This is the second installment of a data dive I’ll write periodically throughout the Sixers season.
We did the first one after 10 games, when the team was 6-4 and had just wrapped up a five-game winning streak that carried into the west coast road swing. They were shooting the three-pointer at a high clip and sharing the ball like a gunslinging, up-tempo team, but they really struggled with turnovers, fouls, and free throw shooting.
They’re 11-15 since then, and I don’t think a ton has changed on paper, but let’s take look at the numbers and see what we can find out.
Points per game: 108.3 (7th in the league)
They’re actually up four spots in this category, from 11th to 7th in the span of two months. The raw number looks good overall.
When we modify the statistic per 100 possessions, the Sixers fall all the way to 19th place with a 104.0 number. That’s inefficiency there, with the high turnover rate being the biggest reason for the drop off in meaningful trips down the floor.
Field goal percentage: 46.1 (11th)
Not much movement in this category, but a slight increase of 0.3%. They’ve been top 15 in FG% all season long, and right now they’re making 40.2 of 87.2 attempts on 103.3 average possessions per game.
That possession number, known as “PACE,” is top-three in the NBA, and shows you just how fast the Sixers move the ball up and down the floor. Per 48 minute averages, only the Lakers have a higher number, at 103.9. The Warriors, who are the poster child for wide-open play, are 5th in the league with a 102.3 PACE number, and they shoot the ball at a 50.8% clip.
They play up-tempo and shoot the lights out, which is probably why they’re the league’s best (and most exciting) team.
Three-point shooting percentage: 35.5% (19th)
A massive drop-off here, the Sixers were the third-best three-point shooting team in early November.
They shot the ball 39.9% from the deep during the first ten games, then really fell back down to Earth.
Right now they’re hitting 10.6 of their 29.9 attempts per game, way down from a 12.3 for 30.8 average at the start of the year. They’re making almost two fewer three-pointers per game, which is about a 5.8 point swing on the scoreboard.
The decline is noticeable from October, to November, and now down to December:
For whatever reason, they shoot the three better on the road, at a 38.1% rate, compared to a 32.5% rate at home. I don’t know why there’s a huge gap there. You would think they’d shoot it better at the Wells Fargo Center, but they don’t.
Free-throw attempts: 23 per game (tied for 10th)
They’re actually up 10 spots, which is stunning to me, because it still feels like they don’t get to the line nearly enough.
The Sixers draw 21.1 fouls per game, which is down from 21.4, but I think the reason for the improvement here is because Joel Embiid has been playing more minutes and getting more whistles in the post, especially on minimal contact where he receives the benefit of the doubt.
They still aren’t driving to the rim and getting enough shooting fouls, at least not Ben Simmons or T.J. McConnell. And the rest of the team barely drives at all, hence disparity between total fouls and shooting fouls.
Free-throw percentage: 75.2% (27th)
This number is up from 69.8%, but it’s still one of the team’s biggest weaknesses. They are only making 17.3 of those 23 attempts per game.
Rebounds: 47.7 per game (1st)
Doesn’t mean much as a raw number. There are so many arbitrary factors that go into a total rebounding number.
What does matter is 11.3 offensive boards per game, which is third-best in the NBA. Per 100 possessions, the Sixers have a 10.9 here and remain in the top-five.
Rebounds start to mean something when you look at percentages, and it seems to check out for the Sixers.
Defensively, they have a 14th-best REB% of 77.7, which means they’re grabbing about three-fourths of available boards. Offensively, they have a REB% of 25.8, which is fourth in the NBA. In total, the REB% number is 52.6%, which is second in the NBA.
So it’s not just that they’re grabbing a bunch raw rebounds, the percentages show that they are top-half or top-ten across the board, on the boards.
Assists per game: 26.2 (3nd)
This number hasn’t changed at all. They’ve been sitting on 26 assists per game for the entire season. They continue to share the ball and look for open teammates in their up-tempo system.
Turnovers: 18.1 (30th)
They’re worst in the NBA, no surprise, but the number has actually decreased from 18.5 to 18.1, so maybe there’s a moral victory in there somewhere.
Los Angeles is 29th in turnovers and Golden State is 28th, so you see the correlation with the PACE teams who play a faster, pass-happy game. You’ve also got Simmons and Lonzo Ball, a pair of rookie ball handlers, running the Sixers and Lakers.
Obviously more turnovers results in a number of shorter possessions, which equals more possessions overall. The turnover number is key for the Sixers, but it isn’t a back-breaker for a championship team like Golden State that makes the rest of their possessions count with high-percentage shooting.
To take it a step further, the Sixers have a 0.82 PPP number, or “points per possession,” when they’re in isolation sets. That’s third-worst in the league. They are second-worst when taking spot-up shots. But when they play in transition, that PPP number shoots all the way up to 1.01, which is third-best in the NBA. They are right around 10th in post-up sets, which are going to Joel Embiid.
It confirms that they’re just much more effective scoring in transition, versus slowing it down and shooting mid-range stuff. When they do slow the pace, they are most effective going inside to Embiid.
Another indicator is looking at how they shoot at various points in the shot clock. They make more shots when they work in transition or quickly get into the offense, rather than slowing the game down.
Look at how the field goal percentages drop as the shot clock ticks:
It should, theoretically, justify the tempo as being one of their strengths. And while a faster tempo results in more wild passes and more turnovers, good teams, like the Warriors, can live with it.
This is the Sixers’ identity, whether we like it or not, so if you want that turnover number to drop, you’re looking at seriously stylistic changes to the way they play the game.
Steals per game: 8.4 (8th)
Still in the top 10 and still aggressive in this department, reflected by a 15.5 deflections per game number. The Sixers are the third best team at getting a hand on the ball, lead by Robert Covington, who is a top-three performer:
Steals and deflections are best when analyzed against the next topic…
Personal fouls per game: 23.9 (30th)
They’re still dead last in this category, but they’ve brought the number down two points from 25.9, so that’s a small win. Nobody fouls more than the Sixers, which is why they get killed in free-throw disparity every single game.
Blocks per game: 5.1 (8th)
An increase of 0.6% to get them into the top half of the association. Again, this is Embiid’s presence.
Blocked field goal attempts: 5.8 (29th)
A small, 0.3 improvement here, but they’ve been rock bottom in this category for most of the year, simply because they play below the rim and don’t have many guys outside of Embiid and Simmons who are going to rise above defenders in the paint.
Let’s go through the league-wide numbers to see where the Sixers fit in.
points per game:
Joel Embiid: 23.9 (14th), JJ Redick: 17.1 (44th), Ben Simmons: 16.6 (45th), Robert Covington: 14.2 (68th), Dario Saric 13.6 (77th)
Joel’s PPG is up 3.4 per game and Redick is up 1.5. Ben Simmons and Robert Covington have both fallen off by about a point each. Dario Saric enters the top-80 on the strength of 48% December shooting.
The output is still relatively balanced, but the gap between Embiid and the next-best scorer is wider than it was before, which shows how much they’ve relied on him in recent weeks (and why they usually lose when he doesn’t play).
minutes per game:
Ben Simmons: 35.9 (13th), JJ Redick: 33.1 (38th), Robert Covington: 32.4 (49th), Joel Embiid: 31.3 (67th), Dario Saric: 30.6 (73rd)
Simmons’s minutes have barely changed at all while Covington jumped up almost 2 full MPG and Jerryd Bayless fell out of the top-80 by going from 31.1 to 25.7 minutes.
Embiid enters the fray with a 31.3, which is a steady increase from his 27.6 MPG over the first ten games.
T.J. McConnell: 41.9% (N/A), JJ Redick: 39.5%, (49th), Robert Covington: 39.1% (53rd), Jerryd Bayless: 37.5%, (69th), Dario Saric: 36.6% (81st)
Big drops across the board here:
- Redick = down 3.9%
- Covington = down 10.9%
- Bayless = down 4.7%
Covington was shooting a ridiculous 50% through 10 games, which was never going to be sustainable. He’s still on pace to have a career year from beyond, however. 37.4% is his best three-point mark, which was set back in 2014-2015.
McConnell is shooting 41.9% on 31 attempts this season, so he doesn’t qualify for ranking based on the target of 82 made three-pointers. For what it’s worth, he shot 20% on 55 attempts last year and 34.8% on 89 attempts two years back.
Ben Simmons: 7.5 APG (4th), 1.9 assist to turnover ratio (58th), T.J. McConnell: 4.7 APG (25th), 2.5 assist to turnover ratio (51st)
Drops here for both point guards, though Simmons remains top five in assists per game.
Simmons’s A/TO ratio is down from 2.16 and McConnell’s is down from 2.89 and both are logging fewer assists per game overall.
T.J. ranks 25th in A/TO and Simmons is not in the top-40. He’s down to 58th while JJ Redick actually creeps up to 37th with 3.3 assists and 1.5 turnovers per game. That latter number seems low to me, considering that he’s had a lot of killer turnovers in late game scenarios. But, lo and behold, there’s Redick with a 2.23 A/TO turnover, now qualified as he’s on pace for at least 200 assists.
Going through “assists per 48 minutes,” which is an extrapolation to compare players who don’t log the same amount of game time, Simmons has a 10.0 and McConnell a 9.3. Ben moves down to 16th while T.J. comes up to 19th.
Here’s the disclaimer on assist to turnover ratio:
Of course, not every turnover is the result of a failed pass. Ball-handlers can lose the rock on the dribble as well, so you really do need further context here. Don’t think of AST/TO as a micro-measure of how well a guy can pass, think of it as macro statistic for how high-volume players exhibit overall ball security and intelligence.
Ben Simmons: 1.89 SPG (6th), Robert Covington: 1.85 (8th), T.J. McConnell: 1.25 (41st)
Simmons and Covington are both up in this department.
The context here is usually the ST/PF ratio, or steals to personal fouls. Simmons is 25th with a 0.67 and Covington is 43rd with a 0.58. Cov has 63 steals this season but 108 fouls, the 11th most in the NBA. That’s the product of him being aggressive, but also having to guard the opponent’s best player each and every night.
A positive here is that Covington’s ST/PF ratio is actually improved from a 0.38. He was way down at 146th and has really become more efficient in this area. He’s not committing as many of those tacky slaps under the basket after getting beat on the perimeter, but you still see some plays like this, where he has to cover for a teammate in transition and goes for the ball, but ends up getting a questionable whistle:
The top five in ST/PF this season are Jimmy Butler, Shabazz Napier, Gary Harris, Tyus Jones, and Marco Belinelli. They’re the only players with more steals than fouls.
Joel Embiid: 1.96 per game (5th), Ben Simmons: 0.89 (45th), Robert Covington: 0.76 (55th), Amir Johnson: 0.71 (64th)
The Sixers are up across the board here. Embiid’s number increased from 1.38 to 1.96. Simmons and Covington enter the top 80. Amir Johnson’s number is also improved.
A positive with Joel is that his BLK/PF rate has increased from 0.39 to 0.55, with 53 blocks to 97 personal fouls. At the start of the season, he had 11 blocks vs. 28 personal fouls. Again, more efficiency there. He’s becoming better in rim protection, as is Simmons.
Anthony Davis leads the league with a 1.14 here, blocking 66 shots and committing just 58 personal fouls. That’s a crazy stat.
Robert Covington: 3.2 per game (9th), Joel Embiid: 3.6 per game (1st place tie)
This is where per 48 stats really shine, because Joel is committing 3.6 fouls per game but ranks waaaaaay down at 115th for PF48M. So he really doesn’t foul as much as you think he does. His net change from October to January is a whopping +0.1.
As for Covington, he’s cut back here dramatically, down to 3.2 FPG from 4.0 FPG. He’s 164th in PF48M, well behind repeat bench foulers like TLC, Justin Anderson, Richaun Holmes, Amir Johnson, and the king of PF48M, Jahlil Okafor.
If Okafor played an entire 48 minute game, he would commit 9 fouls. That’s based on a whopping three-game sample size.
Ben Simmons: 18 (tied for 10th), Joel Embiid: 15 (tied for 14th)
Simmons has come back to Earth here and Embiid’s double-double numbers are up.
Here are some less-typical numbers for anyone who’s curious to get into the more advanced world of basketball data. I’ll just cherry pick some interesting things that involve the Sixers.
Player impact estimate
This is a somewhat confusing way to determine a player’s overall statistical contribution.
The formula is:
(PTS + FGM + FTM – FGA – FTA + DREB + (.5 * OREB) + AST + STL + (.5 * BLK) – PF – TO) / (GmPTS + GmFGM + GmFTM – GmFGA – GmFTA + GmDREB + (.5 * GmOREB) + GmAST + GmSTL + (.5 * GmBLK) – GmPF – GmTO)
All you need to know is that Joel Embiid ranks 6th in this category, behind LeBron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.
The takeaway here is that he’s important.
This is the number of points per 100 possessions that a team allows while a specific player is on the court.
Embiid is top-ten in this category with a 99.5. The Sixers overall are a 103.7, so this is a fancy way of saying they’re much better defensively when he’s out there.
This is easier. It’s basically the amount of plays going through a certain player. Embiid is third in the NBA with a 33.9 USG%, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook. It confirms that a large chunk of the Sixers offense goes through him, and explains why they look almost completely lost offensively at times when he isn’t on the floor.
I mentioned this earlier, but the glossary definition is the “number of possessions per 48 minutes for a team or player.”
T.J. McConnell leads the entire league here, while most of his second unit teammates are also in the top 40 (since they obviously share the court with him). He pushes the tempo of play to the point where the Sixers would have 105.86 possessions if he played the entire game.
Simmons is 57th with a 103.36 pace number. Here’s the top 10:
Effective field goal percentage
This is basically a weighted FG% that makes three-pointers 1.5 times more valuable than two-point field goals. In layman’s terms, why shoot a 21-foot 2 pointer when you can take a step backward and shoot a more valuable three-pointer instead? Data shows that the least efficient shot in basketball is the long-range 2-point field goal.
The Sixers are 13th with a 52.2 number here.
The biggest issue for the Sixers has been the considerable decline in three-point shooting and lack of improvement with personal fouls and turnovers.
However, shooting statistics that correlate to transitional and early shot clock opportunities justify the pace of play, even if they’re losing the ball at a torrid pace. That’s natural for a team lead by a rookie point guard, and a smaller, less athletic backup who leads the league in pushing the tempo.
I think the inability to close out games and hold on to leads is more of a psychological thing for a team that simply needs to learn how to win. Slowing down the game and making the most of your possessions is not a strength of this squad, but that’s the reality in a sport where you are going to have timeouts, fouls, and other rhythm breaking stoppages in the third and fourth quarters. We saw Ben Simmons take control of the game on Sunday night, which is a positive boon for a team that’s doing well enough to build big leads, but just has to learn how to keep those leads.