Oh I see, Trey Burke is doing that thing again when a player leaves the Sixers and suddenly remembers how to shoot again
Excuse me while I go slam my head in the nearest door
— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) August 1, 2020
As most things do in the basketball blogging multiverse, it all started with a tweet. For those who weren’t binging NBA games all day this past Friday, Sixers’ castoff Trey Burke scored 31 points and shot a ridiculous 8-for-10 from three and 11-for-16 from the field in the Mavericks’ 153-149 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets (on a side-note, we need to get a Rockets-Mavs first round series for all to be right in the world).
Now to be fair, my in the moment reaction may have been too harsh. Burke actually shot an impressive 42.1% on threes in his 25 games with the Sixers, and according to cleaningtheglass.com, he shot 50% from deep when excluding his 0-for-6 mark on garbage time threes. The team even performed at a rate of +8.1 points per 100 possessions in the 273 non-garbage time possessions of which Trey Burke was on the court, and he literally finished in the 100th percentile of the league on spot-up jumpers, shooting a blistering 28-for-43 and registering 1.536 points per possession per Synergy. Naturally, the Sixers cut Burke at the trade deadline.
(Whips out a gallon of bleach and chugs)
So yes, perhaps Trey Burke didn’t magically regain his shooting ability once leaving the city of brotherly love, but watching the former 76er light it up in his first return to NBA action did give me an idea — do all players shoot better when they play for different NBA teams instead of the Sixers?
It sounds ridiculous to suggest such a thing, and any statistical correlation could likely be dismissed as coincidental, but this is basketball we’re talking about. It’s ridiculous that we all spend so much time watching grown men throw a ball in an open cylinder for two-plus hours, ridiculous that I write about it and that you yourself read about it. Basketball is weird, and sometimes weird stuff like this can happen.
The first place to start is with the the three major additions that were made to the roster in the past two seasons with the hopes of complementing the team’s two star players in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid — Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford.
Harris is a career 36.4% three-point shooter, in line with his 2019-20 mark of 36.2%. However, prior to joining the Sixers via trade in 2019, Tobi was enjoying the best three-point shooting season of his career, canning 43.4% of his triples during the first half of his season with the Clippers. Upon arrival in Philly, his shooting not only fell off, but tumbled down a cliff and exploded in a cloud of white hot flames, as he shot 32.6% in 27 games to finish the season.
Moving onto Richardson, he’s a 36.2% three-point shooter for his career, but yet again, he dropped down to 32.7% once he set foot in Philadelphia, easily a career-low. Interestingly enough, as a pull-up shooter J-Rich actually improved in the 2020 season, improving from a mark of 0.875 PPP on off-dribble jumpers in 2019 to 0.949 PPP this past season. Some shooting improvement, awesome.
Of course, there’s always a catch, and with Richardson it’s his catch-and-shoot jumpers. He earned 1.097 PPP on those attempts in 2019, yet fell to a mark of 0.993 with the Sixers, including the incredibly weird split of averaging 1.103 PPP when guarded on his catch-and-shoots, compared to an ice cold 0.972 PPP on unguarded attempts. And it wasn’t like there was some big precedent for this strange outcome, as in 2019, he averaged an excellent 1.297 PPP on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers.
Lastly, there’s Horford, whose drop-off in three point percentage has already been well documented, from 36.1% throughout his career to only 33.7% in 2020. But it gets even worse than that, as Horford shot above his career rate at 38.3% in his three years with the rival Boston Celtics, and finished in the 76th percentile on spot-ups of any kind, whereas in Philly he finished a dismal 27th on said spot-ups.
(Update: a second gallon of bleach has been opened)
Of course, there have been other Sixers teams and other Sixers’ shooting problems prior to 2020, so it’s high time to take a look at some of them.
Dario Saric and Robert Covington were two of the key cogs of The Process, and actually serve as two counter examples to my theory. I’ve already written about Saric and his shooting exploits outside of Philadelphia, and at first look it appears that he too has shot better when calling another city home, being a 35.1% three-point shooter as a member of the Sixers compared to 36.6% when he’s not. However, a lot of that can be attributed to his wacky 2019 season where he started the year at 30.0% with the Sixers before scorching the nets to a tune of 38.6% in Minnesota, and if you remove both those samples entirely, Saric jumps to 35.5% on his with-Sixers shooting and drops to 34.6% as a non-Sixer.
Covington’s deep range shooting has seen little variance whatsoever, as he shot 35.9% from behind the arc with the Sixers, 35.5% in his non-Sixers stints and for his career is a 35.8% three-point shooter.
But this all started with a role player in Burke, so it only makes to bring it back around to Sixers that fit that category.
Any announcer mentioning the burgeoning potential of Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot became a pet peeve of mine, as the tall, slender Frenchman was billed as a shooter first and foremost yet shot a bleak 32.1% from three as a 76er. As you could have guessed by now, that changed along with his uniforms, as he’s shot 33.6% since and 35.8% in 39 games for the Brooklyn Nets, managing to keep his hopes of a steady NBA career alive.
Even a guy like James Ennis, who was more than serviceable in the 2019 season and playoffs for the Sixers, shot only 30.6% from three in that season and 28.1% in those playoffs, much worse than his 35.4% career mark.
The Process era itself doesn’t even have full possession of the Sixers’ shooting curse, as veteran Thaddeus Young, has recorded each of his three best three-point shooting seasons in the past four seasons, including a 38.7% mark in 2016-17 with the Pacers. But as you might recall, his 34.8% from deep in 2009-10 with the Sixers was the best he ever shot for them in his seven years with the team, and five of his six worst three-point shooting seasons all happened here in Philadelphia.
One last player to test out such study, and it’s Glenn Robinson III, who actually played with the Sixers before the ‘20 season, as he spent 10 games of his rookie season on the dismal 2014-15 76ers and shot 30.8% from behind the arc on 13 attempts. GR3 then leaves Philly, shoots 39.3% on 428 attempts over the next five seasons of his career, then make his return, only to drop back down to 28.6% three-point shooting in 12 games as a Sixers. You can’t make this stuff up.
In the end, there’s probably no cut-and-dry conclusion that we can come to, as shooting tends to regress to the mean over time, and the Sixers’ penchant for roster turnover this past decade prevents most players from having a large enough sample size for their true shooting abilities to bear out. But still, it’s truly remarkable just how often seemingly rock solid shooters can turn into spacing problems as soon as they put on that PHILA jersey, making it all that much harder to understand how Burke got cut after shooting eight entire percentage points above his career average from three his 25 games as a member of the Sixers. Even if he struggled at most of the other aspects of the game, the Sixers are not the kind of the team that should be taking hot shooting streaks for granted.
That’s all for now, got to go find a third bottle of bleach.
Daniel is a rising sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a Staff Writer for Liberty Ballers and an Associate Editor for the Northwestern SB Nation Blog — Inside NU. He also runs his own personal blog called backtothebasket.org, and is very active on Twitter, and you can follow him @dan_olinger.