Sixers Mailbag #4: Is Jahlil Okafor Hurting the Sixers’ Offense?
This Monday we continue our 76ers mailbag series, where we discuss some of the pressing topics around the team.
In this fourth edition of the Sixers mailbag we’ll take a look at whether Jahlil Okafor is hurting the Sixers offense, whether the Sixers should pursue Dion Waiters as a free agent, what the starting lineup will be when the Sixers are healthy, whether Okafor, Noel, and Embiid can work long-term, and whether Okafor limits the Sixers’ transition opportunities.
Note: any opinions expressed here are my own opinions, and not reports or expectations based off of inside information, unless I explicitly state that a statement is based off of inside information.
“What are Okafor’s on/off splits for 1st quarter vs rest, and is it conditioning?”
The topic of on/off splits has been a frequently debated one with the 76ers, especially after a Nylon Calculus article which stated that the best thing the 76ers could do to win games right now would be to bench Jahlil Okafor.
Before getting too deep into the +/- numbers, I want to mention the usefulness of the numbers as a whole. I do think the numbers have use, but like most things in basketball, they need to be used correctly.
Especially when the sample size is so low, and by low I mean anything less than a year or two worth of data at the minimum, which makes ten games really low, plus-minus numbers, to me, are best used to make you go “Hm, that’s interesting” and cause you to go find out why. The numbers themselves do not tell why, at least not yet.
There are so many outside factors involved in these numbers, from sustainability, to matchup combinations, injuries, learning how to play together, hot and cold streaks by players, and so on that assigning a cause and effect to them at this stage is fraught with error. Some of these factors are eventually fixed over years worth of sample when extenuating circumstances have had a chance to normalize, but ten games is nowhere near enough for that to happen.
Plus-minus numbers should cause a basketball fan to ask investigate. They are not, at this stage, the end of the investigation.
The current on/off splits for Okafor are very bad: the Sixers have an offensive rating, or points scored per 100 possessions, of 89 with Okafor on the court, compared with 99.4 when he’s been off the court.
But one of the problems in looking at this is the sustainability of the team’s performance when Okafor’s been on the bench. A 99.4 offensive rating is a pretty good mark, one which would rank 18th in the league this season. That would be one heck of a jump for a team that had an offensive rating of 93 last year (last in the league) and a 96.8 offensive rating the season before (again, last in the league).
And the trends have shown that it hasn’t been sustainable.
After a couple of games early in the season where the 76ers were incredible without Okafor on the court, that number has steadily decreased, from up near 115 points per 100 possessions at its high point to the 90’s now.
What’s interesting about the numbers is that the Sixers “better offense” when Okafor has been on the court is not really based on their ability to make shots. The Sixers have a 49.4% true shooting percentage with Okafor on the court, compared to 49.5% when he’s been on the bench. Instead, it’s been their ability to protect the basketball that has been the difference. The Sixers have a turnover ratio of just 12.1% when Okafor’s been on the bench, which would have been the best rate in each of the previous two seasons. It’s a virtual historic ability to take care of the basketball.
It’s also almost entirely unsustainable, and likely little more than small sample size noise that tends to happen early in a season.
That’s a long way of saying that using the Sixers current production without Okafor on the court as a baseline for determining whether he’s hurting the offense is probably the wrong way of looking at it.
So what is a good baseline? Last year’s production is probably a good place to start. An offensive rating of 89.0 is still below the 93.0 the team had last year, but pretty close to being in line with the 90.0 the team had when Robert Covington was off the court.
When you add in the fact that the team has a 92.0 offensive rating over the last six games, there’s data to suggest that the team is starting to learn how to play off of Okafor’s presence down low. Certainly, it’s too early to say that he’s hurting the offense. My opinion? Occam’s Razor probably applies: the Sixers offense is likely not good with Okafor on the court because they don’t have a lot of legitimate NBA talent around him right now. Hopefully the addition of Robert Covington, who should return tonight, along with Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten in the not too distant future, helps with that.
As for breaking that down by quarter:
The Sixers’ offensive production is definitely depressed in the second and third quarters, then bounces back in the fourth. One could say that the fourth quarter bounce is because most of the games are in garbage time by that point, but tired legs would still be tired. I’d let the season progress before coming to any definitive conclusions. If anything, it’s the defensive rating which seem to suggest tired legs, and seems to pass the eye test for me more, as Okafor’s team defense has seemingly taken a hit late in games. But, again, small sample size, and all of that.
Delco DNO (@dno253):
“Starting five when Wroten, Covington and Marshall come back, and what will be the rotation off the bench?”
It’ll be interesting. I think Covington is a lock to start when he gets back, which should be tonight against Dallas. I think Nik Stauskas, even with his struggles, will continue to start at the other wing position. Obviously that can change between now and whenever Wroten and Marshall return, but starting Stauskas makes the most sense, even if just for evaluation purposes.
The point guard spot will be the real competition. Wroten and Marshall play the position so differently that it may come down to what style of point guard do they want: the athlete with the broken shot or the pass first point guard who isn’t much of a threat to score?
I’d probably go with Marshall, and that’s my guess as to what the Sixers will do as well. But Wroten could certainly get a look as well, especially since he has more upside on the defensive side of the court, which the starting perimeter unit struggles with.
Rob (@doyle640, with a similar question from @MathAgin):
“If Joel Embiid comes back and is healthy do you think Embiid, Noel, and Okafor can exist on the same team for more than a year or 2?”
It would be wonderful for this to even become a question anybody has to legitimately think about.
But, if it does happen, I’m not sure if the three of them work long-term. Part of what makes Nerlens Noel so unique, and what makes the Noel + Okafor pairing potentially work on the defensive side of the court, is Noel’s quickness and his ability to defend the pick and roll and perimeter players.
Embiid is a fantastic defensive prospect as well, and there are a couple of areas — defensive rebounding, post defense — he might project as a better defender than Noel. But he’s not quite the same perimeter defender Noel is. That’s not really a slight on Embiid. It’s not as if he’s bad for a 7′ center in those areas. It’s just that Noel is incredibly special in that regard.
So if Embiid’s forced away from where he can make the biggest defensive impact to accommodate a poor defender, it doesn’t seem like an optimal defensive pairing. It would be interesting offensively though, Brown would be able to abuse any weak post defender in the opposition’s front court, and Embiid, in theory, has more range than Noel to make it work.
From a minutes perspective, all three could play 30+ minutes, but you would have to convince one of them that they’re not going to be able to start. So it’s possible that may come up as a source of frustration.
Ultimately, I’d love it if we actually got a chance to see it.
JWM (@milla_HIGHlife, with a similar question from @ljssurfing):
“Thoughts on Dion Waiters coming to Philly next year?”
I’m sure Dion wouldn’t mind coming home. And I’m sure his agent wouldn’t mind Oklahoma City thinking that there’s interest in the guard, who will be a restricted free agent next summer.
That being said, I don’t think this is a topic to concern yourself with too much for a few reasons:
- I can’t really see Sam Hinkie and the 76ers being interested in Waiters. Yeah, they need perimeter options, but there’s a mountain of evidence (re: 6,000 NBA minutes before this year) to suggest that Dion Waiters just isn’t a very useful NBA player. He’s playing much better right now, but I’m going to need to se more than 264 minutes of good before it cancels out 6,000 of not-so-good.
- He’s a restricted free agent. Even with the rising cap, Oklahoma City has limited ability to add talent, so it makes it even more imperative that they retain the talent that they do have, and where they have the ability to go over the salary cap to do so.
“If Okafor gets 18/10 and the Sixers have a fraction of the fast break points with him on court vs. on bench, isn’t it net negative?”
I think a little bit too much us being made of the Sixers depressed pace with Okafor.
The Sixers pace is down a bit with Okafor: down to 97.3 possessions per 48 minutes with Okafor on the court against 102.1 without him on the floor.
But it’s not down *that* far. It was 98.3 possessions per 48 minutes last year.
Now, the actual fast break points scored is down pretty significantly. In fact, the Sixers score over 2x the number of fast break points with Okafor out (16.6 per 48 minutes) than when he’s playing (7.8).
Is this representative of his impact on the fast break? Or is this just early season randomness? A fast break doesn’t require 5 athletes, necessarily. Okafor grabbing the defensive rebound and making a quick outlet pass would help a fast break as well, although he’d have to do a better job of actually grabbing a defensive rebound for that to be true.
I would guess that fast break points are down more because the team gets less stops with Okafor in the game than because of how his style of play offensively influences the Sixers fast break. If it keeps up, making up 8 points/48 minutes would be tough, but keep in mind it’s not just his “18/10” that would need to make that up, but the open looks he can generate for his teammates. Adding more shooters would certainly help in that regard.
Here’s one final thing I’ll say about evaluating Okafor’s impact on the offense: it’s a massive change. It’s a massive change from how the team played in the past, it’s something Brett Brown is having to adjust to, along with Jahlil Okafor adjusting to the NBA, and with players who have rarely, if ever, played that kind of style. It requires players of talent around Okafor to work, and who have skill sets who can complement Okafor’s ability to command a double team.
At this stage, I think it’s best to evaluate Okafor individually — whether he can score against NBA defenders, whether he can make reads and pass out of a double team — than it is to focus whether a team without the talent or experience necessary to play off of Okafor is successful in doing so.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.