Given their roster construction, recent history, and the number of injuries they’re currently attempting to navigate, the Philadelphia 76ers were expected by most to be one of, if not the, worst offensive units in the NBA. Well, it’s at least good to know there’s some things you can still count on in this world. Following Friday night’s dispiriting loss to the Jazz, the Sixers have wasted no time establishing residency at the bottom of the offensive pile, currently sitting with a league-worst 85.8 offensive rating, per NBA.com.
While their two young starting big men shooting a combined 6-24 (as Okafor and Noel did against Utah) certainly doesn’t help, the team’s struggles have clearly stemmed from the play at the point-guard position. The old adage in football of ‘if you have two starting quarterbacks, you have none’ could’ve applied to the Sixers’ six-man battle to find a floor general during training camp. The results that have followed thus far in the regular season have been ugly. Philadelphia sits at the bottom of the NBA in AST/TO ratio (0.63), AST ratio (11.1) and TO ratio (22.2). Their 13.5 assists per game are 2.5 fewer than than the next-lowest team in the league (Phoenix).
The problem with the personnel isn’t difficult to diagnose. Philadelphia is starting Isaiah Canaan at point guard, a guy whose game in every respect is that of a shooting guard, but who has to play point because he’s 6’1″ (a very generously listed program height in itself). Canaan’s only discernible NBA skill is outside shooting, but the Sixers are relying on him for heavy minutes to diagnose defenses and set up their two big men. The outcome has been exactly what you might expect; Canaan’s AST/TO and AST ratio are both currently lower than Nerlens Noel (you know, the team’s starting power forward / dual center).
The other player receiving time at the point is T.J. McConnell, who does do a better job locating teammates and clearly has a more intuitive handle on the point-guard position than Canaan. However, McConnell fails to look for his shot to a fault. His 12.4 USG% is the lowest on the team, which is crazy for a point guard (for comparison’s sake, Canaan is second on the team behind Okafor). I’m all for unselfish play, but defenders recognize that McConnell is only going to shoot the ball as a last resort, which makes his actions very easy to predict and defend.
Additionally, most teams also have secondary ball handlers at the wing position to take some of the pressure and playmaking responsibility off the point guard’s shoulders (think Friday’s night’s opponent Utah with Gordon Hayward). However, the Sixers are starting two wings in JaKarr Sampson and Hollis Thompson who played primarily power forward for much of their college careers (I realize Sampson played some emergency point guard for the Sixers last year, but that could make its own hilarious oral history piece). At this point of their careers, Thompson is more or less purely a spot-up shooter, and Sampson is…something (I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out).
So, is there any hope for the Sixers? Maybe? Nik Stauskas can help as a secondary ball handler; he looked good in limited minutes coming back from injury Friday, and is tied with McConnell for the team-high in AST% (28.6). The team also expects Kendall Marshall back toward the end of November and Tony Wroten’s return sometime in December, which should help to an extent. Normally, I’d say the team is waiting for the cavalry to arrive, but coming off ACL surgeries, those guys are less cavalry, and more ill-equipped, disorganized infantry.
No, while things may marginally improve, this situation is likely to cause fits for head coach Brett Brown and Sixers fans all season long. As interesting as it’ll be to watch the development of Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, I wouldn’t blame fans for keeping a close eye on the likes of Kris Dunn and Melo Trimble in the college ranks. With potentially four first-round picks at their disposal in next June’s draft, hopefully the Sixers can find that point guard of the future and finally turn this offense around.