This is part four of a season-ending series looking back at each player’s 2017-2018 campaign.
Part one – Jerryd Bayless
Part two – Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
Part three – Justin Anderson
In the could have/should have department, the plight of Richaun Holmes resonated loudly from Camden to South Philadelphia.
It was clear that the Sixers’ third-year center had more offensive ability than Amir Johnson. He brought more energy off the bench. He was younger. He was the better athlete and he had the ability to spark his team with a thunderous dunk or hustle play. In a way, he was sort of like the front court T.J. McConnell, a guy with a significant portion of fan backers who felt like he provided that extra “something” off the pine.
So why didn’t he play more?
It was similarly clear that Holmes never really earned the full trust of Brett Brown and the Sixers’ coaching staff because of shortcomings on the defensive end of the floor. Johnson was the savvy veteran who made up for his limitations by showing reliability, scrapping on the glass, setting good screens, and limiting mistakes. He was steady, if unspectacular.
Holmes just never did enough to earn full confidence from Brown, and that was the focus of last week’s exit interview:
“(Brown and Bryan Colangelo) Just told me some things to work on, especially defensively,” Richaun explained. “This summer, just work on getting my body right, coming back better, being more explosive, more cerebral in how I play defense. It’s something I’m looking forward to doing.”
As a follow-up, I asked Holmes for his interpretation of being more “cerebral” defensively:
“Just locking in, locking in to game plans and locking in to defensive schemes and using my athleticism better in spaces where it’s needed,” he said. “I just need to lock in a little bit more and focus.”
That’s a smart answer, I think, because it’s not like Richaun is lacking the physical tools to be a good defender. It’s other stuff like rotating, sliding, helping, reading the game – that’s what he’s alluding to when he talks about scheme and focus.
Holmes was asked how he can improve that since he won’t exactly be playing 5v5 NBA games over the summer. He mentioned “attacking the game as a whole” and getting into the weight room, watching film, studying player tendencies and schemes, and learning how to operate against different players.
You’d see a lot of this in 2017-18, where he was just slow to read a play and react:
No rim protection there a light slap at the ball after a teammate is beat on the perimeter.
To Brown’s thinking, Holmes had a 106.2 defensive rating this year, which was one of the worst on the team. Johnson finished with a 101.3 (while getting more starts and more first unit minutes alongside better defenders). Richaun shot the ball 2.2 percentage points better than Johnson but wasn’t as effective on the offensive glass, though the per-36 rebound numbers are separated by a mere 0.1.
I would have tried more Holmes at power forward, if we’re being honest. There was a stretch of the season where Richaun was playing minutes at the four alongside Joel Embiid and the Sixers were excellent when those two worked together.
According to NBA advanced stats, Holmes and Embiid spent 93 minutes on the floor together, and when they did the Sixers posted an 88.9 defensive rating and a 112.6 offensive rating. Embiid’s presence at the rim masked Holmes’ shortcomings on that end of the floor while allowing him to be his energetic and effective self on the offensive end.
Thing is, Brown didn’t use that pairing often. He would start Embiid with Dario Saric, then usually bring in Johnson at the five. Joel was then paired with an ineffective Trevor Booker (early in the season) or a more effective Ersan Ilyasova (later in the season), normally given a stretch-four teammate to complement his skill set.
Consider the following:
- Embiid and Booker played 271 minutes together with a 103.3 DEFRTG and 107.8 OFFRTG
- Embiid and Ilyasova played 179 minutes together with a 101.5 DEFRTG and a 110.3 OFFRTG
- And with Dario it was 1,197 minutes with a 100.9 DEFRTG and 113.7 OFFRTG.
So the Embiid/Holmes combination provided great numbers over a much smaller sample size. Would that success have held up if extended to 150 or 200 minutes? I guess we’ll never know, but it’s clear that Joel and Richaun were a much better match than Joel and Booker.
And whatever you think about Richaun’s defensive IQ, it’s clear he has the athleticism to make plays on that end of the floor. I can’t really see Ilyasova, Saric, or Johnson doing this:
The highs were high and the lows were low.
Still, playing a non-shooting four isn’t really something Brown prefers. He’s spoken openly about requiring his power forward to be able to knock down shots, which isn’t Holmes’ game. According to basketball reference, 51% of his 241 field goal attempts came within 3 feet while 22% came between 3 and 10 feet.
We’ll see if the Sixers bring back Ilyasova next season to mirror Saric’s skill-set on the unit, or if they go elsewhere.
Whatever the case, Holmes was apparently a little frustrated at the lack of playing time this year. He only played 15.5 minutes per game in 48 appearances and Coggin wrote a little bit about this situation from March:
Richaun Holmes just tweeted and immediately deleted before I could screen grab
"Fuck This Shit"
— Josh Lloyd (@redrock_bball) March 7, 2018
That alleged tweet was posted after Holmes was given 3 minutes in a garbage time Charlotte blow out. He only played twice in the next six games before Embiid’s facial fracture opened the door to double digit minutes in 11 of 13 games to finish out the regular season. Holmes played just 11 total minutes in the playoffs, with Brown preferring Johnson and the small ball Ilyasova/Saric lineup.
Statistically speaking, Richaun did get his FG% slightly up this season on the strength of better 2PT accuracy. His three-point shooting, which is not necessarily required or even relevant, dipped:
Holmes’ rebounding percentage was up and his turnovers were down, so there were some auxiliary wins across the board.
He did start the season with an injury, missing eight games due to a fractured wrist before debuting on November third against Indiana. Maybe he got off to a slow start because of that.
He’s due $1.6 million as he heads into the final year of his contract. With Amir Johnson unlikely to return and Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel long gone, it should be interesting to see how the Sixers approach the second-unit center position. Is Holmes the guy? Does Jonah Bolden come over? Do they look for value in the draft?
Whatever the case, it seems like Holmes will be in a good ‘ole fight for his spot this summer.