The Sixers finished December at 8-6, but one game being the difference between a winning month and a .500 month left much to be desired as the calendar restarts. The Sixers suffered losses to the COVID-stricken Heat, Nets, and Hawks — with two of the three coming in their own building. Doc Rivers and his coaches will pardon themselves and their players by saying that they, too, were battling inconsistent availabilities due to COVID. But the undeniable truth is that Sixers fans rang in 2022 with a bad taste in their mouths because the losses were brutal and many of the wins were still ugly. 

For the month, Philly had a point differential of minus-17. Over 14 games, that averages out to minus-1.2 points per game. In other words, the average outcome of a December contest featuring the Sixers was Philly losing by less than a bucket. Philadelphia’s defense in the guts of games generally wasn’t the problem. The Sixers were 3rd in defense in the fourth quarters of their December schedule. It was their offense that was quite hard on the eyes. Philly ranked 21st in fourth-quarter offense in December. That simply won’t do.

Upon further review of the Sixers’ 11 games decided by fewer than 10 points, five trends compounded to repeatedly impair the fourth-quarter offense.

Minimize The Harris Isolations, Maximize The Harris Post-Ups

Save for the first few games before being sidelined with COVID, Tobias Harris has fallen well short of expectations this season. How does 18.6 points with shooting splits of 51 percent on twos and 29.9 percent on an unproductive volume of threes sit with you? He’s working on the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career, but the 3.9 assists per game are mostly obvious reads.

The advanced numbers aren’t supportive, either. His true shooting is slightly below the league average, while his effective field goal percentage sits well below the league average. So, he’s neither an efficient scorer nor an efficient shooter this season. All season long, his usage has diminished ever so slightly — relative to the standard he’s set for himself — in the fourth quarter.

Harris’ performance dwindled even further in December. In 13 games to end the calendar year, Harris converted 47 percent of his twos (18th percentile) and 27.3 percent of his triples (23rd percentile). His effective field goal percentage slipped into the bottom 10th percentile of forwards in the league, and the true shooting fell, too. Amidst the struggles, the deviation in fourth-quarter usage relative to overall usage followed suit.

Still, the Sixers didn’t sport a better fourth-quarter offense by enabling Harris to reduce his involvement when on the floor. In fact, it was .4 points per 100 possessions worse in December than what the Sixers’ standard has been for the first few months of the season. That isn’t to say that there’s a direct correlation between Harris’ usage declining and the Sixers’ offense performing worse. Rather, it means that you cannot conclude that the sole issue with the Sixers’ putrid fourth quarters was Tobias Harris.

Fans would seemingly be more than happy to just relegate Harris to catch-and-shoots or watching from the bench in the fourth quarter. But, does it seem likely that a head coach favoring veterans would take the ball out of Harris’ hands or sit him when the game hangs in the balance? Does it seem likely an owner whose wealth has accumulated from private equity investing would be keen on minimizing or benching $35,995,950 of salary?

The realistic solution isn’t minimizing the player, it’s putting him in situations that are most natural to his game.

According to Synergy Sports, Harris’ play is most commonly derived out of spot-ups. He’s catching and shooting, or he’s catching and doing something else (and there are many ‘something elses’ he could be doing). 45 percent of his spot-ups end in him doing the former of those two options — and the Sixers are scoring .922 points per possession. That figure ranks in the 29th percentile of the league, and he scores on just 31 percent of those catch-and-shoots. So, this romanticized idea of Harris lurking on the wings waiting to catch and pull the trigger would actively hurt his team’s product. 

Viewers would like to gouge their eyes out when Harris attempts to isolate against any opponent at any point in the game. Synergy indicates that the Sixers are scoring .94 points per possession on his isolations — which ranks in the 62nd percentile of the league. He scores on 46 percent of those possessions.

The problem that such efficiency hides is that his volume of isolation possessions doesn’t come close to the number of isos logged by some of the league’s most prolific scorers in that context. The eye test tells you Harris’ isolations are miserable. The data tells you to rethink what your eyes are telling you. I would lean more towards the eye test right now:

It’s not necessarily about Harris making or missing shots in isolation. It’s about his indecision as to whether to attack the paint or shoot jumpers. Those bouts with over-dribbling cost the Sixers precious shot-clock seconds. And if he does elect to pass out of the isolation, there’s a sizable chance he’s putting his teammates in compromised positions. Philadelphia’s putrid .545 points per possession (on only 11 such instances this season) in which Harris passes out of isolations this season speaks to that. With the data and the eye test saying two different things, the isolations just aren’t a trustworthy source of offense. As such, they should be cut out of the fourth-quarter offense. Harris just isn’t consistent enough of a shooter, athlete, or passer right now to win those one-on-one battles. But if he finds himself in that spot, it should be a shot every time.

If Harris isn’t spotting up, the next most frequent play is him operating as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. And the offense has been effective with Harris in that setting. Philadelphia’s 1.125 points per possession with Harris navigating pick-and-rolls ranks in the 96th percentile of the league. They score on nearly 56 percent of those possessions. Given his limitations as a playmaker, it might surprise you that the Sixers actually score more points per possession in which Harris passes out of the pick-and-roll than they do when he tries to score out of it.

Granted, there are caveats. That 1.125 points per possession is the best in the league for forwards, according to Synergy Sports. Harris has also registered the fourth fewest pick-and-roll possessions of any forward to amass at least 70 iterations in that context. So, sample size could be skewing the truth. If the sample size of possessions in which Harris is navigating the pick-and-roll, in general, trends towards being small, then that means the splits for Harris directly scoring out of and passing out of the pick-and-roll must also be based in small sample size.

If you remove the transition environment from the types of plays in which Harris is involved, post-ups are his third most frequent usage. Many might argue that that’s his bread-and-butter. Last season, the Sixers averaged 1.03 points per possession in which they posted Harris. According to Synergy, only three forwards were more efficient than Harris was in that context — Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Zion Williamson.

This season, Harris is generating 1.062 points per possession out of the post for Philly on 40 percent of last season’s sample. The difference in sample size will get smaller as the season goes on. But that production seems real given the minimal season-to-season deviation, Harris’ physical profile, and his proficiency as a shooter out of the post over the last 5 seasons.

There isn’t enough sample size to say with any sort of definition that Harris shouldn’t be passing out of the post. But given the success he’s had as a scorer out of the post on 2.6-times the volume of possessions in which he’s passed in that context — and given some of the lineups in which he’s regularly featured — it is logical that the Sixers can derive maximum value from Harris’ post-ups by his looking to score instead of looking to dish to non-Embiid teammates.

The only real concern I have with prescribing a high dosage of Harris post-ups in the fourth quarter is that there have been a number of occasions in which he’s been unable to overwhelm smaller or slower mismatches this season. Perhaps it’s a confidence thing out of which he’s trying to climb. Or maybe there’s an injury being kept under wraps.

I will say that many people seem to forget Harris had COVID earlier in the season and experienced symptoms. There’s still so much unknown about the virus, but there are many athletes who have shed light on how the effects lingered after they returned to play. So, perhaps that’s a factor. But that’s just a guessing game until there’s a real explanation. 

Aside from increasing the post touches, staying neutral on the pick-and-roll decision-making, and minimizing the isolations in the fourth quarter, it probably says something that more than half of my video footage of Harris for this piece features him bowling someone over as he drives to the basket and getting called for an offensive foul. Maybe mix in a jump-stop here and there.

Something Must Give With Matisse Thybulle

The Sixers score 4.5 more points per 100 possessions with Matisse Thybulle off the floor than they do with him on the court this season. That differential shrunk by exactly 1 point per 100 possessions in the month of December. The flaw in using offensive rating as a barometer of individual play reveals itself when you look at Thybulle’s advanced numbers in fourth quarters this season.

The Sixers score 19.8 more points per 100 fourth-quarter possessions with Thybulle playing than with him sitting this season. But, Thybulle is depositing just 26.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this season. In December, the Sixers scored 13.7 more points per 100 fourth-quarter possessions with him on the court than they did with him off it. The three-point efficiency dropped to 24.3 percent in the final month of 2021.

Virtually anything positive Thybulle does on the offensive side of the floor is a lottery ticket. Putting the ball on the floor often spells disaster. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him take a shot off the dribble, let alone make one. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.5:1 in December fourth quarters was better than what his ratio is for the season, but that’s not good enough to proclaim that Thybulle is some sort of sneaky playmaker.

After all of that, shooting off the catch and off-ball cutting are the only remaining sources of positive offensive output. Thybulle is hitting far south of 30 percent of his threes off the catch. The other biggest knock in his offensive development is his inconsistency in recognizing opportunities to cut to the rim off the ball.

So, the only possible conclusion is that the Sixers’ sharply positive offensive rating differential with Thybulle on and off the court in the fourth quarter is a result of the teammates with whom his minutes are buoyed. In other words, the data is inflated by the players around Thybulle.

According to PBP Stats, if you introduce Thybulle as a variable next to one of the six highest-usage players on the roster — Embiid, Harris, Maxey, Milton, Korkmaz, and Curry — lineups featuring one of the six and no Thybulle produce significantly better offensive output than do lineups featuring both one of the six and Thybulle in four of the six scenarios. That’s a long way of saying that the Sixers’ most common offensive catalysts are better able to drive scores with Thybulle off the floor than they are with him on it.

The eye test paints the accurate picture. Opponents are perfectly content with over-extending Thybulle’s defender if it means taking away the Sixers’ most dangerous weapon on the floor:

You’ll be happy with a rhythm foul-line jumper from Embiid on most possessions. But, the example above is problematic for two reasons. First, the exaggerated over-help by Bogdan Bogdanovic completely shuts down the driving lane for Tyrese Maxey, the Sixers’ craftiest finisher and quickest ball-handler. Second, the Hawks spoon-feed Thybulle a backdoor cut to the rim and he completely misses the opportunity. 

If the defense is going to practically beg you to take threes by playing off so egregiously, you must help your teammates by anticipating and acting upon cutting lanes. Thybulle has improved at recognizing cuts off of Embiid and Harris when they have the ball. But, the identification of opportunities for cuts to the rim must spread to his relationships with other players on the roster. Right now, Thybulle is only cutting 14.1 percent of the time he’s on offense, according to Synergy. That he isn’t more eager to flash to the basket every chance he gets is something of a mystery, as Thybulle scores on 88.5 percent of his cuts and ranks in the 99th percentile of the league in points per such possession.  

Perhaps the above clip is more Maxey being so focused on finding Embiid that he blocks out all other options. But, that he doesn’t even look Thybulle’s way as he probes the screen just feet away from his open teammate tells you a lot about how much some of the other players on the roster trust his shooting — regardless of what they say publicly. 

The reality is that Thybulle’s offensive liability perhaps equals his defensive brilliance. His lack of growth on that end of the floor actively impairs the Sixers’ offense. It’s at the point where you might even advise that they run their actions on whichever side of the floor is opposite the side on which Thybulle is stationed. But, that isn’t a winning solution. You want to expand your work space in the guts of the game, not restrict it to one side of the court.

Thybulle’s fourth-quarter presence should be tied to the opposition’s star power. You might have to make exceptions for the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and other superstars. But beyond that, the Sixers might be better off favoring offense over defense in crunch time by closing games with Danny Green in Thybulle’s place.

It’s not about quantifying or qualifying Thybulle’s individual production on either end of the floor. Rather, it’s about the impact his presence has on both ends. It’s hard to imagine a reality where Thybulle blossoms into an average shooter. So, consistent cutting must come. If neither of those two things happen, the positive impact his presence has on defense will not outweigh the damage his presence does to the team’s offense.  

Stretching Out The Space Against The 3-2 Zone

I’m not sure whether it seems accurate or better than expected, but the Sixers average .953 points per possession against zone defenses this season. Synergy deems that to be average, although it ranks 18th in the NBA. The Sixers only score on 41.6 percent of their possessions against zones. The eye test tells you that that number is the least surprising of all.

The problem has multiple folds. First, the Sixers simply do not roster many itchy triggers. Seth Curry, the team’s best shooter, would rather put the ball on the deck for a midrange pull-up. Tobias Harris is a virtual lock to pump fake and drive when faced with an open triple. Shake Milton is far more comfortable operating in the midrange than he is from deep. Furkan Korkmaz is a wild card from shot to shot. Isaiah Joe is lucky if he’s even in the rotation on any given day. Tyrese Maxey is a weapon of mass destruction in the driving lanes, so you want him to find the edges into the interior of the zone.

The only guys who are going to let it rip without thought are Danny Green and Georges Niang. It does not bode well for your zone offense that your two quickest triggers combine for fewer than 14 shots — fewer than 10, of which, are triples — per game. And, it shows. The Sixers ranked in the bottom five of the league in both three-point attempts per game and three-point attempts in the fourth quarter in December.

The second problem is size on the perimeter. With a crunch time back-court of Maxey and Curry, defenses are empowered to go to a 3-2 zone instead of a 2-3 zone against the Sixers. With a defender up top, it becomes harder for the two small guards to dump the ball into the space at the foul line where proficient midrange shooters like Embiid and Harris can flash to retrieve the rock for open looks against a zone.

The third problem branches from the second problem. With the defender up top vacillating between the soft spot at the free throw line and the shooters on the perimeter, it’s difficult for the likes of Embiid and Harris to establish themselves in those spaces. Thus, effective positioning for two theoretical zone-busters is compromised. As you can see above, Embiid briefly flashes to the free throw line before re-positioning on the left side because Wiggins’ presence in the middle denies him the space needed.

There are ultimately two solutions. First, all of the capable shooters mentioned above could be less averse to letting it fly from deep. You beat zones by making threes. If you’re second-guessing in the faces of open triples, you’re not going to make many of them. If this group takes a high-enough volume of threes, they have sufficient skill to convert enough looks to knock opponents out of their zone defenses.

The other, and likely more viable, option is to stretch out the spacing between the guards at the top of the zone. Take the clip above, for example. If Maxey and Curry are stretched out to the wings, Wiggins — and any other middle man in the zone — is going to have a more difficult time recovering when the ball swings to the other side of the court. The middle man having to make up ground on the recovery will afford the recipient of the pass enough time to make the entry feed to a flashing Embiid or Harris at the free throw line. The goal should be to weaponize Embiid and Harris as scorers and playmakers against the zone. If the shot isn’t there for one of them, they can be the connective tissue to whatever comes next.

And even if the entry pass to the post isn’t there, stretching out the space up top or even playing higher will give the ball-handler more space to turn the corner and get downhill, thus penetrating the zone. If it sounds like Tyrese Maxey is the perfect guy for that, it’s because he is. According to Synergy, Maxey is averaging 1.368 points per possession against zone defenses on 19 such possessions. That ranks in the 90th percentile of the NBA. He scores on 58 percent of those possessions.

Lean Into Maxey As The Primary Ball-Handler

At some point, one of the tougher questions the Sixers might have to ponder is “Is our offensive ceiling higher with Maxey as the primary ball-handler or with Curry as the primary ball-handler?”.

Doc Rivers has told reporters endlessly that his team does not have a real point guard. If you consider that there aren’t very many real point guards in the NBA anymore, Rivers is correct. But if you consider that the characteristics of a real point guard shift as one era transitions into another, the point guard position changes. If we’re to say that Darius Garland, Ja Morant, and Jamal Murray are the current prototypes for modern, star-level point guards — and Ben Simmons is truly never coming back — then you might as well treat Tyrese Maxey as the point guard of your present and future until he proves he’s not.

Curry has made that conversation much more difficult than you might’ve thought it would be at the beginning of the season. You could argue that Curry — not his older brother — is the best pull-up shooter in the league. He ranks in the 97th and 92nd percentiles of combo guards in midrange field goal percentage and three-point percentage, respectively.

In December, Curry had an assist percentage of 23.4 (69th percentile) and a turnover percentage of 12.5 (35th percentile). Conversely, Maxey registered an assist percentage of 17.5 (bottom percentile) and a turnover percentage of just 8.3 (83rd percentile).

Right now, Curry is certainly the better facilitator between the two. But, it’s worth wondering whether being the better facilitator is more valuable than maximizing possession-to-possession output. If it’s not, the balance of ball-handling duties should favor Maxey.   

It goes beyond mitigating the turnover risk that rises with Curry as the ball-handler. The Sixers’ pick-and-roll offense just functions at a higher level with Maxey handling the ball. With Curry navigating ball screens, the Sixers score .986 points per possession. They’re scoring on just 44 percent of the possessions in which Curry is driving the car. With Maxey at the helm, that number rises to .995. The Sixers score on 46 percent of possessions in which he navigates pick-and-rolls.

That differential may be negligible. But, the difference in numbers focusing specifically on their own scoring within the pick-and-roll is not. Curry is averaging .924 points per pick-and-roll possession — top third of the league. He’s scoring on 41 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions. That figure for Maxey is .969 — top 25th percentile of the league. He’s registering scores on 47 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions.

Maxey’s foot speed and craftiness simply blow Curry’s out of the water. That makes him a much more unpredictable mechanism within the offense. According to Synergy, Maxey’s distribution of decisions after dribbling off a pick are quite unpredictable:

Decision % Of Time
Dribble Jumper 34.8
Runner 24.2
To The Basket 38.8

On the other hand, you don’t need a crystal ball to guess what Curry is going to do:

Decision % Of Time
Dribble Jumper 74.6
Runner 14.4
To The Basket 9.3

Besides his gifted finishing, agility, and quickness, shooting is another reason Rivers should reduce the frequency with which he relegates Maxey to the corner and other off-the-ball spots. Maxey averages .965 points per possession on spot-ups and scores on just 39 percent of his spot-up possessions. Curry, on the other hand, averages 1.15 points per spot-up possession. He scores on 43 percent of those possessions. 

The degree to which Curry out-produces Maxey on spot-ups almost equals the degree to which Maxey out-produces Curry as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.

Ultimately, the biggest factor in all of this is Joel Embiid. Curry has incredible chemistry with the big guy. Their two-man game can power a lineup’s entire offense by itself. But any time Maxey doesn’t feel empowered to use his greatest gift, it’s a problem:

It must be noted that Curry is not in the lineup in this clip. However, Maxey’s decision to slow down in transition and not get downhill screams that he’s not quite sure of his role. A speedster should never feel the need to take his foot off the gas in transition. But, it can happen when a speedy point guard is relegated to playing off the ball too often.

There should also never be a possession on which Maxey doesn’t touch the ball. It is just mind-boggling that Maxey’s teammates never even look in his direction here:

Leaning into Maxey as a primary ball-handler will put him in what is clearly his most comfortable setting. And putting the ball in Maxey’s hands will allow Curry to play off the ball more. Curry has surprised many with his play as the point guard this season. But, the Sixers’ offense will function at its highest level with him getting more reps off the ball as a sniper and Maxey as the motor driving the lineup down the floor.   

Get Creative With The Actions

As the new year has arrived, we’ve seen Doc Rivers follow some of the things assistant coach Dan Burke did while the head coach was isolated in the COVID-19 health and safety protocol. The all-bench lineups have gone away. Some of the actions are noticeably more aggressive, involved, and deliberate. And the offense, in general, looks much better.

But before the new year, there were some downright maddening fourth-quarter structures. Sometimes, it’s just easiest and most sensible to get the ball to the superstar. The Sixers are averaging 1.08 points per Joel Embiid post-up possession. 55 percent of those possessions result in scores, according to Synergy. They’re averaging 1.062 points per Embiid isolation — scoring on 52.5 percent of those possessions. 

It’s hard to blame Rivers and the players on the floor to just hop on Embiid’s shoulders as he pumps the offense to victory. But, it gets predictable. When defenses tighten in the fourth quarter, the offense has to be more creative than it was in December:

Part of the problem here is that the Celtics simply have no respect for Thybulle’s offensive game. But, all the Sixers are doing here is moving the ball between three theoretical shooters while Embiid flashes to post spots on the strong side of the floor. If the Sixers mix it up with some cross screens by the block or back screens for one of the players on the perimeter, the Celtics can’t just front and back Embiid. Hell, have Embiid screen for Thybulle so that Boston is forced to guard him or concede a finish at the rim. You just won’t get away with flashing a shooter out to Embiid’s side of the floor so that they can make an entry pass to the post over and over again. 

Another part of the issue is movement away from the rock:

If Danny Green feels the need to push the baseline and attempt to finish through traffic, that’s on the other four guys on the floor. Too often do the other four Sixers in the lineup fall asleep when their teammate has the ball. If you’re not shooting, dribbling, or passing, you should be moving. Philadelphia’s inconsistent movement away from the ball is simply unacceptable. It’s impossible to run anything if four players are standing around on the perimeter watching the ball. 

You don’t need a complicated action to generate great shots, either:

Regardless of whether it’s Doc Rivers or Dan Burke leading the team, the Sixers have used this Iverson action to bring Curry across the floor to one of the wings all season long. This beautiful wrinkle is a side pick-and-roll with Curry and Embiid out of the Iverson action. And Embiid’s pass out of the short roll gets Maxey an open corner three.

The Sixers can change it up and yet run the same play just by inverting the action to the other side of the floor. This time down, Curry keeps the rock and squares his hips into a pull-up three at the top of arc. 

These actions aren’t complicated, and they’re coming within the flow of Philly’s regular offense. When you see the Sixers run great actions like these, it’s jarring that they have a tendency to settle for flavorless post-ups like the one against the Celtics.

Diversifying the offense doesn’t mean get rid of what you’ve been doing and find something else. It means don’t run the same things over and over again. Bad NBA defenses might not have any answers. But, good ones are intelligent. And when defenses take away the repetitive play, you have to add some spice to what you present. In diversifying from the start, you remove the defense’s ability to isolate any particular adjustment. 

Through 3 games in January, Philly is 21st in fourth-quarter offense despite playing the lowly Rockets, Magic, and Spurs. They are, however, plus-22 across the three fourth quarters. Doc Rivers isn’t concerned.

“I would say have everybody healthy,” Rivers said on Friday when asked about what his team can do better on offense in the fourth quarter. “Honestly, I don’t do a lot of looking at rankings right now. There’s just been so many guys in and out. Guys injured. I’m not that concerned. I’ll put it that way. I like what we do down the stretch of games, overall. You have Tobias and Joel and Seth, Tyrese and everybody on the floor, I feel like we’re gonna get a good shot often.”

Aside from Thybulle playing for Danny Green, the major issues come down to the players that are available and usage. It doesn’t matter what they do to enact change in January. Rather, the product come April and May is most important. But if Rivers is content with what he’s getting in the fourth quarter, an early elimination might not be explainable by not having Ben Simmons or his return in a trade, after all.