Leaning Into Off-Ball Offense Is Philadelphia’s Path To A Championship Leap

Philadelphia’s flashy first half to the season has some pondering if this is the roster that will finally net the city a title return. Led by Joel Embiid’s nuclear dominance, the starting lineup has looked up to the fight of chopping down any defense. But lurking behind the trees in the forest of championship bliss are signs of an offense that needs tweaking. And to get there, it must lean on what it does well, but not nearly enough. Leaning into off-ball offense is Philadelphia’s path to a championship…or is it?

Historically Great, But Title Worthy?

The buzz surrounding the Sixers offense is unquestionably valid. At face value, Philadephia is home to the league’s sixth-best offense at a blistering 120 points per 100 possessions. In the context of greatness, this year’s team continues to set franchise (and league) records never seen before in basketball.

To imagine that this year’s version is nearly seven offensive points better than the 1996-1997 Chicago Bulls is beyond comprehension. A similar fate follows the 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors, led by three iconic offensive players Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. By most standards, Philadelphia has raised the bar and surpassed offenses that will go down into NBA royalty.

But underneath such historic outputs, Nurse’s squad has not entirely kept up with the continuous rising tide of NBA offenses in 2024. What do I mean by that?

TAKE A LOOK AT WHERE PHILADELPHIA IS AMONG CONTENDERS IN EFFECTIVE FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE (PER BASKETBALL REFERENCE)

Effective field goal percentage is a telling playoff metric for two main reasons. For one, teams are in part less reliant on free throw attempts due to a looser officiating whistle (the metric removes all free throw noise from the equation). Shots are also (generally) more contested in high-leverage situations, thus eFG can somewhat gauge an offense’s ability to make such shots in critical moments.

The scenario gets even muddier when we stack this year’s version against previous title-holding teams. Dating back to the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks no championship team has finished lower than sixth in effective field goal percentage. 13 teams have climbed the mountain since with a high majority ranked in the top three!

In the landscape of playoff horsepower Philadelphia is likely a notch below where they like to be, leading to the next logical question. So, how can they get there?

The Current Gap In On vs Off-Ball Offense

Pinpointing Sixers’ needs before the February 8th trade deadline is no small task. Narratives range from a ‘reliable’ backup center to a ‘lock-down’ on-ball defender. While you can make the case for both, or neither, potentializing the offense around MVP center Joel Embiid should be at the forefront of the conversation.

In opening this pandora’s box, contextualizing what the Sixers’ offense has evolved into is vital. At a career-high 38% usage rate this season, Embiid is the anchor from which most of the offense flows. Possessions often start, and end, with Joel surveying scoring openings for himself, and utilizing teammates as an alternative scoring outlet.

It is undeniable that the approach has been the source of a historically great offense, but it is at the moment an opportunity arises for the next guy to step up when things get a bit bumpy.

A BIG PART OF THAT IS A CONSIDERABLE DECLINE IN IMPACT FROM ‘SPOT-UP’ AND ‘CATCH-AND-SHOOT’ SCENARIOS THIS SEASON (PER NBA.COM)

You may ask why there is such a sharp downfall in volume when the Sixers have remained at or near the top in efficiency. For one, Philadelphia has substantially lagged beyond the competition as a team capable of turning passes into points. Thru 42 games Nurse’s squad ranks 24th in ‘assists-to-pass %’ slightly ahead of non-contending teams such as the Hornets, Grizzlies, Bulls, and Trail Blazers.

By zooming out it is even easier to see the why. While players such as Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, and Kelly Oubre are in the midst of career years in spot-up efficiency, their preferred playstyle often leads to off-the-dribble shot-taking

A PLAYSTYLE THAT GENERALLY LEADS TO CRUMBLING EFFICIENCIES (PER NBA.COM)

Maxey is an interesting case primarily because point guard responsibilities have severely limited his impact as a floor spacer. Without playmaker James Harden, Maxey has seen his assisted shot attempts from three-point range drop to a career-low 65%. The Sixers point guard has also struggled to generate offense from the paint, shooting 37% from mid-range this year (21st percentile according to Cleaning The Glass).

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No matter how you slice this pie it is clear that Philadelphia should look at complimentary off-the-ball shot takers to lift its offense to another stratosphere. And while some of its nucleus has top-tier floor spacing capacity, two things are quite obvious. Prioritizing Maxey with more catch-and-shoot looks is critical, as is bringing in one (or two) off-the-ball players willing to take these shots in abundance.

Building Off Two Stars With Floor Tilting Capabilities

Nick Nurse’s unconventionality in structuring his offense (utilizing Embiid as the central playmaking hub) has been a floor-shifting puzzle for defenses to solve. Embiid’s continued progression as a ball-handler, mid-range shooter, and passer puts defenders under extreme pressure to hedge extra bodies toward the ball and rotate to the next open void.

IN PHILADELPHIA’S MOST RECENT DECONSTRUCTION OF DENVER’S TITLE-HOLDING DEFENSE, EMBIID WAS MASTERFUL IN HIS ABILITY TO READ THE FLOOR AND PLAY OFF THE NUGGETS’ SCRAMBLING DESIGN

Embiid’s anchoring on-ball gravity is a substantial space-carving enabler for catch-and-shoot chuckers to thrive, as evidenced by this Nicolas Batum corner-three. Batum’s unbashful desire to let it fly has also fundamentally raised Philadelphia’s offensive prospects since his arrival. With over 40% of his shots coming in spot-up looks, Batum’s quick trigger is a noticeable reason why Philadelphia averages a hair-raising 127 points per 100 offensive possessions when he is on the court.

BUT THE SIXERS MVP IS NOT THE ONLY PLAYER CAPABLE OF DRAWING SIMILAR ATTENTION. AT BLISTERING SPEEDS, DEFENSES OFTEN SHIFT TOWARD TYRESE MAXEY TO SHUT OFF EASY DRIVING LANES TO THE RIM

You can envision where Philadephia can harvest more juice from its offensive tree with either Embiid or Maxey fundamentally altering defensive structures. But to do so, Sixers general manager Daryl Morey must potentialize this roster with Batum-like offensive minds, capable of leaning into the space afforded by the star duo, without a need to over-dribble (or over-pass). Leaning Into Off-Ball Offense Is Philadelphia’s Path To A Championship Leap.

So, Here Are Five Names To Target At The Deadline

MALCOLM BROGDON

PRO(s)

  • 78% eFG off catch-and-shoot looks (highest among 104 qualified players with 4+ catch-and-shoot points per game)
  • Attempting a near career-high 9.0 three-pointers per 100 possessions this year
  • 3.6 assist-to-turnover ratio (5th among qualified leaders). 61% of minutes at point guard
  • Drives two-way impact. Portland is 8.8 net points better with Brogdon on the court
  • Averaged 24.9 minutes per game in Boston’s postseason run last year

CON(s)

  • 31 years old with a long injury history
  • 6’4″ does not add substantial size to Sixers smaller back-court
  • $22.5 million fully guaranteed into the 24-25 season potentially eating into Philadelphia’s offseason cap flexibility
BOJAN BOGDANOVIC

PRO(s)

  • 6.3 catch-and-shoot points per game (20th among all NBA players)
  • Shooting 50% from the corner this season (97th percentile among all forwards)
  • Pistons’ eFG is +3.1% points higher with Bogdanovic on the court (89th percentile among all forwards)
  • 65% eFG on wide-open shot attempts (23% of shot frequency in Detroit)
  • 6’7″ 226 lbs. body adds wing size to Philadelphia’s roster

CON(s)

  • 34 years old with a more limited defensive range
  • Poor showing in his last postseason for Utah’s (4-2 series loss to Dallas in 2022).
BOGDAN BOGDANOVIC

PRO(s)

  • 7.6 catch-and-shoot points per game (3rd most behind Lauri Markkanen and Klay Thompson)
  • Atlanta is 7.6 offensive points per 100 possessions better with Bogdanovic on the court (92nd percentile)
  • Hawks’ three-point frequency is up 4.2% with Bogdanovic on the court (88th percentile among all wings)
  • Shot 15-33 from three against Boston in last year’s six-game series averaging 138 points per 100 possessions (69% eFG)
  • Equal positional flexibility between playing SG or SF

CON(s)

  • 2nd lowest three-point efficiency season during his seven-year career
  • $33 million committed to the next two seasons with a club option for 2026-2027.
GARY TRENT JR.

PRO(s)

  • Averaging 1.19 points per spot-up possession on 37% frequency (near career high in frequency).
  • 10th most field goals made that are categorized as ‘wide open’
  • 81% eFG in ‘wide open’ shots (highest among 82 qualified players with 50 or more field goals).
  • Spent close to 15% of his minutes at point guard in Toronto under Nick Nurse
  • An unrestricted free agent in 2024

CON(s)

  • Appeared to fall into Nick Nurse’s ‘doghouse’
  • Leads to occasional over usage on the court including a career 20% usage rate and 55% true shooting percentage
QUENTIN GRIMES

PRO(S)

  • 75% of shot attempts come from three-point range (93rd percentile among all wings)
  • Averaged 5.6 spot-up points per game last season (13th most among qualified players)
  • 22nd in three points per 100 possessions since December 1st (2nd lowest minutes among group)
  • Knicks were +5.2% points per 100 possessions better in half-court last year with Grimes on the court
  • Under team control for another season at an affordable $2.3M

CON(S)

  • Down season in offensive output, minutes, and efficiency
  • Poor postseason showing for New York last year against Cleveland (shot 24% from three averaging 5 points)
Thiago Scabbia
Thiago Scabbia

Thiago is a NBA and Philadelphia 76ers writer who started his journey for The Painted Lines in 2020. Portraying the storyline with numbers is his passion, and this is seen in some of his work breaking down draft prospects and in-season topics. Thiago is also a constant guest in Sixer post-game shows where you can follow his analysis for the night’s game

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