Ish Smith has fueled a turnaround in Philly.
The Philadelphia 76ers are finally playing good basketball!
Well, kind of.
Since acquiring Ish Smith from New Orleans in late December, Philly has won three of its last nine games, an impressive feat considering they managed only one win in their first 31 contests.
Smith, the architect of these wins, is a 6‘0” career backup who went un-drafted in 2010. On paper he’s not exactly a foundational, season altering athlete. He’s solid…ish.
However, Smith’s presence has shored up Philly’s offense and improved its defense to the point that the Sixers look like a real, professional basketball team.
So, why has Smith proved to be such a valuable asset for GM Sam Hinkie?
For one, he covets the basketball and distributes it effectively.
Smith turns the ball over only two times per game, quite good for a point guard with a high usage rate (29.4%). Philly leads the league in turnovers per game, but since Smith took over the PG job the team has squandered the rock 1.4 times less per outing. On the season Ish has created (scored or assisted on) 1.2 points per possession, a mark better than that of two thirds of the league, per Synergy Sports. In transition, Smith has generated 1.45 points per possession, putting him in 72nd percentile, also per Synergy. This is particularly salient because Philly has the sixth fastest pace in the league, meaning that it starts more fast breaks than most other teams, and because it has bigs that run the floor well (namely Nerlens Noel).
On the whole, Smith is averaging 7.8 assists in Philly’s system, about 5 more than the Sixers’ previous starting point guard.
Subsequently, the Sixers have shot much better from the field. Check out the shot charts below, and note that the one on the left represents Philadelphia’s shooting pre-Smith trade while the one on right is post-Smith trade:
Since the Smith deal, Philly is actually converting shots at above league-average in four shooting zones! Overall, the Sixers are scoring 5.3 more points per 100 possessions with Smith as their general, and for a team that struggles to score but plays at a fast pace, this improvement is the difference between a competitive game and a blowout. Smith’s dishing ability, plus the 16.2 points per game that he’s putting up, has turned around Coach Brett Brown’s offense, at least for the time being.
Where Smith really shines though is on the defensive end. Since joining the Sixers, Ish has caused opponents to shoot 5.5% worse than they usually do from the field and a whopping 11% worse from three, per NBA.com. Opponents score only 0.775 points per possession against Smith, putting him in the top 15% of all defenders, per Synergy. He’s also a savant at reading, and breaking, pick-and-rolls, stopping about two thirds of them from generating any points, also via Synergy.
Smith has excellent lateral quickness, which has helped him average 1.6 steals per game since putting on the Philadelphia blue and white. He has a knack for pilfering the rock and immediately starting a fast break, like he does here:
In this way, Smith effectively leverages one of Philly’s few strengths: speed.
With Smith, Philly’s opponents are shooting worse from three and are turning the ball over more. Although Philly’s defensive rating is unchanged (it’s still giving up 105 points per 100 possessions), this is probably a function of who the team has been playing. In the last nine games, the Sixers have played against the Cavs, the Raptors, the Hawks and the Clippers, all elite offensive teams. Thus, that their defense hasn’t suffered is a testament to Ish Smith’s effect on the defense.
Three wins in nine games is nothing to brag about, but for a floundering Sixers team in need of confidence, it’s a start. Smith is just the kind of hard-nosed player that a young team can learn from. Hopefully Philly can win a few more games and begin to win back respect from a league that has largely disregarded it.
Edited by John Ray.
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