There’s a cautious optimism in the air.
The Sixers drew a first round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. Cool. Let’s look ahead to round two, right? Definitely. Will D’Angelo Russell go off for at least one 40-point game? Definitely. Could the series get pushed to six games? It’s conceivable.
But before the Sixers take the court on Saturday, they’ll be faced with the biggest elephant in the room: there’s a massive discrepancy in the talent and efficiency of their starting lineup and the group of YMCA ballers occupying the bench. You knew the gap between the groups was bad. What you probably didn’t know is just how bad the bench is relative to the rest of the league. In part one of a two-part series, we’ll take a look at just how disastrous the Sixers’ guards and wings are as a collective and how the team’s playoff hopes hang perilously on the health of their starting lineup. To help us out, we’ll be citing metrics from Cleaning the Glass, founded by former VP of Basketball Strategy with the Sixers & Basketball Analytics Manager with the Blazers, Ben Falk.
Believe it or not, TJ McConnell is the only player on the Sixers’ bench who qualifies as point guard. Sure, Brett Brown has rolled out iterations of Point Jimmy Butler and Point Tobias Harris, but neither logged enough minutes or possessions at the position to qualify them for consideration relative to the league’s offensive initiators.
Way more after the jump:
So let’s look at TJ, the darling of the process, a Pittsburgh native, and a floor-slapper if we’ve ever seen one. The larger font blue, red, and gray numbers are percentiles:
TJ’s usage rate of 17.3% is low – hence the 13th percentile among PGs – indicating that he’s responsible for little of the offense via field goal attempts, free-throw attempts, (not counting and-one opportunities), and turnovers. Usage rate is typically calculated by dividing all of those by the team’s total FGA, FTA, and TOV when the player is on the floor. Cleaning the Glass also divides the credit for each assist between the passer and shooter, whereby an assisted made field goal counts as half of a normal field goal made, while assists also count for half of a shot used.
The interesting thing when we examine TJ’s efficiency is when you take his middle-of-the-road 24.4% AST% – the percentage of FGM by teammates that directly involved the player – and divide it by his usage rate of 17.3%, what you get is an arguably upper tier 1.41 AST:Usg, ranking him in the 82nd percentile of all PGs in the league. So, he’s an efficient, pass-first point guard who elevated his game in the postseason last year compared to his regular season numbers from 2017-18. I’d assume we could expect more of the same this year.
His shooting metrics also indicate decent efficiency:
We all know TJ gets to his midrange sweet spots and receives plenty of chances at the rim via backdoor cuts. His effective field goal percentage far exceeds many guards in the league, since the modern NBA relies on a heavy dose of three point attempts, something that TJ doesn’t adhere to with only 9% of his FGA coming from distance. His ASTD% – the percentage of made field goals coming on assists from his teammates – is staggering insofar as he operates pretty well as an off-ball guard when needed, yet still has the ability to find his spot on the court to score with high efficiency.
We know that he can get targeted on defense, though his 2.2% steal rate per team play rank him in the 93rd percentile and his 9.8 fgDR% is about middle of the pack among PGs; it’s quite frankly higher than I expected.
Verdict: TJ won’t kill the Sixers, assuming his minutes are kept in check. If Brett Brown relies on a 15-18 minute run every night, the Sixers should get a decent offensive return. Expecting much more than that could prove costly for Brett Brown, as TJ’s lack of length is targetable by opposing guards like D’Angelo Russell. Remember that 40 point game I predicted? There will be multiple if Brown calls for TJ to play 30+ minutes.
Wings and Forward
You read that right. The Sixers will head into the postseason with three players considered to by CTG to be wings: James Ennis III, Jonathan Simmons, and Zhaire Smith, and only one “forward” by the name of Furkan Korkmaz. You don’t need the numbers to know this is the team’s biggest weakness, but, alas, we’re going to look at them anyway. First, check out their shot charts and see if you can identify whose belongs to each of the aforementioned snipers:
No, I’m not creative. Top left is Ennis, top right is Simmons, bottom left is Zhaire, and bottom right is Furkan. Keep in mind that each of these graphics were created using up to 750 of their last FGA. For the most part, it’s what you’d expect: plenty of 3PA and limited midrange shots. Simmons and Korkmaz certainly look to get into the paint more, while Ennis and Zhaire tend to slash to the rim when they leave the comfort of the three point line.
Let’s take a look at their shooting metrics:
Zhaire Smith didn’t have anywhere near the requisite number of games to qualify for percentiles, but his percentages are what they are. What we see here is four players with nearly identical effective field goal percentages: Furkan (50.8%), Ennis (49.4%), Zhaire (48.4%), Simmons (48.0%). Perhaps the biggest contribution a wing needs to make to this roster is from distance. Jonathan Simmons technically leads the way at 40.0%, with Smith (35.7%), Korkmaz (34.2%), and Ennis (32.4%) lagging behind. I have to be honest, this is the top concern I have heading into the postseason, and it’s a deficiency that Brett Brown is going to have to account for. I know that opposing offenses are going to hunt JJ Redick in an effort to get him pulled from the game, but this isn’t a matter of finding someone to shoot on par with Redick. Quite frankly, this is a matter of finding anyone who can shoot. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where JJ tweaks a hamstring, and all of a sudden the Sixers have no floor spacers with Ben Simmons and TJ McConnell on the court together out of necessity. You think that gives you a chance against Toronto in round 2? I don’t.
Of course, there’s more to wing play than just shooting from deep. James Ennis is a 99th percentile wing in fgOR% at 7.8%, meaning he rebounds 7.8% of the Sixers’ missed shots. That’s pretty remarkable, especially since Korkmaz is next at just 3.0%, which places him in the 52nd percentile of forwards, a position that should in theory have a higher percentage. Ennis is also the best of the wings on the defensive side with a 13.8 fgDR%.
Verdict: It’s pretty clear that prior to his injury, Ennis had won the open wing contest. His shooting metrics and rebounding percentages back up Brett Brown’s judgement. The disaster scenario is Ennis not being healthy enough to start the postseason, sending that position into utter chaos. Jonathan Simmons was relegated to the bench at the end of the regular season and Furkan Korkmaz is by no means a reliable player in extended minutes. That leaves Zhaire Smith – a kid who nearly died this season – as the best remaining option despite limited opportunities. So… pray for Ennis.
Part 2: The Bigs will be out soon.