One Team, Three Stats: Behind Embiid, Sixers lock down defensively

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Over the last four weeks, four teams have won at least three quarters of their games: The Golden State Warriors (11-2), the Atlanta Hawks (11-3), the San Antonio Spurs (10-3) and … the Philadelphia 76ers (10-3).

The process is bearing fruit. And while the Sixers’ success has been mostly about “The Process,” their improvement since a 4-18 start has been about more than just Joel Embiid. In their first 22 games, the Sixers were 3-11 with Embiid and 1-7 without him. Over their last 22 games, they’re 10-6 with Embiid and 3-3 without him.

When Embiid starting talking playoffs a couple of weeks ago, it sounded crazy. But the Sixers’ 10-3 run, along with the struggles of some of the teams ahead of them, has them within three games in the loss column of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Basics – Philadelphia 76ers (17-27)

Pace: 99.6 (11th)

OffRtg: 99.2 (30th)

DefRtg: 104.5 (11th)

NetRtg: -5.4 (27th)

Sixers links: Team stats | Player stats | Player shooting | Lineups

The Sixers will visit the eighth-place Chicago Bulls on Sunday. And they’re expected to have Embiid back from a three-game absence against the Houston Rockets on Friday. That will be the first game of ESPN’s doubleheader (8 p.m. ET).

Here are a few numbers to know about the Sixers …

No. 1

The Sixers have been the league’s best defensive team in January, having allowed 99.9 points per 100 possessions this month.

And they’ve done that with six of their 12 January games against teams that rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency, while only two of the 12 have been against bottom-10 offenses. They’ve held their opponent under its season-long OffRtg in nine of their 12 January games and on average, the Sixers have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions than their opponents’ season-long offensive numbers.

The key improvements have come in forcing turnovers and opponent effective field-goal percentage. In January, the Sixers have protected the rim better and have kept their opponents from shooting from 3-point range as much as they did in the first two months of the season.

As noted below (see No. 3), the Sixers’ transition defense has been much better in January. Good defense starts in transition, and that has been critical.

Of course, they’ve been at their best defensively with Embiid on the floor. In January, the Sixers have allowed just 87.5 points per 100 possessions in Embiid’s 211 minutes, with their opponents shooting just 37 percent from the field.

It’s rare that you find a rookie that makes a positive impact on both ends of the floor right away, but Embiid has done just that. For the season, the Sixers have been 3.9 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 9.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Embiid on the floor than they’ve been with him off the floor.

Entering Friday’s games, the Sixers (104.51 points allowed per 100 possessions) are just a hair behind the Miami Heat (104.49) for a spot in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. With Philly playing Houston (the league’s No. 3 offense) and Miami visiting Chicago (No. 19) on Friday, the Sixers might have to wait another few days before they crack the top 10. But their progress on that end of the floor has been dramatic.

No. 2

The Sixers have outscored their opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova on the floor together.

The Sixers have a frontcourt logjam, with three talented guys taken with top-six picks in the last four drafts. Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are all centers (more than anything else) and all 22 years old or younger. Noel has expressed his impatience with the situation since the start of training camp.

If everybody was healthy, it would be tough for Sixers coach Brett Brown to find sufficient playing time for two of the three, because he’s found it difficult to play two of them together. Last season, the Sixers were outscored by 20.0 points per 100 possessions when Noel and Okafor were both on the floor. This season, they’ve been outscored by 21.5 when Embiid and Okafor have both been on the floor.

Further complicating the issue is that the power forward position could be where the Sixers’ other two Lottery-pick rookies – Ben Simmons (last year’s No. 1 pick) and Dario Saric (the 12th pick from the 2014 Draft) – are at their best. Simmons, who broke his foot in training camp, hasn’t played yet, but he and Embiid are the two cornerstones of the Sixers’ future.

And making everything even more interesting is how good the team has been with Ilyasova (acquired in November) at the four. That success has mostly been about great defense, but the Sixers have also scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions with Embiid and Ilyasova on the floor, the best mark among their two-man combinations that have played at least 300 minutes together. Embiid and Ilyasova have played 27 games together, and in only seven of those 27 games have they had a negative plus-minus.

Ilyasova is on the last year of his contract and the Sixers may see Saric as his replacement. They’ve been pretty good (plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions in 313 minutes) with Embiid and Saric on the floor together as well, but that’s mostly because they’re a plus-36 in just 73 minutes with a frontline of Saric, Ilyasova and Embiid. They’re a plus-7 in 240 minutes with Saric and Embiid on the floor without Ilyasova.

No. 3

The Sixers have committed 16.9 turnovers per 100 possessions, the highest rate in the league.

The Sixers rank last in offensive efficiency for the third straight season (and are still last in the month of January). They’re an improved shooting team and an improved offensive rebounding team, but this is the third time in the last four seasons that the Sixers have had the league’s highest turnover rate. Last season, they had the league’s second highest turnover rate.

A league-high turnover rate makes the Sixers’ top-11 mark on defense all the more impressive, because turnovers can obviously lead to transition opportunities for the opponent. But only 49.7 percent of the Sixers’ turnovers have been live-ball turnovers and that’s *the third lowest rate in the league. With the low live-ball rate and because the Sixers are playing a little slower this season, five teams have committed more live-ball turnovers per game than they have.

* League-wide, 55.1 percent of turnovers are live balls (recorded as steals for the opponents).

The Sixers have allowed their opponents to take 16.0 percent of their shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock, according to SportVU. That’s the highest rate in the league and a problem, because league-wide effective field goal percentage is 60.3 percent in the first six seconds of the shot clock, 51.0 percent in the middle 12 seconds, and just 42.9 percent in the last six seconds.

But the Sixers have cut the percent of their opponent shots that come in the first six seconds of the shot clock down from 16.9 percent through December to just 13.5 percent in January. Their defensive improvement has started in transition. Their turnover rate has actually been higher in January (17.2 per 100 possessions), but their live-ball rate (45.9 percent) is lower.

If they can cut down on the former number, it could help them on both ends of the floor.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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