CAMDEN, N.J. — When the Philadelphia 76ers hired Nick Nurse as head coach, the expectation was that they would be running and gunning, playing with a high pace and shooting a high volume of three-pointers. The former is progressing that way, as the Sixers are around league average in pace after being in the bottom five last season. However, their three-point attempt rate as a team has gone down.
Nurse's teams have historically taken lots and lots of threes. It was a reason why he caught Daryl Morey's eye as a G-League head coach. This season has been a major buck in that trend. Among all NBA teams, the Sixers rank 23rd in 3-point attempt rate with 35.8 percent of their field goals coming from beyond the arc.
The Sixers were 12th last year, with threes accounting for 39.0 percent of their shot diet. Although they still have a nice collection of shooters around Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey — their three-point percentage as a team ranks 9th in the league — the volume of attempts has been below average.
In his media availability after the Sixers' Thursday afternoon practice, Nurse said that, yes, he would like to raise Philly's three-point volume. While the team is cognizant of its need to fire away more — and that its three-point attempt rate was among the very lowest in the league to start the season — it's not at the top of the to-do list.
“I don't think it's a super, super huge focus, like a super-priority, but it is on the list of things we want to do better and get more of those attempts up,” Nurse said. “I think that it'll come a little bit organically. I think we do need to try to ensure that it happens a little bit more, too. And I think if we can, if it comes a little bit organically and we can figure out a way to strategize it as well, then I think we will get to where we need to be there.”
Although the long shots have not yet been seen at the level that Nurse-coached teams usually display, the shots close to the rim are becoming more frequent in Philly. Even in the three-point revolution basketball has undertaken in the last decade, those are the shots that yield the best returns. They’re the ones that the Sixers are thriving with to start the season.
Last year's Sixers ranked 17th in the rate at which they attempted shots at the rim. Such shots accounted for 34.5 percent of their overall attempts. This year, they've rocketed up to 5th at 37.7 percent. That’s the value of playing at a higher pace: more easy opportunities to score at the rim.
Largely because Embiid is drawing fouls like nobody's business, the Sixers are also still elite in free-throw rate (a ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts), where they rank third with 31.2 percent. That’s a 1.2 increase percent from last season when they led the league. Even if the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns have passed them on the leaderboard, their proficiency at drawing fouls is promising. But the three-point department is still lacking — and that’s something that has to change eventually.
“I think that what I mean by that a little bit is it's just gonna depend on how teams start playing us,” Nurse said of trying to “organically” spark more three-point shooting. Should defenses start showing more attention to Embiid and Maxey, the opportunities for kick-out looks to shooters will grow. It would also happen if the Sixers add another player via trade that can put pressure on the rim.
The key for Nurse is to balance an uptick in threes while maintaining the Sixers' current shooting profile at the rim and foul line.
“It's hard — if that's what we're getting so many opportunities at, it's like…the football team that's running it up the middle all the time and they're gaining eight yards,” Nurse said. “It's hard to turn that down sometimes, right? But, at some point, they're gonna start stacking the box a little bit and then…I just think that that's what I mean a little bit. I think we'll see more opportunities present themselves as we play more games.”
Nurse's analogy reflects how the desire to change (even if it’s for the better) runs the risk of taking away something that’s working super well. In the Sixers' case, they have the second-best offensive rating in the whole league. Eventually, Philly is going to have to increase its three-point volume in order to get into form for the playoffs, where easy shots at the rim are harder to find.