Egalitarianism in the City of Brotherly Love
For all their success, it wasn’t difficult to anticipate what the Sixers would do on any given offensive set during the Harden era in Philly.
The Beard would initiate the action off a high pick set by Embiid, where he would have a bevy of options to choose from once he turned the corner: take his defender off the dribble utilizing his step advantage; locate a roaming teammate along the perimeter for a quick three-point attempt to punish an overcommitted defense; or drop a pocket-pass towards a rolling Embiid that is as lethal as it is terrifying for a defender.
Add in the countless permutations Philadelphia would add to their basic set, and the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll would function as the fulcrum of a team with 117 offensive rating.
For the uninitiated, that’s nerd speak for really, really good.
Yet, for all its effectiveness, it wasn’t difficult to see that something was missing from the team.
The offense would stagnate when Harden fell out of rhythm, and Embiid struggled to create down low. The second unit would flail about with their stars off the floor, to the tune of a minus-3.7-point differential, per Cleaning the Glass. Even Tyrese Maxey, the burgeoning third star in Philly’s constellation of talent, looked out of sorts when playing without the center of gravity that the Harden-Embiid partnership had become.
But most of all, there was a sense that the Sixers were less than the sum of their parts: a collection of top-end talent whose biggest stumbling block was themselves as they squandered a chance for a conference finals berth in last season’s playoffs.
To rectify this general malaise, Philadelphia imported Nick Nurse and his motion-heavy offense to lead the team during the offseason.
While a squad featuring an All-NBA big man who is at his best near the basket may not seem like an ideal fit for a motion offense, the team’s success thus far suggests concerns over fit may have been overblown.
Look at this play from the Sixers opening night match against the Bucks as an example.
Following Connaughton’s errant three-point attempt, Melton collects the rebound and sprints into the open court, looking to push the pace. Flanked by Danny Green and Kelly Oubre Jr along the wings and trailed by Tobias Harris, Melton utilizes his forward momentum to split the lane and convert a tough layup over a pair of backpedaling Bucks defenders.
Though hardly a highlight play, the sequence is noteworthy because it made clear the green light that Nurse has given his roster to play with. Whereas past iterations of the Sixers would have pulled the ball back and reset once the defense caught up with them, this year’s club isn’t afraid of pushing the peddle and attacking, even if it means leaving their best player in the backcourt.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean Nurse and company are always looking to leave Embiid in the dust, as the quick initiation of the offense also provides opportunities for the league MVP to act as a trailer and steamroll his way to the rim—and if defenses thought a driving Embiid was scary enough, I can only imagine the sheer terror that comes with watching a 7’0”, 280 lb. behemoth come barreling towards you downcourt at full-speed.
Still, Philadelphia is less interested in setting up their stars than they are in keeping opponents on their backheels, a strategy that has produced a 10-3 record and resulted in a far more balanced, sustainable offense.
While their points per 100 possessions have essentially stayed the same year-over-year, even without Harden, at 118.6, the 76ers have improved from 24th to 7th in transition frequency, from 16th to 9th in shots at the rim, and are the best non-corner three-point shooting squad in the league according to CTG. All told, the Sixers have improved their offensive rating to 119.9, even after ditching the former league MVP.
That said, Philly’s penchant for pushing the pace isn’t the only radical change the team has exhibited thus far.
Rather than looking to isolate defenders against their best ball-handlers or attack mismatches through pick-and-rolls, the Sixers have ended nearly 45% of their offensive possessions in transition, spot-up attempts, or dribble handoffs, per tracking data from Synergy Sports, a far cry from the 35% of possessions that ended with iso’s and P&R’s last year.
To help facilitate this, the 76ers routinely blitz opponents on defense, disguising where their help is coming from to corral ball handlers and force turnovers. Ranking fourth in the league with over nine steals per game, the Sixers have made a bet that their athletic, switchable roster can recover even when their hunt for turnovers comes up empty. Having Joel Embiid guarding the rim also makes the risky defensive strategy a bit more tenable, as the all-world blocker stands ready to devour any ball-handler ready to drive against the Philly defense.