NEW YORK -- Give Brett Brown this: He is clear-eyed about his team's fundamental issue.
"I have tried to make sure that our very big team isn't clunky," the Philadelphia 76ers coach said. "And trying to find space and flow."
Listening to Brown at Barclays Center on Sunday, you'd be forgiven for thinking that he had found the formula. Brown raved about Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, the two players the Sixers are counting on to make up for what they lost when Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick left last summer.
On Harris: "He is as versatile a scorer as I've coached here in Philadelphia. Post-up, pick-and-roll, [catch-and-shoot] 3, isolation, back down, all that. He's just scored in a variety of ways."
On Richardson: "He's a legitimate pick-and-roll guard. He's a better shooter than I originally thought, so he can space. And he's a slasher. He's slippery, he's quick, he's got wiggle. There's something about him that's just different than the rest of the guys."
Harris and Richardson are having solid seasons individually. The Sixers had won 13 of their previous 15 games when Brown waxed poetic about them. There is a case to be made that Harris, who has rebounded from a horrific early-season cold spell and made progress as a defender, should be an All-Star. Richardson fits next to the Sixers' stars because he can play on and off the ball. Philadelphia, however, only has a league-average offense, and for a team that fancies itself a championship contender, it does look clunky.
The Sixers' starting lineup -- Ben Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid -- has only appeared in 10 games, logging 117 minutes. That group has been dominant defensively, holding teams to 92.7 points per 100 possessions, but it has scored just 106.5 points per 100 possessions. (For reference, the Sacramento Kings rank 22nd in offensive rating, scoring 106.8 per 100.) The spacing issues inherent in playing Simmons and Embiid together don't need explaining, but Philadelphia's new brand of bully ball has come with an old-school shot profile.
It has been weird seeing the Sixers completely abandon the fast-paced, anti-midrange offensive philosophy they had in the Process era. This, via Cleaning The Glass, is what an erosion of those principles looks like:
|76ers shot frequency ranking|
At the rim
To Philadelphia's credit, its offense was efficient in recent victories over the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, two potential playoff opponents. When Butler returns to the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday, another one will be looking for revenge because the Sixers annihilated the Miami Heat on both ends in November. To believe in the Sixers' championship upside, though, is to believe that they will either be able to find the flow Brown is searching for -- against elite playoff defense -- or be so stingy on the other end that they don't have to.
After Brown talked up Harris and Richardson, Philadelphia stunk it up against the Brooklyn Nets. Brown lamented his team's inability to stop Spencer Dinwiddie's parade of layups, and it was also the Sixers' worst offensive performance of the season. Joel Embiid missed the 109-89 loss with an upper respiratory illness, which both took away a massive source of scoring and gave Philadelphia more conventional spacing. Even without two-big lineups and Embiid's mid-post touches, an Iversonian 51 percent of its shots came from midrange, per CTG. A disturbing amount of possessions resulted in shot attempts like this:
The Sixers didn't have it in Brooklyn. They shot a miserable 5 for 26 from deep and missed all sorts of wide-open looks. Horford was sluggish, having missed the previous two games with knee soreness and hamstring tightness. Rookie forward Matisse Thybulle left the game early with an upset stomach. That they lost the game means essentially nothing. It is always alarming, though, to see them work so hard running offense just so they can create relatively low value-shots.
Philadelphia turned the ball over on 16.7 percent of its possessions, per CTG, and that is right in line with its season average. Only four teams have turned the ball over more frequently than the Sixers.
Last season, at the urging of Miami's coaching staff, Richardson increased his 3-point attempts at the expense of his midrange ones. Harris did the same thing when he arrived in Philadelphia via the Los Angeles Clippers. Both have gone back to their old ways in 2019-20; only a quarter of Harris' attempts have been 3s, his lowest mark since 2015-16, per CTG. For all of the ways in which Harris can get buckets, he hasn't been efficient enough in isolation or in the post to imagine playoff opponents worrying about sending help defense his way. Richardson is a luxurious tertiary playmaker, but there has been little evidence to suggest that he will step into the "closer" role Butler previously occupied.
Brown said the coaching staff has been "trying to wind [Harris] up and promote him as a scorer." He called Richardson "the key to the whole thing" because the guard is a "dot connector." Maybe the 20-8 Sixers are just fine, and in the postseason they can make just enough plays to win ugly, through mismatch-hunting and sheer talent. In the next four months, though, they must do everything they can to foster a healthier offensive environment. If they don't make any significant roster moves, there will be an awful lot on Harris and Richardson's shoulders.
How to train your unicorn
Luka Doncic will be out a while, but that doesn't mean the Dallas Mavericks are going to reorient their offense around Kristaps Porzingis. They snapped the Milwaukee Bucks' 18-game winning streak on Monday by playing the same way they have all season, empowering guards Jalen Brunson (11 assists!), Seth Curry (26 points!) and Delon Wright (13 points and two assists in 19 minutes!) to take more offensive responsibility. This was not necessarily a major adjustment; the Mavs easily have the league's best bench and have a plus-7.5 net rating with Doncic off the court.
Porzingis had 26 points, four assists and 12 rebounds against the Bucks, but Dallas didn't get anything out of giving him the ball and getting out of the way. Even at his best with the New York Knicks, Porzingis was a ball-stopper and a below-average passer. With the Mavs, Porzingis has been much more of a spacer, cutter and offensive rebounder than an offensive focal point.
He is always a threat to hit extremely deep 3s, as he did in Milwaukee, and he is scary when he puts the ball on the floor with an advantage. You have almost certainly seen Porzingis' dunk on Andre Drummond from last week …
… but that was not the only time he used a pump fake to set up a drive in that game. More and more, the 7-foot-3 Porzingis is making plays you'd typically associate with wings:
I am curious to see how thirsty for touches Porzingis will be while Doncic is out. It is one thing to take a backseat to an MVP candidate and another thing entirely to play off of Brunson without complaint. For now, though, Porzingis is much more effective finishing plays than he is initiating them. It is impossible to argue with the results.
Speaking of finishing plays …
Brooklyn guard David Nwaba has shot 66 percent at the rim, per CTG. He is blazing fast in the open court, but he also has the ability to decelerate in the paint and finish over and around taller players. This Eurostep against the Sixers was nasty:
"It's amazing," Nets guard Garrett Temple said. "He's athletic as hell, man. Athletic as hell. And his ability to finish in transition, we talk about it. He's like a freight train in transition. And his ability to still finish after going that fast, that shows the athleticism. I want to say he had a double-clutch dunk in Toronto, which was amazing. But that's one thing that's probably not talked about enough with his game.
Here is that double-clutch dunk:
And here's Nwaba doing something similar in Boston, after apparently pressing the turbo button:
Nwaba's energy and defensive versatility have never been in doubt. He is on his fourth team in four years simply because there has never been a worse time to be a guard who doesn't space the floor. He's shooting 43.2 percent from deep this season, though, and while that is on limited volume, it's worth monitoring whether defenses eventually start respecting his jumper in the halfcourt. In the meantime, he contributes on offense by being an absolute terror in transition -- even when it seems like the defense is back, he gets where he wants to go:
My favorite assist of the season
In my eyes, Ty Jerome is already a legend for this:
That particular assist was a bit of an accident, but I can't believe the Phoenix Suns went from having no point guards to having Ricky Rubio and Jerome, who is Rubio-like with his off-beat, on-target passes. Not every point guard would throw a shovel pass in this situation, but it got the ball to Kaminsky just a little faster, with just a little more space than he would have had otherwise:
Here, Jerome genuinely fakes out his teammate Mikal Bridges:
I love watching this guy.
Speaking of rookie point guards …
Here is Ja Morant not doing what the Heat expected him to do when they tried to trap him:
And here is Morant using a pick and a single dribble to knife through Miami's entire defense for a crunch-time layup:
10 more stray thoughts:
I'm not sure I would have believed the Knicks were capable of blowing out another professional basketball team the way they did on Tuesday had I not been in the building … Never anger Giannis … If Aron Baynes is only going to play 18 minutes a game, would the Suns trade him? … De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley are back, so keep an eye on which direction the Kings go … What did Mike Conley do to deserve the wrath of the Basketball Gods? … Psst, Lonnie Walker is showing some signs … Otto Porter can't come back soon enough … Norman Powell is on one … Richard Jefferson is already one of the best color commentators we have … Elfrid Payton!