ the defense by forcing them to help and creating holes and gaps–space!–in the overall defense.”

Now to the entirely assumptive final portion of this spacing appraisal for the Sixers.

Since Sciria’s tool doesn’t include rookies in its database, as it’s based on last year’s shooting results, I’m using Jrue Holiday as the comparison for Fultz, as the former Sixer shot 35.6% from three-point distance last season for New Orleans on a healthy 4.2 attempts per game. This might be a lofty correlation, but Fultz’s efficiency at a truly high volume in college demands some credence.

For Simmons, he of the three three-point attempts at LSU, I’m using T.J. McConnell as his mannequin for this exercise, he of the 20% three-point clip last season in a still ball-dominant role. I honestly sorted last season’s results by NBA players who have awful shooting rates from beyond, yet averaged at least four assists, to find some approximations for Simmons’s skill set. It’s not the savviest assumption, but holding Simmons to 20% from beyond the arc at just 0.7 three-point attempts per game, as McConnell did last season, appears viable when considering his NCAA sample.

This approximated Sixers lineup, one including facsimiles of Fultz and Simmons that we haphazardly concocted, scored in the 76.6th percentile in Sciria’s tool. Truly the 76ers. This rate would rank in the top 15 of all gravity lineups last year.

As for the bench mob, there are some creative ways to weaponize shooting and playmaking from deeper into the roster and rotation.

Feel free to play around with this tool with some imaginative Sixers’ lineups. I don’t know who made the lineup below, but maybe a certain disgruntled superstar in the Midwest reads Crossing Broad in mid-September.

We are speculating because it’s a speculative time of year. The season is right around the bend. It’s not long until we learn how much gravity Brown’s imaginative offensive agenda and the coalescence of this new space-friendly roster might create.

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5 Responses

  1. I think Simmons will be the best overall player on the Sixers. But the overall team success depends on Embiid (obviously). Unfortunately no one can answer whether he’s gonna start the year or not. No chance you’ll get an update on either sports radio stations. And it’s funny because Myrtetus a week ago proclaimed that he wanted to do his show with Mayes differently. He didn’t want to just be Eagles all the time. His words. However every time I tune in to any show on either station it is the same thing. And not only is it Eagles Eagles Eagles. It’s literally the same topic, run/pass ratio with Pederson.

    1. Simmons is out with a fractured knee cap.
      Embiid is having microsurgery this week and
      that other dope they drafted failed a drug test.

      YOU’RE ALL &*UCKED!
      go watch some socker!!!!!

  2. So I guess when MJ jumped from half court and stretched his arm to drop the ball in the net that wasn’t a 3 pointer???

  3. With a little luck, the clinton snowflake cry babies can get he NBA banned fro being racist!

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