Diagnosing the Philadelphia 76ers’ Road Struggles

The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the NBA’s most ambiguous teams during the 2019-20 season, sporting different identities depending on the location of games. Apparently, there is no place like home, because Brett Brown’s Sixers owned a league-best 29-2 record at the Wells Fargo Arena with the addition of posting a Net Rating just slightly less than Milwaulkee’s. 

However, their success at home did not translate on the road, juxtaposed by an underwhelming 10-24 traveling record. To add salt to the wound, Philadelphia struggled mightily with virtually every opponent on the road – consistently falling short against successful teams and coughing up losses to bottom-dwellers. Toronto handled the Sixers on the road twice, which the Raptors, Miami Heat, and Milwaukee Bucks all had in common.

Of course, losing to the Eastern Conference hierarchy was infuriating to watch, but seeing this team surrendering losses at Orlando and Atlanta became sleep-depriving. I for one am heartbroken about the ongoing pandemic and suspension of the present season, but I’m not sure I could take another road loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers followed by unjustifiable excuses, differ of blame, and heavy media scrutiny. With an ample amount of time to reflect on Philadelphia’s season, their “inexplicable” road woes are more diagnosable than people may realize.

Lack of Patience

For the entirety of Brett Brown’s tenure in Philadelphia, the Sixers employed a trigger-happy approach from beyond are the arc.

 

 

Shooting this early in the shot clock, without hesitation too, equates to more possessions for the opponent and leads to defensive displacement. This offensive approach becomes problematic, especially playing with the lead. Opponents create quick point swings and erase leads often against Philadelphia because of their barrage of quick three’s. Philadelphia did not have the shooters this year to justify hurling up three-point attempts early in the clock and be efficient in doing so.

Looking towards years past, the Sixers ranked bottom 5 in the NBA for three-point attempts after 2 dribbles since 2017. Further, Philadelphia attempted the 2nd least three-point shots around the league with a touch time of 2-6 seconds (player has the ball during a 2-6 second timeframe) this season. To no surprise, the Sixers attempted the least amount of three-point takes in the NBA with a 2-6 second touch time in both 2017 and 2018 – dead last.

This simply demonstrates a lack of flow in the offense. Players are not moving with or without the basketball, the ball is not being swung around the arc – there is little unpredictability. The first open player to receive a pass usually shoots. Contrary to Philadelphia though, the 3 teams with the most three-pointers made and attempted during the 2-6 second touch time are Milwaulkee, Boston, and Houston – the difference between good execution and a faulty philosophy.

Philadelphia and Houston are the only teams in the league that placed top-10 in 5 consecutive years for three-point attempts taken very early in the shot clock (22-18 seconds).

Philadelphia usually passes the ball more than most teams but catapulted atop the league in 2017.That year Philadelphia made the most passes in basketball, followed by the 4th most in 2018, and a similar mark this season.

Ironically the Sixers’ offense spreads the ball as much as Golden State does and forces rushed shots as frequently as Houston does, yet shoots like neither. Before you rush to compare percentages, which favor Philadelphia some years, Houston and Golden State made at least 150 more three’s than them in 2016 and 2018.

This season specifically, there was a disparity between home and away shot clock shooting splits for the first time in years. Philadelphia attempted 189 three-pointers very early in the shot clock (22-18 seconds) on the road compared to 172 at home. Shot clock tracking available on NBA Stats dates back to 2013 and in the previous 6 seasons, Philadelphia had yet to shoot more threes very early in the clock on the road than at home – until now.

Furthermore, an example of Philadelphia quickly firing away from deep can be found again in touch time. At the Wells Fargo Arena, the Sixers took 817 three-point attempts with a 0-2 second touch time (player has the ball for a 0-2 second timeframe) compared to 982 on the road. This is the third occurrence in just five years, where Philadelphia took more three-point attempts on the road than at home with the 0-2 second touch time.

This strategy does not compliment a team led by a downhill 6’10” Point Guard and prolific Center, it almost negates their effectiveness. Brown presumably urges the first open player to shoot, which can be detrimental to a team on both ends of the floor.

To name a few, Joel Embiid can neither establish a post-presence nor impose his dominant will if he can’t get set up on offense. Also, opponents collect long rebounds and kickstart fastbreaks which leads to defensive displacement and lack of communication.

This lack of communication, struggling to find and pick up players while they initiate their offense, is likely why Philadelphia surrendered 210 more points in the paint on the road than at home.

This affects the pace of play, player’s rhythms, and understanding of their roles on offense. Rather than having a shooter or finding the shooters, Brown green-lights the first open shot on the floor.

Searching for Offensive Identity 

Although I’d love to ramble about Philadelphia’s lack of offensive identity, this is more so about dissecting their struggles on the road. In examing their offense at home and on the road, there are not many disparities in anything other than shooting. Having said that, Philadelphia’s offense looks similar regardless of the location:

Home Time of Possession – 21.4 minutes
Away Time of Possession – 21.6 minutes

Home Drives – 1207
Away Drives – 1413

Home Post-Ups – 531
Away Post-Ups – 577

Home Paint Touches – 715
Away Paint Touches – 738

The numbers are far more compelling when it comes to shooting at home compared to playing on the road. The largest and frankly only plausible disparity in their offensive production is their volume of three-point attempts.

HOME 3PA: 29.7/G (25TH/NBA)
AWAY 3PA: 33.2/G (16TH/NBA)

POST ASG HOME: 29.0/G (27TH/NBA)
POST ASG AWAY: 38.3/G (9TH/NBA)

In the month of February Philadelphia lost 5 of 5 games on the road and dropped 5 of 7 in January. During that stretch of road games, their volume of three-point attempts blew their home numbers out of the water.

 

 

The team even shot 299 more field goal attempts on the road than at home, despite only a 3 game difference between the two. Ben Simmons had almost the same amount of drives/game at both locations. Likewise, Embiid missed over five games on the road, yet attempted more three’s there than he did at home. 

HOME 3PA: 922 (27TH/NBA) – 37.6%
AWAY 3PA: 1130 (13TH/NBA) – 35.0%

The common denominator in Philadelphia’s offense is their volume of three-point shooting on the road:

34.1% OF THEIR FGA HOME ARE 3PT
37.7% OF THEIR FGA AWAY ARE 3PT

Although the percentages are split by just a few ticks, this trend has occurred for Philadelphia every season since 2016. 

Yearly Comparisons 

This offensive philosophy is not a random occurrence, but rather, a product of a system that is suited for shooting teams. This philosophy was somewhat justifiable with able-bodied shooters such as J.J. Redick, but failed miserably this season. For reference: 

2019-20 Sixers:
Home: 922 3PA
Away: 1130 3PA

Home: 769 Catch & Shoot 3PA
Away: 931 Catch & Shoot 3PA

Home: 238 1st Quarter 3PA
Away: 289 1st Quarter 3PA

2018-19 Sixers:
Home: 1206 3PA
Away: 1268 3PA

Home: 904 Catch & Shoot 3PA
Away: 1007 Catch & Shoot 3PA

Home: 281 1st Quarter 3PA
Away: 292 1st Quarter 3PA

2017-18 Sixers:
Home: 858 3PA
Away: 967 3PA

Home: 220 1st Quarter 3PA
Away: 245 1st Quarter 3PA

It is commonly suggested that a good coach caters to their talent, rather than forces players to meet their systematic demands. Well…

Josh Richardson

’16:
Home: 121 3PA
Away: 106 3PA

’17:
Home: 175 3PA
Away: 161 3PA

’18:
Home: 236 3PA
Away: 224 3PA

w/ Phi.:
Home: 103 3PA
Away: 111 3PA

Tobias Harris

’15
Home: 127 3PA
Away: 112 3PA

’16:
Home: 164
Away: 150

’17:
Home: 225
Away: 220

’18 w/ LAC
Home: 150
Away: 129

’19 w/ Philadelphia
Home: 53 3PA
Away: 61 3PA

’19-20 w/ Philadelphia
Home: 151 3PA
Away: 172 3PA

Who Cares?

This is the more complicated part of diagnosing their road struggles – why does it matter? The offensive philosophy which enables any of the five players on the floor to shoot as soon as they’re open works very rarely.

30-11 at home compared to 22-19 in 2017 did not cause concern given the circumstances of what Philadelphia overcame. In 2018, 31-10 at home compared to 20-21 on the road was seemingly sufficient.

Failing to string together any momentum or consistency on the road for a third straight season, especially losing horribly to subpar teams, finally raised eyebrows. Except, people perceived their struggles traveling as a “mystery”.

Some sort of random happening. Or maybe it was the annoyance of traveling. Perhaps too much Chick-Fil-A on the planes?

Late-night casino gambling and Magic City clubbing? Oh! It must’ve been the clunkly-no good-impossible to co-exist-duo of Embiid and Simmons. Right?

Nope. It is a faulty offensive philosophy that grew stale in Philadelphia and negatively affected their production this season. 

I hypothesize that their defense suffers as a result of this quick-trigger philosophy, best exemplified by Philadelphia’s defensive discrepancies this year.

102.7 DefRTG HOME (2nd/NBA) – Allowed 102.5 PPG
112.1 DefRTG AWAY (20th/NBA) – Allowed 111.8 PPG

For the second straight season, their Defensive Rating is significantly better at home than on the road. 

Not only does Philadelphia desperately need a new voice in their locker room, but they need a new offense even worse. There is not much joy to be found right now in this ‘almost’ post-apocalyptic world, but my optimism for the Philadelphia 76ers and love for basketball keeps me sane. Stay safe, everyone!