The Philadelphia 76ers have a hole in their game plan.
The pick-and-roll is an integral part of any offensive game plan. I can remember learning how to run it when I started playing basketball in elementary school. As the ball handler it immediately opens up a variety of options. You can drive to the basket, pull back and shoot a jump shot, hit the roll man for a basket in the paint, or even kick it to a wing to set up the play again.
It’s combined effectiveness and simplicity cannot be matched as a stable of halfcourt basketball. That being said its effectiveness is diminished without the proper personnel, and the Philadelphia 76ers are lacking that personnel.
The Sixers’ struggles in halfcourt sets is directly correlated to their inability to run a functional pick-and-roll offense. At the halfway mark of the season the Sixers are second to last in the league in pick-and-roll possession frequency at 12.5 percent, with an average of 13.9 possessions a game according to NBA.com. The only team running fewer pick-and-rolls in basketball is the Houston Rockets, who are running them 10.8 percent of the time for 12.6 possessions a game.
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That statistic is staggering because the Sixers and Rockets play two completely different styles of basketball. The Rockets play a brand of isolation basketball where the ball handler (typically James Harden) breaks down his man and either scores, kicks for a 3, or lobs the ball to a big running the baseline.
The Sixers pride themselves on ball movement and, according to NBA.com, are averaging 26.4 assists per game. The team is generating those assists by hunting the open man, making the extra pass, and in recent games without Joel Embiid, pushing the ball in transition.
26.4 assists per game makes the Sixers the third best passing team in the NBA behind the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzles. That is extremely impressive for a team with offensive struggles.
The Sixers’ halfcourt sets tend to shift dependent on which star is running to show at the time. If the offense is centered around Simmons then his ability to penetrate and either finish or find the open man becomes the main point of attack. If Joel Embiid is the primary focus the game slows down and the Sixers look to get him the ball in the post.
The Sixers post Joel Embiid at a 35 percent frequency for what amounts to about eight possessions per game. Joel posts up on more possessions per game than any other player in the league. However, Joel’s post ups are often doubled, forcing him to either fight through it and score (which he does on occasion) or kick to an open shooter.
And there lies the inherent problem with that halfcourt offensive breakdown. There is a lack of 3-point shooting on this team. When Ben and Joel kick, they aren’t kicking to knock down 3-point shooters.
So then why aren’t they going to a Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid screen-and-roll to generate quick offense? After all, most teams in the NBA run a pick-and-roll with their starting one and best big. The play styles of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid simply don’t fit in a screen-and-roll. Ben is not a threat to shoot coming off of the screen like your traditional point guard.
That means the defending team can do one of two things; either a) Ben’s defender can go under the screen and clog the lane for the roller or b) Joel’s defender can lightly hedge in the lane until Ben’s man catches up. In both cases the lane is clogged for Joel’s roll to the basket and Simmons’ dribble penetration. There are no easy baskets and that is probably extremely frustrating for Embiid. He is forced to work for every point. He is rarely the beneficiary on a roll to the basket.
However, there have been times when the pick-and-roll has been effective for the Sixers with different personnel. Without Embiid in the lineup, Ben has been running the pick-and-roll primarily with Al Horford. On those plays, Al tends to pop out into the mid-range for the jump shot and Ben drives the ball hard to the basket. Most of the time, Ben’s inability to shoot still inhibits the effectiveness of the play, but Horford has occasionally gotten a good look out of it.
Before Joel’s injury, Trey Burke had some opportunities to run the screen-and-roll as the ball handler with him. Burke’s ability to come off the screen and shoot a three opened up the lane for Embiid, generating some easy looks at the rim. Unfortunately, Burke hasn’t seen any minutes recently and Embiid is hurt, so it is difficult to say if his ability as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll will continue to be effective.
With the trade deadline rapidly approaching how do the Sixers fix their woes? There is a general consensus that the Sixers should look to add a shooter, and I agree. A team built around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid could always use more shooting, but I have a second caveat for potential trade targets: average ball handling ability.
I’m not even looking for top-notch ball handling ability (though I’d love it). The Sixers need to add players that can be the ball handler in a pick-and-roll. Players that can come off the pick and let it fly. That’s why ball handling is just as important as shooting in potential additions.
Players like Luke Kennard or Bojan Bogdanovic would be perfect deadline additions. Before suffering an injury sidelining him until about the All-Star break, Kennard was averaging 15.8 points, shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 39.9 percent from deep. Bogdanovic is also having a great season in his own right averaging 14.0 points, shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from deep. An addition of that level of shooting would be game-changing for the Sixers in the halfcourt. Either of those players could come in and contribute as the sixth man.
However, regardless of what the Sixers do at the trade deadline a complete fix is not likely to come this season. In order to continue to build this roster around Ben, Joel, Al, and Harris the Sixers need more players like Josh Richardson, Luke Kennard and Bojan Bogdanovic. Guys with ball-handling and shooting ability that could work in the pick and roll.
The Utah Jazz are the perfect example of team making their money in a halfcourt offense. They run the pick-and-roll at a 26.6 percent frequency on about 29.1 possessions per game. That’s the most of any team in the NBA, and they have the perfect personnel to do it.
Ruby Gobert is one of the best screeners in the game, but what really makes it go is their litany of ball handlers. Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Mike Conley all share ball handler responsibilities and each one of those players is a massive threat from three. Every one of those ball handers has the ability to come off the screen and either pull up, drive to the basket, or hit the rolling big.
It makes them lethal in the halfcourt and provides the perfect blueprint for the Sixers going forward. Finding shooters that make you better in the halfcourt and complement Ben and Joel’s unique skill set should be top priority for the Sixers to take the next step.
Ben and Joel are still one of the NBA’s most talented young duos. They can exist together on the same court at the same time. They are just missing the ideal supporting cast.