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September 25, 2023

Sixers mailbag: What are realistic expectations? Should they shoot more 3's?

New Sixers beat writer Jackson Frank answers your Sixers questions as training camp approaches.

Late last week, I welcomed any questions about the Sixers for a mailbag this week. I received some rather sharp and relevant inquiries regarding this team ahead of next month’s training camp, so thanks to everyone for that. I’ll hit on plenty of other crucial storylines confronting this team over the next handful of days as well and a couple questions not answered here will soon be addressed, so don’t worry if I didn’t hit on what some of you asked.

I’m stoked to start providing all of you with tons of Sixers coverage and hope reading it proves worthwhile. Let’s do this.

Question from @LalaLala24816: “People have said (and continue to say) that the Sixers should shoot more threes. Tobias [Harris] should shoot more, [P.J.] Tucker passes up too many open ones. Do you agree? After the losses last season, no one said, ‘that was because they didn’t shoot enough threes.’ What’s this about?” 

Only once over the past five seasons have the Sixers ranked better than league average in three-point rate, according to Cleaning The Glass. Given the team’s general offensive struggles — largely fielding middling attacks that hover around ninth through 13th in offensive rating — the call for more long balls is logical. 

Last season, though, the Sixers were 13th in three-point frequency, marking their highest finish since 2017-18. In turn, they were third in offensive rating, easily their best regular season finish of the Joel Embiid Era. That group had a good balance, whereas nitpicking in prior years was a fair and likely correct criticism. 

The offense didn’t crumble in the playoffs because of a questionable shot profile. In fact, their three-point rate increased in the playoffs last year (35.4 to 37.1 percent). It crumbled because Embiid and Harden failed to replicate their same potency as individual creators and ball-screen partners, which is a repeated issue for those two, along with Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons, all of whom determine the Sixers’ success or lack thereof. 

As long as Embiid is the focal point of the offense, it’s unlikely Philadelphia ever produces prolific three-point rates. He’s a dominant midrange scorer who’s far more threatening to defenses operating there than beyond the arc. The offense is built around everything he does in those spots — scoring, playmaking, drawing fouls — rather than stretching opponents from deep with pull-up shooting like, say, the Portland Trail Blazers have with Damian Lillard. 

A year ago, the supporting cast did well to hoist threes and space the floor for Embiid and Harden, too; they just carry far less usage to prop up the collective numbers. Georges Niang, De’Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker all ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in three-point rate. Obviously, Tucker’s gun shy nature and aversion to looks outside of the corners is occasionally cumbersome, but the ancillary options took a ton of threes. 

Secondary scorers like Tyrese Maxey and Harris finished below average in three-point rate, yet above average in frequency of shots at the rim. While a good shot cannot be reduced to whether it occurred in analytically friendly locations (around the hoop or from deep), the Sixers largely pursued quality looks in 2022-23. Much to the chagrin of fans, Harris and Tucker’s record-scratch hesitancies will likely remain, though I do not see three-point volume as any issue central to the team’s consistent offensive flameouts in the postseason. That boils down to the stars and will continue to.

Question from @mr_uncle_randy: “Will [Jaden] Springer actually get a fair shot to play and develop?”

With James Harden’s status murky and Shake Milton now in Minnesota, the stage is set for Jaden Springer to emerge as Philadelphia’s fourth guard, barring any shakeup over the next few weeks. Maxey, Melton and Patrick Beverley are locked into the first three backcourt spots and Springer could certainly slide into the minutes Milton occupied last season when the former SMU star appeared in 76 games and averaged 20.6 minutes per night. 

Because guard depth has been an asset of the Sixers’ roster the past couple years, Springer’s not received much of a chance for minutes. Now, though, the opportunity may be there. He’s coming off a pretty impressive Summer League showing and flashed in brief NBA moments as a sophomore. His point-of-attack defense is legitimately a high-level tool and he’s showcased some nifty interior playmaking. The challenge is whether he can assimilate to an off-ball role and discover his stride as a floor-spacer. He’s not going to warrant on-ball touches over the likes of Embiid, Maxey or Harris and that’s where he’s appeared most comfortable in the NBA. 

The other wonder is how deep head coach Nick Nurse elects to run the rotation and who earns the final few spots for nightly minutes. Embiid, Maxey, Harris, Melton, Tucker and Beverley seem like prudent picks. Given the way Nurse has spoken about Reed this offseason, I imagine he’s close to a lock. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Danuel House Jr. provide varying skill-sets, but both inject some critical athleticism and range onto the wing. At least one of them should be in line for a sizable role. Does Danny Green have anything left in his second stint with Philadelphia? Does Reed play mostly at the 4 and pave the way for Mo Bamba backup center minutes?

Springer is looking at easily his best environment in three seasons to carve out consistent minutes. That doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee, though. I expect Nurse to experiment, find “his guys” and toggle between going big and going small, with Philadelphia’s wing depth fairly shallow. Springer brings a distinct skill-set and if he takes a leap offensively, he could set himself up well. Yet I’d caution his most ardent supporters to exercise some patience, particularly early on.

Question from @ug0nmakemeactup: “What do you think Kelly Oubre [Jr.’s] role is? Unless they acquire another wing, it looks like he’s going to play 25-30 MPG?”

I absolutely expect Oubre to play a prominent role. This team needs a scoring punch and he offers the outline of that. Last season, it was easy to stagger Embiid and Harden as the bedrock of the offense. This season, it’s a hazier path to assemble the ideal configurations. Embiid, Maxey, Harris and Oubre will probably lead the team in scoring and form an offensive foundation. The passing quality among the four of them isn’t great, however. Embiid’s the best of the bunch and he’s a good not great playmaker; everyone else is pretty unsteady. 

Harris operates better with more freedom and could prosper anchoring some non-Embiid units with Maxey while Oubre and Embiid play together. That would enable Oubre to space the floor and be selective in his creation reps. But if Maxey is paired with Harris, the ball-handling of Oubre-Embiid combos is troublesome. As pesky defenders and credible off-ball shooters, Beverley and Melton are essentially small wings rather than complementary ball-handlers.

When everyone is available, I would wager 25 minutes per game is around Oubre’s upper limit, with Harris, Reed, Tucker and House Jr. also eating minutes at the 3 and 4. It’s not a great group, but Oubre is also probably not good enough to command a huge, huge workload unless he showcases strides as a decision-maker and off-ball scorer, which have escaped him throughout his career. The allure of his scoring may end up trumping those shortcomings and garner him a massive role, though.

Question from @ApoChorozoglou: “With no major trades, what's the ceiling for this season?”

Beyond the obvious parallel of a trade request from a southpaw star point guard looming overhead, this year’s Sixers remind me in many ways of the 2021-22 Sixers before Harden rolled into town. 

Prior to landing Harden, that group played at a 48-win pace, and was 10th in net rating (plus-2.4) and fifth in the East — a solid yet unspectacular playoff squad with a shot to win a series. The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks are a tier (or more) above the Harden-less Sixers. Although other contenders for homecourt such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat could ultimately be better, I don’t deem them outside of Philadelphia’s wheelhouse. 

Even if Harden suits up, I doubt he’ll approximate the level he played at much of last season. When he wanted out of Brooklyn, he made that clear with his on-court approach; that type of disinterest and volatility may arise again.

Nonetheless, for all his playoff faults, Embiid is a tremendously dominant regular season player who uplifts and simplifies both sides of the ball for everyone. Maxey, Harris and Melton are all very good, albeit to differing degrees and modes. Tucker, Reed, Beverley and Oubre Jr. instill capable depth. 

The ball-handling brigade is thin and the team-wide passing quality is a worry, much like it was in 2021-22. The loss of Georges Niang strips the Sixers of a viable power forward who just bombs threes and commands constant respect from deep. Their lineup flexibility seems more rigid. The point-of-attack defense is a question mark. The spacing is probably worse than a year ago. 

If no move develops, Philadelphia is poised to sit around the East’s middle class vying for a top-four seed and series victory. Those are the same results as recent years, but some of those teams held bona fide title aspirations, despite falling well short. With the Harden ordeal unresolved, that doesn’t strike me as the case entering 2023-24. 

Follow Jackson on Twitter: @jackfrank_jjf

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