Do you remember when Sports Illustrated said last year that the Houston Astros could be World Series champions in 2017? While there’s probably little overlap between fans that root for both the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia 76ers, I can imagine 76ers fans perked up at the thought of a team getting publicity for what they might do.
The people against the newfound analytic movement hate what the 76ers are doing right now, and the team often makes it difficult to understand their motives unless you look closely (more on this later). What people seem to forget is the 76ers made it to the second round of the playoffs only three years ago.
Since then, the team fired the head coach (Doug Collins), replaced every significant player from the roster and brought in Stanford graduate Sam Hinkie to bring back the glory days for the organization.
Hinkie’s best contribution to this point has been acquiring Nerlens Noel on draft night in 2013. After sitting out his first season with the team due to a college injury, Noel helped lead the 76ers to the 13th-ranked defense in terms of defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Noel is one of the best rim protectors in the league, is one of two players who averaged over 1.5 blocks and steals last season and is only barely legal to crack open a beer.
Rim protection is one of the best new stats available since NBA.com’s SportVU data became public information, but there’s more to defense for a center than simply turning away shots at the rim. Fortunately for Noel, few big men have the agility and length to stay with perimeter players in the pick-and-roll.
It wasn’t just Noel who didn’t allow opponents to score at the rim. As a team, the 76ers allowed opponents to shoot just over 58 percent at the rim, the seventh-best mark in the league, per NBA.com. The defense got better as the opposition moved farther away from the rim. Among the five teams that allowed the fewest shots in the paint but not in the restricted area, only Milwaukee held opponents to a lower percentage than the 76ers.
|Los Angeles Lakers||10.7||41.4%|
While much of this can be attributed to Noel’s great defense, he played fewer than 31 minutes per game, leaving almost 20 minutes per game available for a sub-par defender to deconstruct what Noel helped to create. Next year, however, Noel will have help from a player draft experts compared to someone named Hakeem Olajuwon last season. While the comparison may be inaccurate and unfair to Joel Embiid, the potential remains.
Things didn’t go as well on offense for the 76ers. They ranked last in offensive rating, and the drop-off between the Knicks (the 29th-ranked offense) and the 76ers was larger than the drop-off between the Clippers (first-ranked offense) and the Pelicans (ninth-ranked offense).
There’s some hope for the 76ers to improve. Philadelphia was ranked fifth in the league in three point rate and the only team in the top nine of the category not to make the playoffs. The team will become more efficient on offense when players that are actually good at shooting take those shots instead of Luc Mbah a Moute (31 percent on three attempts per game), Jerami Grant (31 percent on over two attempts per game), Tony Wroten (26 percent on almost five attempts per game) and Michael Carter-Williams (26 percent on three attempts per game).
When the 76ers didn’t shoot threes, they tried to get shots in the paint. They ranked 10th in the league this season in shots attempted from the paint (combining restricted area and non-restricted area shots at NBA.com), but the percentage again was a problem. Although Philadelphia was ninth in the league in attempts (42.5, the Nets led the league at 48.7), they finished last in percentage by converting only 48.5 percent of those attempts (San Antonio led the league at 59 percent).
The good news for the 76ers is they’ll have two lottery picks joining them next season. They’ll have whomever they draft with the third pick (Draft Express has them taking D’Angelo Russell as does Sam Vecenie from CBS Sports), as well as a fully healthy Embiid.
The 76ers have taken Noel, Embiid and Dario Saric in the last two drafts, leading people to assume that Hinkie just wants to draft players who are either injured or overseas and won’t play right away. While this is the most obvious and thus easiest conclusion, I believe Hinkie simply seized the opportunity to draft the best player available in each situation.
Which of Anthony Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Alex Len would you say is a definitively better player than Noel in a league that’s historically dominated by players that are bigger than their peers? Oladipo is the only player for which an argument could be made, but his defensive reputation hasn’t quite yet lived up to the draft hype and there’s still significant work to be done on his offensive game.
In a draft where three players were clearly better than the rest, Embiid was almost the consensus pick at the top before the news broke that he’d likely miss this season (and he did miss it) with an injury. Jabari Parker ended up missing most of the season with a torn ACL, and although Andrew Wiggins won Rookie of the Year, his season showed there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
The third pick in this draft seems to be a player who will be a significant contributor to a team that has several bright spots. Will the Philadelphia 76ers be the 2017 NBA champions? Probably not, but there’s still plenty of reasons to fear this team in the near future.