There’s a Silver Lining to the 76ers’ League-Worst Offense
Heading into his third season as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, Brett Brown is looking to establish an identity.
In his mind, that process has already started.
“If you said, ‘How do they play defense?’ You can see what we’re trying to build. There’s a culture growing. There is a clear philosophy of how we guard,” Brown told members of the media before his team began training camp at Stockton University.
In Brown’s first season with the team, the Sixers finished 26th in defensive rating, a metric which estimates the number of points a team gives up after adjusting for the pace that they play at. The Sixers climbed all the way up to 13th in Brown’s second season. That improvement was in large part buoyed by the addition of rookie big man Nerlens Noel, who showed himself to be one of the best defenders in the league despite his youth and inexperience.
The improvements made on the offensive side of the ball weren’t quite so obvious. The Sixers finished with the worst offensive rating in the league last year, and by a large margin at that. In fact, the Sixers offensive rating last year was the 3rd worst rating since the 2000-01 season, behind only the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets and the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats.
Yet, despite the lack of success, Brown believes there was legitimate improvement offensively.
“If you said, ‘Well, how do they play offense?’ There is no doubt about that we’re a high-paced team that takes the 3rd most efficient shots in the NBA,” Brown said. “The problem is we haven’t been making many. But the philosophy of what are we trying to do? Where are we trying to get our shots? I’m proud of that.”
The statement by Brown was, on its surface, an odd one. Basketball is, after all, a results-oriented league, and the Sixers had the worst offense in the NBA. But there were some key indicators to suggest that the scheme and offensive principles that Brown and his staff have instilled are ones that can be successful.
One such indication would be the Sixers’ high ranking in “expected effective field goal percentage.”
Effective field goal percentage, or eFG% for short, is a stat meant to paint a more accurate picture of a player, or team’s, field goal percentage by accounting for the additional value of three-point attempts. In its simplest form, a 38% three point attempt is going to be far more valuable than a 42% long two-point jump shot.
Expected eFG%, developed by Nylon Calculus, is an estimation of the level of efficiency a team was “expected” to produce based off of the quality of shots that they took. The stat primarily looks at two things: shot location and defender location.
Generally speaking, shots at the rim, followed by three-point shots, especially the shorter three-point shots from the corners, are the most efficient in basketball. The midrange game — with a relatively low-level of accuracy, no additional point awarded for being behind the three-point line, and little chance of being fouled — has fallen out of favor because it’s a generally inefficient shot.
Expected eFG% then uses SportVU motion detection cameras installed in all NBA arenas to take a look at how far the closest defender is from the player taking the shot. With cameras logging the location of every player on the court multiple times per second we know how closely contested each shot is, and we can now quantify how much impact that has on efficiency.
As Brown referenced, the Sixers took the third most efficient shots in the NBA last season, as measured by Expected eFG%. The Sixers shot selection placed them just behind the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, and ahead of the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
The problem, as Brown alluded to, is that offense is a two-part game: getting a good shot, and having the talent necessary to make it. It’s that second part that the Sixers failed (miserably) at.
Expected eFG% doesn’t take into account the quality of the players taking the shot, just the quality of the shot. It assumes a league-average efficiency. It then compares the expected efficiency with a team’s actual efficiency to find their shot-making ability. According to the Nylon Calculus table, despite the third-highest expected eFG%, the Sixers had the second-worst actual field goal percentage.
This presents a bit of a good news/bad news scenario for the Sixers. The bad news: The Sixers have a talent shortage. But we knew that already. The good news: Their high ranking in expected eFG% should give Sixers fans a glimmer of hope that the principles Brown and his staff are teaching are fundamentally sound, and should yield results if (and when) the Sixers acquire the talent to actually compete.
There are a couple of other factors that also suggest the Sixers offense is one that has (unrealized) potential.
First, the Sixers have played at a tremendously fast pace under Brown, having had the fastest pace during the 2013-14 season and the 6th fastest pace last year. There have been many studies done over the years that suggest that shots early in the shot clock are generally more efficient, as the 24 second shot clock can become a 6th defender, forcing offenses into more predictable, easier-to-defend shots the closer it gets to zero.
|Time remaining (seconds)||% of FGA||eFG%|
|less than 7 seconds||19.1%||43.5%|
Keeping up this pace is one of Brown’s admitted goals for this upcoming season.
“I think one of the mistakes that I hope I don’t fall in to is that even though Jahlil [Okafor] is [an incredible] low-post target, we still want to play with tremendous pace,” Brown told the media before training camp. “I don’t want to just be a slow, static team and just walk it up and post Jahlil. That’s not how we’re going to play.”
Second, the Sixers ball movement was exceptional last season. According to Nylon Calculus, the Sixers passed the ball every 4.5 seconds, the 6th shortest time between passes in the league. The Sixers ranking is no doubt influenced by their lack of star power, as they had nobody who could really create off the dribble, and thus had to try to generate quality shots by ball movement.
As Brown mentioned above, it will be interesting to see how the addition of Jahlil Okafor impacts the Sixers’ standing in these two categories. it takes time to setup a post player on offense, and even more time for him to survey the defense, command a double team, and use that attention to find a cutter or a shooter open in the corner. This should naturally cause the Sixers to not only use more time on the shot clock, but also increase the amount of time between each pass. It’s possible that the Sixers could make fewer passes next season, but generate more open looks out of those passes, as they finally have a talent who has the ability to command a double team.
Still, Brown and his staff have created a culture where the pass is king, and that’s a positive going forward. It’s exceedingly difficult to assess Brown as a gameday coach in this situation, where he’s at such a severe talent deficit each and every night. If nothing else, the Sixers offensive numbers give fans a bit of hope that they have somebody who is not only a steward and a mentor to the young talent the Sixers have acquired, but also a good gameday coach as well.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.