The Sixers are hitting 35.9% of their three point shots this season, which amounts to 12th in the NBA.
But they’re only shooting 30 three pointers per game, a number that places them 25th out of 30 teams. They’re top-12 in three-point percentage but bottom-six in actual attempts.
Wouldn’t common knowledge suggest that if you’re pretty good at something, you should do more of it? If John Lennon was a good song writer, wouldn’t you want him to write more songs? If Neil Peart (RIP) played the hell out of the drums, wouldn’t you want him sitting behind the kit as much as possible?
Perhaps, and while the Sixers might not be the basketball equivalent of The Beatles or Rush, head coach Brett Brown is feeling his way through the push and pull of volume vs. efficiency right now when it comes to team shooting.
“This is where my problem is,” Brown said last Monday. “This team needs to find more three-point opportunities. “We do. We need to hunt threes in a more definitive way than we currently are. I think the 3-point shot is not about, ‘oh, we need to make more.’ We need to take more.”
It was an interesting quote that generated some talk, so let’s dive in.
According to NBA stats, the Sixers take 65.8% of their shot attempts from two-point range, which is 5th in the NBA. That includes layups, put backs, mid-range shots, anything inside the arc (duh). As for three-pointers, only 34.2% of their in-game looks come from distance, which is 25th overall.
To get a better understanding how it further breaks down, consider this:
- 29.6% of the Sixers’ points per game come from three pointers (26th in the NBA)
- 55.6% of the Sixers’ points per game come from two-point range (5th in the NBA)
- 14.8% of the Sixers’ points per game come from free throws (24th in the NBA)
- 12.9% of the Sixers’ points per game come on the fast break (8th in the NBA)
- 44% of the Sixers’ points per game come in the paint (11th in the NBA)
What’s interesting to me is the disparity that exists between points in the paint and foul shooting. For a team to be top-12 in PITP but 24th in free-throw scoring really raises the red flag. The Sixers don’t shoot very well from the foul line (74.5%) and they aren’t getting there frequently enough during games. That should happen fairly often considering the size and bullying ability of this squad.
The other interesting thing is to note that they still do very well on the fast break. But if you’ve watched a majority of Sixers games this year, you notice that they’re not hitting as many of those transition threes that they hit with JJ Redick or Marco Belinelli. They’re also playing with Al Horford at the four and not stretching at power forward in the same way Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova did, or even Tobias Harris last year in a different-looking setup.
That’s why I think the key part of that Brett Brown quote is when he talks about hunting threes in a more “definitive” way. Specifically, you’d like to see them shoot more from the corners, where they’ve been very good this year, hitting above the league average from both sides:
If you add up those 245 corner three looks, then divide by the 40 games the Sixers have played, they’re only trying six corner threes per game this year. Yet they’re shooting 44.9% from the left corner and 37.8% from the right corner, which is fantastic.
Compare that to the Sixers’ three-point shooting above the break, where they’re only 35.1% across all three zones, yet taking 23.6 attempts from those areas per game. It’s not nearly as efficient. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers are the third best corner three point shooting team in the NBA, but they only shoot the 22nd-most corner threes per game.
Of course it’s going to be easier to get off those higher looks vs. finding space in the corners. One of the ways to do that is by “hunting” those spots in transition, i.e. anybody not named Ben Simmons runs to the closest corner and awaits a kick out pass. It would also help if the Sixers could, God forbid, get Simmons to try the occasional look from there in the half court. Horford is willing to shoot from the right corner occasionally, but hasn’t been very consistent this season. Harris is taking more of his threes from higher points, which is the same as Joel Embiid. Josh Richardson will get down into the left corner more than any other starter, as you can see in this image of combined shot charts for those five guys:
There isn’t a lot of orange and yellow below the break.
Not surprisingly, the corner three point shooters are all on the bench. James Ennis, Mike Scott, Matisse Thybulle, and Furkan Korkmaz take a higher percentage of their looks from below the break and three of those guys, Ennis, Korkmaz, and Thybulle, are shooting the three ball better than Richardson, Horford, Embiid, and Harris this year (albeit on a smaller sample size).
Look at Ennis’ chart, for example:
That’s what “hunting the corners” looks like.
More than anything, this speaks to the odd construction of the starting lineup. This is a team of trees that was given to a coach who wants to play pace and space basketball. Brett Brown likes stretch power forwards and always had a Redick or Belinelli to shoot the lights out at the two-guard spot. Now he’s trying to navigate a new look team and has admittedly said that he needs to adjust the way he views the game philosophically in order to get this team on track offensively.
Finally, there’s no true correlation to wins and losses depending on how many three-pointers the Sixers shoot. For instance, there are 13 games in which they’ve shot 26 or fewer three pointers. They’re actually 10-3 in those games. On the other end of the spectrum, they’re only 4-3 when shooting more than 35 three pointers. And the median three point numbers don’t give us anything truly definitive. The Sixers are still a team that should be pounding the paint and getting to the line and wearing teams down their size and dominance on the glass. That’s ultimately what they’re going to be best at, while playing suffocating defense on the other end.
The three-pointer is important, but it’s not necessarily about shooting ‘more’ three-pointers, it’s about identifying where their best looks are coming from and spending more time in those areas. It’s about getting Richardson into that left corner and asking Horford to commit to that right corner in space. It’s about getting Harris to pull the trigger if he’s open. It’s about those bench guys continuing to move well off the ball and be ready for those Simmons kick out passes.
It’s the difference between simply taking more three-pointers vs. “hunting” efficient looks, which is what Brett is trying to say.
It’s about generating more possessions that look like this:
(Shooting charts courtesy Cleaning the Glass. All other numbers via NBA Stats)