Okafor’s Struggles Hurt Sixers Against Rockets

The decision to bring Jahlil Okafor back into the game with 5 minutes left hurt the Sixers chances against the Houston Rockets, and highlights some of the struggles in building an offense around a post player.

Dwight Howard's ability to defend Jahlil Okafor one on one hurt the Sixers offense | Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard’s ability to defend Jahlil Okafor one on one hurt the Sixers offense | Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers set history Friday night by losing their 27th game in a row, the longest losing streak in any of the four major US professional sports.

The game had a familiar feel to it, as the 76ers blew another late lead, this one a 7 point advantage with 6:41 remaining. That marks the 5th time in the last 7 games that the Sixers had built a 4th quarter lead, but they failed to come away with a win in any of htem.

DateOpponentLeadTime Remaining
11-27Rockets7 (104-97)6:41
11-25Celtics11 (70-59)9:08
11-23Wolves6 (86-80)4:58
11-21Heat11 (87-76)7:13
11-16Mavs1 (82-81)4:22

During a couple of recent collapses, the Minnesota and Boston games come to mind, the team went away from Jahlil Okafor, late in the game, despite the success Okafor was having previously. Whether it was a conscious decision or just the Sixers guards struggling to get the ball into the post, going away from Okafor on the offensive end caused the Sixers guards, who aren’t the greatest playmakers to begin with, to struggle down the stretch as the defensive pressure ratcheted up.

On first glance it seems like that could have been the case Friday night against Houston. Okafor attempted only one shot in the fourth quarter against Houston, which was one of  only two made field goals the Sixers had in the final five minutes of play.

Watching the game unfold, however, the challenges inherent in having Okafor on the court down the stretch against the Houston Rockets became clear.

Some have suggested that not only is it difficult to base a half-court offense around a post scorer in today’s NBA, but that Okafor’s presence was actually making the Sixers offense worse.

Those are both beliefs that I have openly fought against. Not only is the team poorly constructed to make the best use of Okafor’s talents, but the Sixers offensive numbers without Okafor on the court were largely based off of unsustainable success in a small sample of games.

It’s something that has largely turned out to be true, as the Sixers have struggled of late to score without Okafor on the court, averaging just 91.9 points per 100 possessions with Okafor on the bench in the 4 games leading up to their contest with the Rockets.

Against the Rockets, however, I do believe that Okafor’s presence clogged up the Sixers offense and limited their chances of winning the game.

The Sixers got back into the game thanks to a 24-8 run to start the 4th quarter. Okafor was on the bench during the entire duration of the run, plus an additional five minute stretch to end the third quarter, with Brett Brown and his staff sticking to a small lineup that featured Jerami Grant and Robert Covington frequently the tallest player on the court for the Sixers.

The results, offensively, were staggering. The Sixers shot 9-10 from the field and 4-4 from three point range during the run, accumulating 7 assists to only 1 turnover in that span. That small lineup swarmed the Rockets on the other end of the court, forcing Houston into 5 turnovers in 7 minutes of action and with Robert Covington and Jerami Grant doing a tremendous job of fronting the post to deny Dwight Howard the ball, and thus masking the greatest weakness the lineup had.

That run ended with the Sixers up 104-99 with 6:22 left in the game.

That’s when one of two changes occurred which swung the game back in Houston’s favor. The first change came when Brett Brown subbed Phil Pressey in for T.J. McConnell with 6:13 remaining and the Sixers up 5. McConnell needed a rest — he had played the last 5 minutes of the third quarter and entire 4th quarter up to that point — but the impact on the Sixers offense was clear. Pressey’s hesitation, especially from the perimeter, slowed the Sixers offense down and caused them to get into late clock situations that they’re not equipped to handle.

Here is one such drive. Isaiah Canaan beats his man off the dribble and gets into the paint, forcing Jerami Grant’s man, Clint Capela, to rotate over. Capela’s a really good shot blocker, but It would have been a fairly easy dump-off pass by Canaan to Grant, but Phil Pressey’s man has no reason to defend Pressey 24′ from the basket and pinches down to take away the passing lane.

pressey-drive

The end result is that Canaan kicks the ball back out to Pressey, who hesitates and eventually gives the ball back to Canaan, who settles for a contested jumper just before the shot clock expires. You can watch the full video here.

The second change came when Brown brought Jahlil Okafor back with 5 minutes remaining.

In order to really see the difference in floor spacing you have to go back and look at the Sixers attacked Dwight Howard with their small lineup.

First we have a small lineup with rookie Richaun Holmes at center. Holmes shows some promise as a perimeter shooter, shooting 41.9% from three (albeit on a very small sample size) and 71.2% from the free throw line during his last season at Bowling Green.

While the touch Holmes has shown away from the hoop may have caused hesitation in Howard’s rotation, even just his positioning helps. The Sixers have no thought of running their offense through Holmes, so rather than having him in the middle of the paint, like they would have with Okafor, they instead place him baseline and open up room for the driving layup by Canaan. It’s a play that likely isn’t available to them with Okafor on the court, which I’ll show below.

Here’s another example. This comes off of a bit of a broken play, but still, pulling Howard 22′ away from the basket to defend a pick and roll has clear benefits for the Sixers guards.

Compare that with the following video with Okafor in the game. Canaan initially tries to wave Okafor off, presumably to setup an isolation attempt against Patrick Beverley. Okafor then comes back and sets a screen for Canaan and rolls to the basket. With Okafor not much of a threat to shoot off of a pick and pop, the screen, and Okafor’s presence, actually hurts Canaan. Howard sags off of Okafor, cuts off Canaan’s driving lanes, and is more than capable of rotating back to Okafor before he’s able to make his way to the hoop.

But the damage Okafor does clogging the lane isn’t finished yet. Covington comes up with the ball and attempts to drive to the hoop. Howard, still in the area since Okafor is still hanging around the foul line area and isn’t a threat to shoot, rotates over and forces Covington into a turnover.

This was a particularly bad matchup for Okafor. While the Rockets have struggled, mightily, as a team on the defensive side of the court this season, Howard is one of the strongest 1-on-1 post defenders in the game. Not only is Howard able to prevent Okafor from scoring efficiently (11 points on 4-12 shooting in the game), but the Rockets never needed to send a double team Howard’s way to help on Okafor, limiting how much he could create opportunities for his teammates.

Rather than put Howard on the perimeter and in situations where he would struggle (say, against Jerami Grant drives to the basket), the Sixers instead maximized Howard’s impact on Houston’s team defense by keeping him in the paint and making life difficult for the Sixers guards.

That trade-off would normally be something Brown could live with, if Okafor were creating space for his perimeter shooters by commanding a double team. Space isn’t just pulling a big man away from the basket, but also pulling defenders away from three point shooters and cutters. But when Okafor cannot create his own offense consistently and when he can’t force double teams, the negative impact his lack of perimeter shooting has on spacing far outweighs the space he creates for perimeter shooters.

It’s something Brown seemed to concede late in the game, going back to the small lineup which gave the Sixers significantly better floor spacing, and the one which had built the Sixers lead earlier in the game. The move allowed Grant to get Howard in space, which Grant took advantage of, but it was too little too late. The Sixers offense once again sputtered down the stretch, costing the team a chance at preventing history from being made.

It’s worth pointing out that Houston is pretty uniquely positioned to stop Okafor one on one, something which few teams have been able to do that effectively so far this season. It’s also worth pointing out that while the team’s best offense came with Okafor on the bench, they still had success offensively with Okafor on the court during the first three quarters of play, despite his struggles individually.

Still, it highlights how crucial floor spacing is for an offense, and thus some of the challenges having a post scorer without the ability to stretch the floor presents. For games when Okafor is going to struggle in the paint, rounding out his game by improving his perimeter shot is still a much-needed skill to add to his arsenal.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.