Perimeter Shooting The Next Step In Sixers' Development

by Max Rappaport
Sixers.com Writer
@MaxRappaport

Isaiah Canaan wasted no time in showing off his most polished NBA skill. In the opening minute of Sunday’s 103-98 loss in Orlando, the 23-year-old squared is body towards the rim from 26 feet out, elevated, and confidently released the ball with a steady flick of his left wrist. After taking its elegant, arcing path to the rim, his shot found twine.

That was one of 13 made threes by the Sixers against the Magic, a mark the team has hit just one other time this season and just 15 times total since the three-point line was introduced nearly four decades ago.

Indeed, Philadelphia has struggled from beyond the arc to this point this season, ranking 13th in made threes per game (7.6) and 29th in conversion rate from distance (31.2%). But with the addition of Canaan, a prolific sharpshooter during his time at Murray State and later in the NBA Development League, the return of veteran shooter Jason Richardson, and the continued perimeter development of JaKarr Sampson and Jerami Grant, head coach Brett Brown believes that it’s an area where the Sixers could soon find an advantage.

“Part of our growth will be finding that balance of – we were the NBA’s best team at attacking the rim. We were number one. So to all of a sudden flip the switch and put up as many threes as we did, it’s a learning experience for all of us,” Brown said after Sunday’s game. “We’re just trying to recreate an identity that combines both of those skills.”

And combining a high volume of offense at the rim with efficiency from distance is exactly what the league’s best offenses are doing nowadays. And it’s something the Sixers have actually done fairly well to this point in the season.

According to Brown, the Sixers rank near the top in the league in shot selection, meaning that the expected points per shot that Philadelphia takes are far above average. The problem, though, was that expected value and actual value were not in line.

Only the Rockets attempt more combined shots at the rim and beyond the arc (64.9 per game to Philadelphia’s 57.0), something of which that Sixers General Manager and former Houston disciple Sam Hinkie is well aware.

“Shooting is an important part of the game, increasingly so,” Hinkie said on Friday. “We talk a lot about the way teams are built. When you watch games in June, there are a lot of threes being shot and a lot of games being won in the balance of makes and misses. All the best teams are really strong behind the line.”

Perimeter shooting is a skill that will only become more important for the Sixers once 2014 first-round pick and potential franchise big man Joel Embiid takes the floor. With the 20-year-old’s propensity to draw double teams and his ability to kick the ball out to open shooters, surrounding him with competent spot-up threats will be key.

“We all know as we start playing with Joel [Embiid] and Nerlens [Noel], we're going to have to sprinkle some perimeter players in the game,” said Brett Brown. “That's this game. You better put the ball in the hole from the perimeter.”

Just hover over the image below to take a look at how the Sixers have shot the ball in February compared to their efficiency from the floor from October through January. (courtesy of StatMuse.com

With 6:05 left in Sunday’s game against the Magic and the Sixers down 88-79, Brown brought Nerlens Noel and Isaiah Canaan off the bench to join Robert Covington, Jason Richardson, and Hollis Thompson on the floor. The group featured the Sixers’ rookie defensive anchor surrounded by the team’s four best shooters, and over the next four minutes that group (plus JaKarr Sampson, who spelled Richardson during the stretch) battled from nine down to make it a one-point game with 1:37 left.

But it wasn’t a barrage of threes that allowed the Sixers to mount the late comeback effort. Instead, it was the space created by the shooters’ presence that opened up the offense. Twenty-one of Philadelphia 28 fourth quarter points came in the final half of the frame, and the team went 7-for-10 from the floor during that stretch.

With 27 games left in the 2014-15 season, it will be interesting to track how the Sixers’ offensive efficiency is affected by the presence of Canaan, Richardson, and a more polished group of perimeter players than the team had to start the season. Stay tuned. 

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