In most cases, NBA champions will finish in the top 10 on offense. The Sixers have done that just twice in the Joel Embiid era. But the current team, carrying the highest preseason expectations of any Sixers team heading into a season in decades, has a chance to plant itself amongst the top offenses in the league. The question is, what should their offense look like?
Philadelphia’s offense figures to be simple in foundation — the core of Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris will do much of the heavy lifting.
The 4-man core helped produce 112.9 points per 100 possessions in 257 minutes in the 2022 playoffs. That was the 5th most potent 4-player group in the playoffs, minimum 250 minutes played together. The 4-man units that finished ahead of them belonged to the champion Golden State Warriors, the respective Conference Final losers, and the Phoenix Suns.
Beyond the core, Montrezl Harrell should be tasked with setting rigid screens for ball-handlers and scoring however he pleases within 15 feet of the basket. De’Anthony Melton should be tasked with some secondary ball-handling duties in addition to his slashing and spot-up shooting. Everyone else is spacing the floor for the primary options, creating paths for off-ball cuts, and moving without the basketball.
The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll
The core of Philadelphia’s halfcourt offense should involve getting the ball to Embiid in the post or face-up to create double-teams or take advantage of mismatches (77th percentile in points per post-up and 69th percentile in points per isolation last season).
The next priority in the food chain should be getting Harden the ball in the middle of the floor. The primary focus isn’t to create space for Harden to isolate. Rather, it’s to give him the best view of the entire floor as players move in front of him.
What matters most is the pick-and-roll chemistry between Embiid and Harden:
Normally, I would want Embiid setting much higher picks for Harden. I want the best playmaker to have space above the break to change speeds, use his dribble moves, and choose between pulling up for threes or attacking gaps. And if all else fails, he can locate the other three teammates on the floor as he pushes downhill. But in this clip, Maxey’s involvement as an off-ball screener for Harden makes this a Chicago action. Harden’s curl is going to make this play tight for spacing purposes.
Space or not, Harden is a gifted passer who has no problem lining Embiid up for a lob at the rim or threading the ball to his partner on the roll. And the numbers support the eye test — lineups featuring the duo scored 122.7 points per 100 possessions in 603 regular-season minutes in 2022. That ranked fifth amongst 42 duos to log at least 500 minutes together after the All-Star break.
That figure doesn’t boil down exactly to pick-and-roll effectiveness. But, it’s a reasonable barometer given that Harden’s impact is contingent upon high-usage ball-handling and Embiid led the entire league in scoring.
No matter how you slice it, Embiid and Harden, together, is a boon to putting points on the board. Pick-and-roll play keeps them both heavily involved, and it should be the main course of the Sixers’ offense.
But, the team’s offensive firepower runs much deeper than that.
If Harris has an early size advantage as the defense sets up, Harden can find him for a deep catch in the post. The best version of Harris on this Sixers team is a quick trigger capable of putting the ball on the floor as a slasher on swing passes. And after struggling to find his role next to Harden in the regular season, you saw some of that gelling in the playoffs:
Harris’ job becomes very simple next to a ball-handler with Harden’s gravity. In mostly an off-ball role, he just has to relocate to open spots to drag helpers away from whoever has the ball. Peeling defenders back to the corners keeps driving lanes open. The deeper the likes of Harden can get into the teeth of the defense and rip passes like the one above, the more difficult it is to close out to the shooter. As long as Harris is quick to make decisions, there will be nights when it seems like he’s shooting in an open gym.
Harris averaged 17 points toggling between being the third and fourth option in the 2022 playoffs. He shot nearly 39 percent from deep on 4.8 three-point attempts per game with a three-point attempt rate of 35.2. He essentially adopted the same role he had next to Jimmy Butler in the 2019 playoffs. But this time, he was much better at it.
Ideally, Harris won’t be putting the ball on the floor all that much. He’ll have chances to attack close-outs when the ball swings his way on the weak side of the floor. By now, we know Harris doesn’t offer nearly enough in the playmaking department to function as a primary ball-handler in any context. But, you can feel safe with him as a secondary or tertiary ball-handler. That might just mean sliding up to retrieve a pass to break a trap and then finding the open man in a small pocket of space in the middle of the floor. The point is, he can dribble and chew gum. You can never have enough players who can do that.
Ultimately, Harris has the most downside of any member of the Sixers’ core. His teammates can set him up for clean looks all night long. The quality of those shots will rapidly dissipate as defenders get back in the picture to contest if he struggles with bouts of indecision. Harris can also junk up your offense by over-dribbling as he toggles through options before making his decisions. Every fraction of a second he wastes dribbling is a fraction of a second in which the ball could be moving to the next teammate or a good look closes up as defenders recover or adjust.
But Harden, Maxey, and Embiid will ostensibly eat up a large chunk of possessions with the ball in their hands. So, it’s reasonable to be optimistic that Harris’ downside can be limited because his role is simplified. Even if he struggles with consistency in decision-making, his being several notches down in the pecking order might cover up the issue anyway.
When you have such an incalculable and meteoric rise from your rookie year to your sophomore year, two questions become very difficult to answer. First, was last season real or a flash in the pan? Second, how does that leap alter year-to-year projections?
Maxey’s role in the offense in 2022-23 is much easier to project. But, that’s not necessarily because of anything directly related to his own limitations.
His backcourt mate is the ball-dominant Harden, who, in generous terms, has never seemed particularly enthusiastic about playing away from the ball. The team’s best player is a center who likes to play out of the post and out of the face-up.
It doesn’t help that there’s only one ball, either.
That leaves more of an off-ball role for Maxey. But, that shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Maxey attempted 68 catch-and-shoot threes from the time of Harden’s debut to the end of the regular season. He connected on 54.4 percent of those attempts. Prior to Harden’s debut, Maxey attempted 96 catch-and-shoot threes; he hit 38.5 percent of those. Half as many games and more than two-thirds as many attempts after Harden was introduced. Nearly 16 percent more efficient than before he donned a Sixers uniform.
It isn’t as much about his off-ball gravity making life easier for his more ball-dominant teammates. Rather, it’s about Harden and Embiid trusting Maxey to punish help defenders who linger too far away from home:
Even if defenses grant Maxey some respect in his third season, his speed and control with the ball allow him to catch and go if the three-point shot isn’t there. Alternatively, helpers playing a step closer to home on Maxey gives the likes of Harden and Embiid more space in the driving lanes to attack.
But, Maxey’s growth as a perimeter shooter certainly doesn’t mean he should neglect his craftiness. Maxey shot 63 percent at the rim in 2021-22, ranking in the upper third of the NBA’s combo guards, according to Cleaning The Glass. If helpers recover with heavy feet, Maxey is going to use his speed to attack closeouts:
This isn’t to say Maxey will or should be limited as a ball-handler when on the court with Embiid and Harden. In fact, there’s significant merit to letting him initiate the offense. His 1.022 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler ranked in the 90th percentile of the league, according to Synergy. The point is that the limitations he’s shown as a playmaker for others through two seasons make his fit as a secondary ball-handler all the more copacetic in an ecosystem that features two other players who function at their bests with the ball in their respective hands.
Still, Maxey’s control with the ball and speed are strengths that you want to leverage on any given possession. There will be times when Embiid or Harden need to catch their breaths instead of governing the possession. There will also be times when Maxey has athletic advantages against whoever is tasked with defending him. In those moments, Maxey will have his chance to inflict damage as the primary ball-handler. Of course, if Maxey finds himself leading units sans the team’s two highest-usage players, he’ll take the ball then, too.
Regardless of how you cut it, Maxey is going to fluctuate between being the first and third options in the offense. It’s merely a matter of the context in which he gets his touches.
The fifth starter
PJ Tucker, at a minimum, is probably the heavy favorite to be the fifth starter. On the other end of the spectrum, given his winning pedigree and Doc Rivers’ reverence for veterans, Tucker may already have been guaranteed the fifth spot.
Regardless of what you think about Tucker, he probably makes the most sense for that spot, too.
But, it might not be for reasons that traditionally qualify a starter.
The Sixers lost Danny Green, the only player with the requisite attributes to be a starting wing on last season’s team come playoff time, to knee injuries. They replaced him with Melton, who is not big enough to be a wing. They signed Tucker, Danuel House, Trevelin Queen, and Montrezl Harrell. Queen might not even have a favorable shot of being on the roster come opening night, and Harrell is an under-sized center.
That leaves Tucker and House. The short, non-basketball answer is that, all things equal, you’re not going to start the guy making the Bi-Annual exception over the guy making the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level exception.
But if you’re not having a conversation in terms of dollars, the easiest way to come to a conclusion from this point might just be to think about what both need in order to be effective.
House has more athletic pop than Tucker does. While Tucker is more of a dead-eye shooter in the corners, House is adept at filling lanes in transition. They both fit the archetype of 3-and-D role players in their own rights. But, I’m more sold on House being able to fit seamlessly next to a multitude of players than I am on Tucker being able to do so because House can be effective in both uptempo and slower styles of offense while Tucker needs specific players around him to be a passable offensive piece.
A floor general of Harden’s caliber and a scorer with Embiid’s gravity will help keep Tucker open for catch-and-shoot threes. Tucker’s role on offense is going to be to peel his defender back to whichever corner he lingers in order to make life easier for the core and grind out extra possessions by stealing long rebounds and loose balls away from the opposition.
And when the ball-handler lulls helpers one step further away from their home positions, Tucker will be prepared to catch and fire:
Removing the 32 games he played with the Rockets team that had no stars in the wake of Harden’s departure, Tucker has flirted or reached the 40-percent mark on corner triples in each of the last 5 seasons. He scored 1.156 points per spot-up in 269 such possessions with the Heat last season, according to Synergy. That ranked in the 85th percentile of all players. He connected on 41 percent of his 188 catch-and-shoot threes with Miami, according to NBA.com.
While maybe more committed to one specific location than House is, Tucker has a more extensive history as a sniper in those spots than House does anywhere on the court. Tucker really separates himself from House when lined up next to teammates who fill in the holes that he cannot satisfy.
When he’s not spotting up and waiting for his more dynamic teammates to make their decisions, Tucker is the glue guy providing the connective tissue for the rest of the offense:
That vision might not satisfy every customer because Tucker isn’t a traditional small forward and Harris has proven to be much more comfortable as a power forward. I would discourage from thinking in terms of traditional positions. The Sixers probably look at their roster and think they have two starting power forwards. But, that might irritate some old wounds for Sixers fans.
The scar tissue from the Horford year might not be healed for everyone. But, this non-traditional starting group should be better because Harris and Tucker are different enough to fit together on offense, especially next to Embiid. Shooting is shooting, regardless of which position you play. Tucker is a better shooter than Horford is. And, unlike Horford, the post and midrange face-up aren’t the foundation of his offensive makeup. He should be able to space the floor enough to co-exist next to Harris and Embiid.
That spacing issue, by the way, was compounded by Ben Simmons’ presence. While maybe not the most efficient shooter, Harden’s gravity in replacement of Simmons’ shortcomings obviously deems spacing concerns related to yesteryears irrelevant. Plus, Harden’s aptitude as a shot-creator should inspire bullish attitudes surrounding fit amongst any competent shooters as long as they don’t need to dominate the ball to be effective.
To put it simply, House can probably be stable and adequate next to any shot-creating ball-handler. But Tucker, put next to four high-level starters, becomes a much better offensive player than House is. House might never be one of the Sixers’ 5-7 best players. Tucker should fall in that range, at least for 2022-23.
The bench units
Rather than complicating things by articulating ways to weaponize extended depth pieces who either won’t be all that involved in the offense or in the rotation to begin with, it makes sense to focus this section on the likes of Harrell, Melton, House, and Georges Niang.
Shake Milton figures to be on the outside of the rotation, looking in. Furkan Korkmaz, in my estimation, figures to receive a chance to prove himself early in the season but should fall out of favor quickly if he’s not hitting shots. Matisse Thybulle should be a regular rotation piece for his defense, but you should’ve sold pretty much all stock in his offensive threat by now. It’s as simple as catch-and-shoot threes, cutting off the ball, and lingering in the dunker’s spot for him.
Paul Reed figures to play the most minutes of his career, but will probably be limited to screening and diving, dump-off passes, and offensive put-backs. Isaiah Joe might have the best chance of sneaking into the regular rotation of all the fringe guys. But, he’s going to have to make shots from the catch. Joe’s minutes will ride on hot and cold stretches shooting the ball.
In its most simplistic and attainable form, the objective for the non-Embiid lineups should be to score enough points to keep the team afloat or better until the big fella returns. And finally, after all these years, there’s a collection of players coming off the bench who you can reasonably believe are able to do that job, at least in the regular season.
The addition of Montrezl Harrell should build most of that equity. He’s not Embiid by any stretch of the imagination. But, he dismisses the need to alter the tactical strategy as the Sixers toggle between centers. Stagger Harden with the non-Embiid lineups, and let the duo go to work:
Harrell ranked in the 87th and 89th percentiles, respectively, of the NBA in points per possession as a pick-and-roll roll man in his two seasons next to Harden in Houston. He only saw 29 possessions as a roller in his rookie year, and that usage ballooned 90 possessions in his second campaign. He responded by adding .049 points to his per-possession output as a roller, proving that that success as a rookie wasn’t a positive outlier.
There are only two immediately obvious offensive limitation of loading up on spread pick-and-rolls with Harrell on the floor, and they involve the other personnel in the lineup. Because Harrell isn’t a perimeter shooter, he’s going to be screening and diving straight to the rim on a significant portion of those plays. That becomes more complicated if you add Thybulle to those lineups. His lack of shooting threat will encourage helpers to shade towards the middle of the floor or further beyond, eating into Harrell’s space. So if Thybulle is in the game, it’s best if he plays almost exclusively when the more perimeter-capable Embiid checks in for his second stint.
A rotation that staggers Harden with Harrell is going to also stagger Maxey with Embiid. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. The Sixers will surely test out lineups featuring Maxey and Harrell without Harden. But, a pick-and-roll centric big man is going to be married to Harden as long as Maxey is deficient as a playmaker for his teammates. So, there’s a degree of theoretical inflexibility that comes with lineups featuring Harrell.
But, Harrell can do more than be the dive partner in pick-and-rolls.
His efficiencies from the better of two seasons with the Rockets mirror those from his stint with the Hornets in 2022. So, his production has translated without Harden. Harrell can create chaos by cutting off the ball and pin-balling through the lane for strong finishes. He can catch defensive rebounders off guard by rocking the rim with put-back dunks. Harrell can also inflict damage in transition with his touch around the rim and ability to navigate obstacles with proper footwork.
That footwork cannot be understated. As much as Harrell struggles to move on defense (more on that at another time), he has very quick feet on offense. A quick first step and some excellent body control make Harrell the most offensively talented true backup center the Sixers have had in the Embiid era:
And then, there’s perhaps the most underrated acquisition of the NBA offseason, at least relative to its cost.
When Melton has the ball in his hands, he moves like CJ McCollum. When he’s playing off the ball, his movements mimic those of Klay Thompson. But, the results certainly don’t mimic those of either player.
I lean towards pessimism as it pertains to Melton driving the bench units by himself in meaningful games or against elite opponents because he functioned mostly in that off-ball role as a shooter and slasher in the 2022 playoffs with the Grizzlies. A career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1 trends in the direction you want from a guard. But, when that’s just 2.8 assists to 1.4 turnovers through four NBA seasons, you’re right to have doubts as to whether the player can run an offense on his own.
Melton can make some good reads as a passer in the halfcourt, but he’s more of a connector than a facilitator:
The biggest concern with Melton serving as a lead ball-handler for extended time is that he’s weak with the ball when he has to dribble through crowded areas.
Ultimately, Melton’s fit is mostly as a slasher and catch-and-shooter (40.6 percent on 3.6 catch-and-shoot attempts per game last season) who can be trusted as a secondary ball-handler in small dosages. He’s one of the options the Sixers can throw on the side of the floor opposite Maxey or Harden and let him read defensive rotations when the ball swings.
So, what makes Melton different than Milton? For one, he’s just much better. Melton’s body language projects much more confidence than Milton’s does. He also has much more athletic pop at the rim and is a more willing three-point shooter. But, the difference that perhaps engenders the most flexibility for the Sixers is his ability to get to his pull-up jumper and comfort shooting off screens:
Still, I’d be interested in seeing the Sixers experiment with lineups featuring both Melton and Milton. Both are long, relatively crafty at the rim, and capable jump-shooters in their own rights. There’s not much reason to believe such a combination would offer significant upside. But, no overwhelming downsides come to mind, either.
Danuel House Jr.
Approximately 92 percent of House’s field goal attempts in one-and-a-quarter seasons in Houston with Harden were threes and shots at the rim. That shot distribution is nearly a perfect analytical darling for the modern role-playing wing.
Across that time frame, House only registered 56 possessions as a cutter, according to Synergy. After steep, linear decline following separation from Harden, House had a bit of a resurrection with the Jazz this past season. But, two seasons removed from his high-water mark in Houston, cutting still wasn’t a part of his game.
Make no mistake, House isn’t a 3-and-D slasher like an ideal wing would be. He has enough dribble-shoot equity to throw a shot fake, get a defender in the air, and take a bounce or two to relocate for the occasional pull-up three. He’s not dicing anyone out of his way on intricate moves against a set defense.
But, he can do a thing or two against a scrambling defense. House was excellent running against scrambling defenses in his time next to Harden in Houston. He ranked in the 92nd and 88th percentiles of the NBA in points per possession in transition in 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively.
When House does get to the rim, it’s because he’s filling lanes wide and attacking hard as defenses try to get back:
Regardless of court setting, House certainly lives up to the “3” billing of a 3-and-D wing. He has a career three-point rate of 62.2. In the time he and Harden were teammates in Houston, House logged three-point rates of 70.6 and 65.9, respectively. Those are the highest and third highest marks of his career thus far.
A 3-and-D wing below starter-level status playing next to James Harden has to be ready to catch and shoot. And catch and shoot, he did.
House shot 42.4 percent on 3.4 catch-and-shoot threes in 2018-19. His 1.194 points per spot-up in 175 such possessions ranked in the 95th percentile of the NBA. With increased volume in 2019-20 came a near 6-percent drop in conversion from the previous season. He scored .978 points per spot-up in 360 such possessions that season, ranking in the 58th percentile.
I’d buy something closer to the 36.5 percent on 4.7 attempts in 2019-20 because low-usage role players are usually very streaky.
Still, the Sixers should be encouraged that House’s success isn’t exclusively tied to playing next to Harden. He scored 1.151 points per spot-up in 93 such possessions with the Jazz last season. That ranked in the 85th percentile of the league.
To put it simply, if he’s on a good team, House can clearly be a productive offensive player. Sounds exactly like a low-usage role player, doesn’t it?
But unlike most limited role players, House’s shot distribution between corner threes and non-corner threes isn’t lopsided. It’s not perfectly balanced, but he isn’t restricted to one exact sweet spot like Tucker is.
So, House’s job is going to be simple. All he has to do is lift helpers away from driving lanes. And when they don’t drift closer to home as the ball travels towards House’s side of the floor, he has to make them pay:
House’s competency from multiple three-point locations helps him fit next to any of the Sixers’ core four. He can square his feet in the weak-side corner when Embiid faces or posts up. He can spot on the wing opposite a Harden-Harrell pick-and-roll and wait for the swing pass. And from time to time, when those swing passes are made, House has the awareness to identify if he has a physical mismatch and drive instead of falling in love with the triple.
If you have the size to fit a traditional NBA position and can make threes at a high clip against game-speed defenses, you can make a lot of money even if you’re otherwise limited. Just ask the guy the Sixers signed with a portion of the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception in the 2021 offseason.
Niang doesn’t have the foot speed or agility to blow by anyone off the dribble with any sort of regularity. His job was simple last season — get the feet set and fire off the catch. His athletic limitations and lack of fluidity in shooting motion make it difficult for him to function as much more than a spot-up shooter.
But, he showcased another use when Harden arrived in Philly.
Niang scored 1.356 points per possession as a pick-and-roll roll man in 45 such possessions with the Sixers in 2021-22, according to Synergy. That ranked in the 88th percentile of the league.
Except, Niang isn’t a roller. He’s not a threat to catch the ball in space against bigger defenders and forge a path to the rim. He found that sneaky success as a roller because he was screening for Harden and popping to the three-point line. Defenses keyed on Harden’s gravity, leaving Niang open to fire if Harden made the pass back to his partner:
Niang made 38.7 percent of his 4.7 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts before Harden suited up for the Sixers last season. Once Harden took the court, Niang shot 43.1 percent on 5.3 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game.
That isn’t all directly correlated to the Sixers finding some success with Niang picking for Harden and popping. Some of it is him just benefitting from the attention Harden commands and shooting as soon as the ball swings his way on a spread floor. But, the rise in pick-and-roll data is because of the chemistry they had playing a two-man game once Harden arrived.
Given his limitations, catching and shooting on a spread court and picking and popping is really all you can expect out of Niang. That’s especially the case when you factor in his production relative to salary. Niang is big enough and sharp enough from multiple spots beyond the arc to fit next to any member of the core on offense. He just needs to be put in situations where his teammates can create adequate space for him to catch and get his shots off before defenders close out.
The Sixers’ offense still has to prove itself. There are justifiable causes for concern. They have players who can combine to make an adequate number of threes when given enough volume. But, it’s reasonable to question whether they have knock-down snipers capable of bending defenses enough to create space for Embiid and Harden.
You could make the argument that the Sixers have at least 6 guys who can credibly handle the ball. But, you might not be convinced that they have enough playmaking behind Harden.
The Sixers certainly have star power. But, their ceiling is heavily invested in a backcourt that has some questions to answer. Harden’s upside is contingent upon health, and that’s a source of volatility. In an ideal world, Maxey would take another significant step. But, it’s not guaranteed that he takes a step forward again, let alone multiple steps nearly as significant as the ones he took last season.
At the end of the day, health is the only thing preventing Embiid from dominating like he usually does. And barring an errant elbow in the playoffs, last season saw the best health of his career thus far. Harden didn’t play up to his prime standard after the trade. But, his downside was still one of the best shot-creators in the league.
Finishing short of a top-10 offense would be unacceptable for this group. The question is, can the Sixers break into the top 5?