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Sixers' passing is what will separate them from the pack going forward

By Dan Knerr, Sports Talk Philly staff

The Sixers have moved the ball as well as the top teams in the league this season with respect to assists per game as a team.  This is a key stat that cannot be overlooked and should be emphasized going forward.  Their 25.6 assists per game number is third in the NBA, behind only Golden State (30.5) and New Orleans (26.4).

Take a minute to let that sink in.  In today's NBA, where ball movement and cohesive team play is so heavily emphasized and coveted, being one of the top-3 teams in the league in team assists per game is incredibly impressive.  The only two teams above them are the Golden State Warriors, who are notorious for excellent ball movement and team play, and the New Orleans Pelicans, who have one of the greatest pure pass-first point guards in recent history in Rajon Rondo.  

What's more, the Sixers are the top team in the Eastern Conference in this stat.  This should bode well for them going forward into future seasons and even this year's postseason.  This number suggests they will be able to compete with anyone in the East. 

When you think about how the team does this, it's obvious that Ben Simmons, the team's leader in assists, has a significant effect.  His vision and raw ability to drop dimes from anywhere on the floor has allowed him to rise into one of the top point guards in the league despite only being a rookie.  He has a huge frame and unique skill set allows him to find open looks in a traditional manor from the outside of the key, off the dribble, but also from the post.

Even when he's not tallying assists, his ball movement frees up open looks on a regular basis.  For example, the other night when they fell to the Heat in heartbreaking fashion after not hitting a wide open three, Simmons was the one who set up the open look in the first place.  He drove to the lane before spinning and firing off a dynamic outlet pass to Saric who then moved it one more over to Redick for the open take.

Although in this case it didn't end up leading to a win, Simmons' ability to consistently find outlet options that lead to open looks is incredibly valuable to this team.  The fact that Brett Brown can draw up plays out of a timeout that includes a guy who can consistently facilitate open looks for teammates in dire situations of games will prove to be essential for the Sixers in play-off and play-off atmosphere games going forward.

But it's not just him.  From top to bottom of the roster, players can effectively move the ball and create opportunities for each other.  The other future stars in Joel Embiid and Dario Saric have both shown they can effectively find open looks for their teammates as well.  At 3.2 assists per game, Embiid ranks sixth in the NBA among big men.  He finds a way to connect with a slashing Simmons quite frequently from the post, or hits one of his teammates on the perimeter for a triple.

Saric has shown he can move the ball as well, and despite being a power forward, is averaging 2.7 assists per game.  In some games he will get five or six assists easily,  it depends on the flow with regard whether or not he's getting assists.  Even when he isn't making the final pass in a sequence to earn an assist, he is always effectively moving the ball around the floor.  He has an ability to pass that doesn't always show up in the box score.  It is impressive that the Sixers get so much passing output from the four and five positions. 

When you look down the rest of the roster into the bench, guys like McConnell highlight a list of solid, consistent assist contributors.  Both the stars of the team as well as role players can tally assists, which is what has allowed this team to rank be the top assisting team in the East.

The combination of this said ball movement, paired with efficient team defense makes the Sixers a formidable threat in the playoffs, regardless of the seed they end up with.  Ball movement is an intangible that is necessary to compete with the best teams in the league, and this team in Philly certainly has what it takes to move the ball with the best of them.

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