What Went Wrong for the 76ers

The 76ers lost to the Miami Heat in 6 games in the Conference Semi-Finals, marking the fifth consecutive year that their playoff journey ends before the conference finals. While their core players of Joel Embiid and James Harden seem promising, smaller issues keep hurting their team. This year seemed like one of the 76ers’ best opportunities for a title in Joel Embiid’s prime, but the team faltered against the Heat. Here is what went wrong for them and their outlook for next season.

Four Factors

The best way to find what went wrong for the 76ers is to look at the four factors on offense and defense. The four factors are shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounds, and free throws (in that order of importance). Using a multiple linear regression of past seasons, we can find how much each factor impacted the 76ers’ performance. The Sixers were most hurt by their offense, where they shot poorly, turned the ball over, and failed to get enough offensive rebounds. Defensively, the 76ers struggled to force turnovers and rebound defensively despite holding the Heat to a low field goal percentage.

Shooting

The 76ers’ biggest problem in the series came with their shooting. Looking further into their shooting stats tells us that they shot inefficiently both on the perimeter and in the mid-range.

I believe that the largest pitfall for Philadelphia in the second round was largely due to luck. They were atrocious on their efficiency on wide-open 3-point attempts, which are defined as three point shots where the closest defender is at least 6 feet away. The team shot 39% on these types of shots in the regular season, but shot an astoundingly low 27.5% (on 69 attempts) in the playoffs. Had they shot 39% on wide open 3’s against the Heat, they would have scored about 24 more points total, which is about 4 more points per game. Three point efficiency on wide-open attempts is obviously not impacted by the defense, so this is mainly unlucky as in the long run their wide-open 3-point percentage would have approached their regular season value, which ranked 10th in the NBA.

The graph above shows how players shot on wide open 3-point attempts in the regular season versus the playoffs. Players under the diagonal line are those who shot worse on these shots in the playoffs. This includes all the 76ers’ rotational players except Shake Milton and Danny Green. While Danny Green had his issues (we’ll get to that later), he was really the only player to provide any sort of spacing and efficiency on open shots. Meanwhile, guys like Tyrese Maxey and Georges Niang, both of whom were very reliable on wide-open shots in the regular season (both shot over 40%), were under 30% in this series, costing the team easy and valuable points. Additionally, both of the Sixers’ stars could not get it going all series as Harden and Embiid failed to convert efficiently on even their easiest opportunities. Matisse Thybulle’s shooting has been a recurring issue, but it got even worse in the playoffs, making him an offensive liability despite his defensive prowess.

The other area where the 76ers could’ve been bettter was in the mid-range. Many mid-range attempts come as pull-up shots. While the 76ers actually were close to their regular season efficiency on pull-up field goal attempts, two of their three stars struggled to get their shot going. Tyrese Maxey, who was one of the main shot creators in the regular season by shooting almost 40% of his field goal attempts as pull-ups, shot 7% worse against the Heat. Embiid shared the same fate shooting about 6.5% worse in the playoffs, making his already inefficient pull-up shot even worse.

Finally, maybe the largest issue against the Heat was the involvement of their two superstars. The duo of James Harden and Joel Embiid was supposed to take the 76ers to new heights, but both seemingly disappeared in the playoffs. Joel Embiid was notably out for the first two games, but even when he returned he did not look the same, being far less involved in the offense and playing more inefficiently. He also rarely took shots out of the post. In the regular season, Embiid averaged 9.8 post ups and 4.3 field goal attempts out of post ups per game. In the playoffs, however, those numbers fell to 1.8 and 0.5, respectively. I think the reason was Embiid’s orbital injury, but almost completely abandoning the post up really hurt the offense because of Embiid’s versatility in the post. When Embiid posts up, it forces double teams and opens up shooters in addition to allowing Embiid to get one of his most comfortable shots. Harden also was involved less, taking about 3 fewer shots per 100 possessions and relying more on his playmaking ability than his shooting ability. Given the efficiency of Harden and Embiid in this series, I’m honestly not sure if their low involvement was a good thing or a bad thing. Regardless, it is necessary for a team’s stars to show up in order to win in the playoffs, and this did not happen for Philadelphia.

Offensive Rebounding

Offensive rebounding has probably been the 76ers’ biggest weakness all year, and it didn’t get any better in this series. Their offensive rebounding percentage ranked 29th in the NBA, ahead of only the Orlando Magic. The reason for their offensive rebounding failures is the effort of their guards. Paul Reed and Joel Embiid, the team’s two primary centers, both have decent offensive rebounding rates, but Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Danny Green, and Matisse Thybulle all grabbed less than 3% of available offensive rebounds in the regular season. Given the importance of all of these players to the team, it is difficult for the 76ers to fix this issue. The Sixers obviously value Green’s shooting, Thybulle’s defense, and Maxey’s offense more than their offensive rebounding deficiencies, which makes sense. They can’t really improve this area very much without losing one of their key players. Their offensive rebounding has gotten worse because of the loss of Ben Simmons. For all he did wrong, one thing he helped with was getting offensive boards. Now, though, his presence on the offensive boards is gone. The best way for the 76ers to improve their offensive rebounding is for their guards to put in more effort and to work on it in the offseason.

Turnovers

Limiting turnovers was often a weakness of the Ben Simmons led 76ers teams, but to many fans’ surprise, it became a strength this year. With Ben Simmons gone and Tyrese Maxey getting increased reps as the 76ers’ primary ball handler, their turnover rate improved to 6th best in the NBA. Harden’s arrival did make them slightly worse in regard to turnovers, but he also gave them a lot more easy shots. Using box creation (an estimation for open shots creating per 100 possessions based on a formula by Ben Taylor), Harden created about 12.3 shots per 100 while Maxey created just 5.2.

Against the Heat, the 76ers’ turnover woes returned. This time, the primary culprits were James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Danny Green. Despite seeing their offensive involvement drop, both Harden and Embiid had more turnovers. This only further compounded their inefficiency since, as discussed before, both saw their shooting efficiency drop in this series. I think the main reason for Harden’s turnover issues was his reliance on the isolation game. According to NBA.com, Harden averages 8.1 isolation possessions per game but was in just the 34th percentile of isolation efficiency in the Playoffs. Harden may have had success with this type of play in the past with the Rockets, but he has obviously lost some of his explosiveness, making these isolation plays bad for the offense. Meanwhile, Danny Green simply had too many turnovers for a role player. There were too many possessions where Green tried to make a play when there wasn’t one available or he didn’t have the skill to make it. Danny Green’s offensive role is to serve as a floor spacer and spot up shooter, and that’s it. Green shot really well, but he should not be dribbling more than once or twice per touch since it will obviously end badly.

Defensive Rebounding

The 76ers’ offense was the main source of their issues, but their defense definitely could’ve been better. They allowed too many offensive rebounds and extra possessions for the Heat, mainly due to Jimmy Butler and PJ Tucker getting lots of offensive rebounds. Interestingly, both Butler and Tucker had a higher offensive rebounding percentage than Joel Embiid even though Embiid is at least 5 inches taller than either of them.

The graph above shows which players contributed to defensive rebounding the most. Those located towards the right got themselves in position for a defensive rebound often, those located towards the top actually recording a defensive rebound on a high percentage of their opportunities, and those with a dark red dot got more contested defensive rebounds, which are more valuable since they are more difficult. From this information, it is obvious that Embiid and Harris were the 76ers’ main defensive rebounders, while players like Maxey, Thybulle, and Green did not provide much value. Once again, most of the blame in the rebounding game is due to the poor efforts of the guards. Similar to offensive rebounding, I think the only viable way for the 76ers to improve this part of their team is to increase effort and put more work in the offseason (this was not nearly as bad as offensive rebounding though).

Depth

The Sixers haven’t had a lack of star power in recent seasons. From 2018 to 2021, they had a core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons along with other notable players like Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford. Then, they traded for James Harden to create a big 3 of Embiid, Harden, and Maxey. The 76ers’ starting lineup has ranked among the best in the NBA for a few years now, but their bench has been a completely different story. Year in and year out the bench seems to disappoint, blowing leads created by the starters.

In the regular season, the starting lineup of Harden-Embiid-Maxey-Harris-Thybulle had a +20.2 net rating. When Danny Green replaced Thybulle, the lineup had a +9.0 net rating, which would still rank above the NBA’s best net rating for a team during the entire season. In the playoffs, the lineup of Harden-Embiid-Maxey-Harris-Green had a net rating of +6.4, which is still good. Almost every other lineup, though, struggled. When DeAndre Jordan replaced Joel Embiid, their net rating was -48.8 (in a low sample size), which means they got outscored by nearly 50 points per 100 possessions. Many other lineups where they had to utilize the bench show low net ratings, so Philly was really only having success when the starters played. When neither Embiid nor Harden played, the 76ers were outscored by 10.9 points per 100 possessions, making it near impossible to win if neither of them were on the court.

It is easy to see why this is the case. Georges Niang, who serves as a shooter and not much else, shot terribly in this series and was a bad defender throughout the year. When he isn’t hitting shots, Niang is essentially of no use. Matisse Thybulle has been one of the NBA’s best defenders throughout his young career, but he has yet to develop a reliable 3-point shot, allowing teams to sag off of him to double team Embiid or Harden in the playoffs and hurting their offense. Furkan Korkmaz was one of the worst shooters this season, with a true shooting percentage of 50.2% (league average = 56.6%) and a 29% 3-point percentage. DeAndre Jordan shouldn’t even be on an NBA team anymore because he doesn’t really do anything at all. Shake Milton was inefficient and failed to provide enough shot creation to be a reliable sixth man. Lastly, although I believe Paul Reed will improve a lot next season, he is too young and mistake prone at this moment to be a reliable player. The 76ers’ biggest priority this offseason has to be to add better bench players to avoid blown leads and have less reliance on the starting lineup.

What’s Next

The Sixers have big decisions to make this offseason. I wouldn’t consider this season to be a failure, but nonetheless it came short of many people’s expectations. The decision about Harden’s contract will be the biggest question in the offseason. Harden seems to be declining as he is entering his mid-30’s and giving him a maximum contract could handcuff Philadelphia for several years. We have already seen multiple supermax contracts for aging guards turn out unfavorably, like the John Wall extension and the Russell Westbrook extension. I hope that Harden will take a team friendly contract for a shorter length, like maybe 2 years instead of 5, allowing flexibility in the future. I don’t think the solution is to completely get rid of him, though, since the 76ers’ performance with him and Embiid on the court together has been good. However, if he demands too much money or a really long contract, Daryl Morey might have to let him leave.

If the 76ers are able to retain Harden on a team friendly deal, I think the next step is to solidify the bench. Danny Green will likely be out most of next year because of his torn ACL, so the 76ers will benefit if they can find another 3 and D player. Some possible inexpensive options that come to mind are Alec Burks, Justin Holiday, PJ Washington, Joe Ingles, Donte DiVincenzo, Delon Wright, and Patrick Beverley. They also need to acquire or develop a viable 6th man. Teams like the Heat, Warriors, and Jazz have guys like Tyler Herro, Jordan Poole, and Jordan Clarkson that can provide great shot creation off the bench. This gives their starters some relief and can cause mismatches when the other team’s bench is in. Some cheap players that I believe can fill this role include Jaylen Nowell, Aaron Holiday, Josh Hart, Jordan McLaughlin, and maybe even Shake Milton if he gets better (they obviously won’t be as good as Herro, Poole, or Clarkson, but they should provide more creation for the bench). If the 76ers can find a bench guard that can create more offense or develop Shake Milton into that player, their bench will improve a lot. I think Paul Reed will develop into a good backup center to Embiid and Thybulle is a good defender worth keeping (especially as they lose a perimeter defender in Green), so really Morey should try to let go of just Furkan Korkmaz and DeAndre Jordan. If the 76ers can develop as a team, keep Harden on a team friendly deal, and find some quality bench players, I think they will have a good chance at advancing further next season.


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