The Philadelphia 76ers’ season ended on Sunday when the Boston Celtics completed a four game sweep in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. The loss marks the end of a disappointing season for the 76ers, failing to meet their high expectations. Even though the 76ers were without all-star Ben Simmons, they were still expected to win at least a game or two against Boston as they won 3 of 4 of their regular season matchups. However, they disappointed yet again by being swept. Why did the 76ers lose so badly despite what seemed to be a good matchup for them?
Note: All the stats below are through the first three games of the series
First, let’s look at the offensive efficiency of both teams. The 76ers had an offensive rating of 103.6, which is 14th of the 16 NBA Playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Celtics had an offensive rating of 118.6, good for 3rd of the 16 NBA Playoff teams. The 76ers struggled both offensively and defensively, posting terrible numbers for each. But why did the 76ers struggle so much on offense and defense?
To see what exactly went wrong, let’s look at each team’s four factors. The four factors are summaries of the four greatest aspects of the game of basketball: shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throws. Shooting is measured by effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnovers are measured by turnover percentage (TOV%), rebounding is measured by offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throws are measured by free throw by field goals attempted (FT/FGA).
In looking at the four factors for both the 76ers and Celtics in comparison to the NBA Season average, we can see why the 76ers have struggled so much. On the offensive side of things, the 76ers have had atrocious shooting, with their eFG% about 8% less than the league average. Meanwhile, on defense, the 76ers actually did well guarding the Celtics shooting-wise, holding them under the league average eFG%. Let’s take a deeper look into the 76ers offense during the first round series.
As seen above, the primary reason for the 76ers poor offensive output against Boston was their shooting. Seemingly everyone on the team shot the ball inefficiently, but who is most to blame? Using the simple eFG% stat, we can see which of the 76ers actually got worse shooting the ball.
Three point shooting was a major weakness for the sixers this series. They shot the 3 point shot at a 26.4% clip in the first round, compared to their season average of 36.8%. The notable underperformers were Harris, who made his first three in game 4, Horford (did not make a 3 during the whole series), and Alec Burks. However, this does not take into account the shot circumstances. By using shooting above average, we can see how well each of the 76ers players was expected to shoot given their shot situations.
Based on his average shot selection and field goal attempts per game, Tobias Harris was the most substantial disappointment in shot making ability. The forward, overpaid with a $180 million for 5 years contract (I’ll get into that later), should have made over three more field goals on average. The sum of the field goals above average for each of the 76ers main players was -5.15, meaning that they should’ve made 5.15 more shots per game. That is approximately 11.8 points per game that they should’ve had. Considering the 76ers lost games 1 and 3 by a margin of 8 points (they lost game 4 by only 4, but most points came in garbage time), this is tremendously significant. If the 76ers could have just made their shots as expected, they would probably be in a tie series right now.
However, there must be a reason that most of the 76ers players shot so poorly. One possible explanation is the proportion of field goals that were assisted for each player. With the loss of Ben Simmons, it makes sense that the 76ers would take fewer assisted shots and more unassisted ones, which are less likely to go in.
Harris, Horford, and Burks, the three players that were the most responsible for the 76ers shooting woes, all had a large decrease in assisted field goals. It is very possible that their efficiency declined as a result of having to create their own shots, which may have made more of a difference than the shooting above average model accounted for. Tobias Harris had to consistently try to create his own shot, is not a suitable role for him. Overall, offensively the issues for the 76ers stemmed from the shooting inefficiency of Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Alec Burks.
Celtics Scoring Trio
While their offense was bad, the 76ers failed defensively in their efforts to stop the Celtics. While most of their defensive points allowed came in the blowout in Game 2, the 76ers were unable to contain Boston’s main three scorers throughout the series. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker consistently had their way against the 76ers, scoring about 63% of the Celtics points and averaging a combined 71.7 points per game (through the first 3 games only). The problem that the 76ers had on defense was their inability to guard these three players with arguably their best defender, Ben Simmons, not playing. During the regular season, when they had success against the Celtics, the 76ers mainly had Ben Simmons guard Jayson Tatum, a combination of Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle guard Kemba Walker, and an assortment of players guard Jaylen Brown. But without Simmons, the defensive assignments shifted and things got bad for the 76ers.
The table above shows the stats for Tatum, Walker, and Brown combined when guarded by each main 76ers player during the first three games of the series. Embiid, Richardson, and Horford were the most used against the Celtics’ trio. However, the best at defending them were Richardson, Harris, and Milton. Al Horford had the third most possessions against one of the three, but he was the second worst at defending them, behind only Alec Burks. Give credit to Jaylen Brown, who excelled during the series and caused the 76ers all kinds of complications that they wouldn’t have without him playing well. During the regular season, the 76ers could afford to put a lesser defender on Brown, but not during this series. As seen by the stats, Al Horford posed a liability to the 76ers on both the offensive and defensive ends. However, there is a good reason for why he was terrible in this series.
The Ugly Embiid-Horford Fit
Al Horford was horrific during the series between the 76ers and the Celtics. Yet, if you look at his splits when Embiid is on and off the floor, you see that the reason for Horford’s bad series is not because he suddenly declined, but rather that he fits awfully with Joel Embiid.
Embiid and Horford do not fit well. Each does better when the other is off the floor. During the series, the 76ers were the best when Horford was on and Embiid was off. The 76ers biggest issue with having Embiid and Horford on the floor at the same time was defense. Horford and Embiid could not coexist on defense because of their similar skill sets. Both are best suited to guard bigs and play the center position, but the Celtics lineup was small throughout the series, constantly causing Horford to guard one of the Celtics scoring trio, which was a mismatch. However, when Embiid was off and Horford was on, Horford could play center and guard the Celtics biggest player, while some combination of Richardson, Thybulle, Milton, and Harris guarded the Celtics trio.
The 76ers abysmal showing against the Boston Celtics sheds some light on their shaky team infrastructure. Both Brett Brown, the coach, and Elton Brand, the general manager, are on the hot seat after this series. However, while Brett Brown is serving as the scapegoat for the 76ers failures, the larger issue lies within the management.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were both acquired during Sam Hinkie’s tenure as the general manager of the 76ers, which was “The Process” for the 76ers. They purposefully tanked and hoarded assets in order to get good picks and draft superstars. However, in 2016, Hinkie was essentially forced out by the NBA. The 76ers hired Elton Brand, their current general manager, in 2018 after a twitter scandal concerning Bryan Colangelo, Hinkie’s predecessor.
With the plethora of assets inherited from the years of the process, Brand and the 76ers had the opportunity to forge a dynasty. Unfortunately, two years later, the 76ers only have Tobias Harris and a poorly fitting team to show for it. The 76ers’ fit issues began when Brand started to make blockbuster trades, trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris while sacrificing promising players such as Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Landry Shamet, each of whom fit with the 76ers team nicely. Jimmy Butler left in free agency last year, giving Brand lots of cap space to sign Tobias Harris and Al Horford. These signings proved to be huge mistakes. Now, the 76ers have a team that doesn’t make sense basketball-wise, as they lack three point shooting when both their star players need it to thrive. Even worse, Brand badly overpaid both Harris and Horford, which will leave the 76ers strapped for cap space for years to come. Using a regression to project the average yearly salary earned by upcoming free agents, Tobias Harris and Al Horford should have made $25.1 million and $21.4 million, respectively. However, Brand gave Harris $36 million on average and Horford around $27.25 million on average for the next five and four years. By giving huge deals and constructing a poorly fitting roster, Elton Brand has made the 76ers once bright future rather uncertain.
The reason the 76ers got destroyed by the Celtics in the first round was simple: their shooting. Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Alec Burks all hurt the 76ers chances by shooting far worse than expected based on their shot selection. The loss of Ben Simmons hurt the 76ers offense, causing Harris and Horford to take more unassisted shots and decrease their efficiency. On the defensive end, the 76ers struggled to guard the Celtics trio of Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown with the absence of Simmons, while the Horford-Embiid defensive fit worsened the situation by making Al Horford guard one of the three scorers. The real culprit for the 76ers fit issues and disappointment is their management, namely Elton Brand. Brand had a part in acquiring all three of Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Alec Burks, the three players who shot the worst in the series. The Celtics sweep of the 76ers revealed several problems with their roster construction, and the only way for the 76ers future outlook to improve is with a change in management.