The same isn’t likely to be true for the Philadelphia 76ers next year even though Morey has taken over as their new president of basketball operations.
“I think the best way to win in the NBA is to take your talent and figure out how to utilize them the best,” Morey said during his introductory press conference Monday. “It’s not to take your talent and hammer it into a particular system. It’s to try to get the most out of who you have.”
In Houston, Morey had James Harden, one of the NBA’s most dynamic offensive players. Armed with three-level scoring ability and a nearly unguardable step-back jump shot, Morey entrusted Harden with a league-leading usage rate in two of the past three seasons and let him serve as the fulcrum of the Rockets’ offense.
In Philadelphia, Morey has no close facsimile of Harden.
Ben Simmons, the Sixers’ nominal point guard over the past few seasons, had made a total of two three-pointers throughout his NBA career. All-Star center Joel Embiid is a more willing long-range shooter, but he vastly prefers to go to work in the post. Tobias Harris has yet to attempt more than 5.6 threes per game in a season—Harden fired 12.4 per game last year—and Josh Richardson and Al Horford are more complementary offensive weapons.
If Morey attempted to shoehorn the Sixers’ talent into the system he ran in Houston, it could prove to be a clunky fit. Luckily, he appears to be well aware of that.
“We were trying to build the best team around our talents in Houston,” Morey said Monday. But here, [new head coach Doc Rivers] is gonna take the talent we have and use them to the best of their ability.”
In other words: Don’t expect Simmons to start bombing away from deep with reckless abandon.
“The goal is to not shoot three-pointers, the goal is to win,” Morey added later. “You can score on offense in a whole bunch of different ways. Joel happens to be one of the most efficient post-up players in the league.
“I used to get the question in Houston, ‘What would you do if you had Shaq?’ And my answer was: ‘I would give Shaq the ball about 100 times a game.’ Joel is a talent on both ends. We played the way we played in Houston because that was the best way to utilize the talents we had in Houston.”
Under former head coach Brett Brown last season, Embiid led the league with 8.3 post-up possessions per game. He averaged 1.10 points per possession and shot 52.4 percent on such plays, which put him in the 91st percentile leaguewide.
Post-ups are fading in popularity throughout the NBA, as they’re widely viewed as an inefficient way to generate offense. The Atlanta Hawks led the league with 1.02 points per possession on such plays last season, while the Sixers were second at 0.99 PPP. Meanwhile, the Charlotte Hornets were the only team not to generate at least 1.02 points per possession with a roll man in pick-and-rolls.
In December 2019, Zach Kram of The Ringer noted the Sixers were the only team to finish at least 10 percent of their offensive possessions with a post-up, while 18 teams were below 5 percent. A half-decade ago, nearly half the team was above the 10 percent threshold, and no team was below 5 percent.
Embiid’s post-centric style may seem to clash with Morey’s three-heavy philosophy, but Morey pointed to his experience with Yao Ming in Houston as proof that the two could coexist.
“When Joel is on the floor and healthy… this is an unbelievable defensive team,” Morey said. “And the fact that he’s also an extremely good offensive player, Joel is the kind of player you win championships with if you look back through NBA history.”
Morey and Rivers may encourage Embiid to swap out some of his longer two-pointers for a higher volume of threes—he shot only 40.0 percent on his 4.7 mid-range jumpers per game—but they aren’t going to pull him away from the basket permanently. Instead, they’ll likely tailor the rest of the roster to his strengths.
In Houston, Morey traded away starting center Clint Capela to better maximize Russell Westbrook, whose drive-heavy style conflicted with the paint-bound big man. Although the Embiid-Simmons pairing presents some of the same problems, particularly given Simmons’ reluctance to attempt jump shots, both Morey and Rivers expressed confidence in their ability to make it work.
“I have no doubt they can [win together], Rivers said. “… I think we have to change the narrative—they haven’t won yet, not that they can’t win. The ‘can’t’ should be taken out. But there’s a lot of combinations of players around the league that haven’t won yet. And [Embiid and Simmons are] just two other ones.”
The Sixers under Morey and Rivers will undoubtedly look different than they did under Brown last year. They’ll tweak their roster during the draft and free agency, and trade season is just around the corner, too.
But if Morey made one thing clear Monday, it’s this: He and Rivers will shape their system around their talent, not the other way around.