Game Preview | Belinelli's Value Goes Beyond 3-Point Arc

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Scene Setter:

While recruiting Marco Belinelli to join the 76ers, Brett Brown jokingly asked the veteran shooting guard if he’d be agreeable to a specific condition: in spite of everything good the 31-year old was capable of bringing to the roster, would he promise to let Brown yell at him about defense every now and then?

So far, Belinelli has done his part to spare Brown from having to raise his voice.

Since landing on the free agent buyout market a month ago, and subsequently signing with the Sixers, Belinelli has delivered as advertised, and then some. In 10 appearances with the club, he’s supplied an important spark off the bench, averaging 11.3 points per game, while shooting 44.0 percent from the field, and 35.6 percent from 3-point territory.

That the Sixers were getting a proven perimeter threat in Belinelli was no secret. For his career, the native Italian - the first ever to play for the Sixers - has shot better than 37.5 percent from 3-point territory. He’s also topped 100 threes for the fifth time in his 11 seasons as a pro, having already canned 108 triples on the year.

But Belinelli has proven valuable in other areas as well. He boasts playmaking potential, and, always active, was an instant fit in a Sixers scheme that promotes ball and player movement.

His commitment to cutting has been regularly rewarded (since joining the Sixers, Belinelli has been among the team’s most efficient scorers on plays ending in cuts)...

...and yes, Belinelli’s defense - the aspect of his game that Brown kidded him about over the phone - has been a significant, reliable factor, too.

“I feel I had a pretty good handle of who he [was] as a person, and what he was as a player,” Brown said Saturday, when asked about Belinelli.

Between his time with the Sixers, and his 12 years as a Spurs assistant, Brown has had plenty of opportunities to keep tabs on Belinelli. On top of that, three of Brown’s closest friends in the business - San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, and Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer - all coached Belinelli at each of his previous three stops.

Belinelli, therefore, was “no mystery” to Brown when Bryan Colangelo began pursuing the former Italian League MVP.

“I followed him for many years,” said Brown. “I think the exciting thing is, he’s a better defensive player than I initially was going to give him credit for.”

From a statistical standpoint, evidence of Brown’s claim won’t necessarily reveal itself in individual defensive ratings. Look more closely, however, at the numbers produced by some of the key line-ups Belinelli has been used with, and a different picture comes into view.

For example, there’s been no five-man group Belinelli has spent more time with (35 minutes) than the one also featuring Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Amir Johnson. Their combined 91.2 defensive rating can certainly be considered above average.

Recently, Belinelli has surfaced as part of another effective defensive line-up. Acting more as a small forward in a quintet with T.J. McConnell, JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, and Joel Embiid, Belinelli has helped this line-up manufacture an ultra-solid defensive rating of 83.7.

The Sixers, fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (103.2) as of Sunday morning, consider defense to be their calling card. Belinelli said Saturday the team’s determination to be elite on defense has served as motivation.

“When you play with a team like Philadelphia, or a playoff team, a great team, you really want to play defense, and you really want to try to help the team win,” said Belinelli. “Every time I’m on the court, I try my best.”

“He’s prideful,” observed Brown. “He and I joked around a lot about it in the recruitment: ‘You better let me coach you defensively. I’ll leave you alone offensively, [but] I’m going to coach you defensively.’

“He’s responded. He’s a prideful person, and I think that he’s been better on that side of the ball than I’ve anticipated.”

Combine Belinelli’s defensive dependability with everything else Brown, Colangelo, and the Sixers saw in him - namely shot-making and veteran leadership  - and it becomes clear an impactful addition was made for the stretch run.

“Man, I feel great,” said Belinelli, a champion with San Antonio in 2014, a few hours before he and the Sixers hopped a train to New York for Sunday’s match-up with Brooklyn. “I just try to be better every practice, every game, try to understand offense and defense, but I feel great. I’m happy.”

Uber Keys to the Game:

The last thing Brett Brown wants his club believing, regardless of empirical evidence suggesting otherwise, is that the Sixers are on the cusp of playing some “easier” games on their schedule. As the head coach put it following Saturday’s practice in Camden, the Sixers have shown they can beat any team in the NBA, or lose to any team in the league. Based on comments made by the players themselves, it sounds like no one is taking the Brooklyn Nets (21-45) lightly, nor should they. In the first meeting of the season between the Atlantic Division foes back on January 31st, Brooklyn shot its way past the Sixers, 116-108.

Defending from Deep: Heading into Sunday’s match-up with Brooklyn, the Sixers will be focused on shoring up their perimeter defense, and not just because the Nets outscored the Sixers by 18 from 3-point territory in the teams’ first match-up of the season, or because Brooklyn has hit the second-most threes in the league (807). Of more immediate concern to Brett Brown is that in each of the Sixers last four outings, they’ve spotted the opposition 10 or more 3-pointers. Brown thinks that if his group is able to find the right balance between guarding aggressively and not fouling, the results should improve.

Get Ready to Run: Sunday’s tilt will feature two of the NBA’s fastest-paced teams. According to stats.nba.com, the Sixers average nearly 102.5 possessions per game, while Brooklyn produces 101.1 possessions per game. As of Saturday, those were the top two figures, respectively, in the Eastern Conference.

Walking a Fine Line: Brett Brown said Saturday that he’s “always mindful” of keeping his players fresh, whether the person in question be Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, or anyone else. According to Brown, the crux of the question the organization constantly asks itself is, “How do you win games, move up the food chain and try to get as high a seed as you can, and still preserve your players?” So far, Brown feels the Sixers have been doing a good job on this front, and will continue to try and do better down the home stretch of the season.

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