Last season, the Sixers seemed to pride themselves on being a scrappy team that played tough defense for all 48 minutes of the game. They finished the 2014-15 campaign tied for 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, which is pretty impressive for an 18 win team. This year has been a completely different story. Philadelphia is currently tied with the Houston Rockets as the seventh worst team in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.2 points per 100 possessions. They've been especially tough to watch on the defensive end since the All-Star break. In their past eight games since returning to action on Feb. 19, they're allowing just over 114 points a game, including 119 points to the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday evening. They've taken a giant step back in the past 12 months, and show no signs of getting better.
Which leads us to this week's question: Why is the Sixers defense so bad at this point in the year?
Jake Fischer: I'm not going to use any numbers to try and analyze this or continue to blame Jahlil Okafor (he's still a huge, huge problem), it just seems when shots haven't been falling of late, the players become so lethargic on defense. Look at how locked in defensively they've been against the Wizards, when Nik Stauskas, Isaiah Canaan, and Ish Smith have hit some shots outside of the consistent efforts of Robert Convington and Hollis Thompson (I know Hollis didn't play Monday night). Even Nerlens and Richaun Holmes were credited with threes in D.C! I think it really comes down to an effort issue and the team's success on offense directly correlates to how engaged they are defensively.
Kyle Neubeck: Okafor has taken a lot of heat this season (a lot of it deserved), but the extreme futility on the defensive end as of late is a collective effort rather than something that can be attributed to one guy. Hollis Thompson's rotations are mind-numbingly bad for someone who has been on the team for three seasons, and it doesn't get much better no matter where you look. For all of Michael Carter-Williams' flaws, he at least had size at the point of attack, something that can't be said about the Lollipop Guild that has replaced him. Noel and Okafor have also struggled with communication breakdowns as of late, which adds another negative slice to the world's shittiest layer cake. Reinforcements and clearer definition of roles can't come soon enough.
Marc Whittington: Here's my totally unfounded theory on it -- after three years of losing and losing badly, it's taken its toll on the team and it's hard to continue to put in maximum effort for a cause the players find fruitless. The media has been talking for three years about the players developing "losing habits," which has mostly been a bogus way of throwing dirt on a team media members don't like. But I think we're starting to see some of that play out for the first time. I do think the bigger culprit is that we just don't have players who excel at defense; Thompson, Stauskas, Canaan, Okafor, and Smith are all poor to very poor on that end, and it puts undue pressure on the stronger defenders to compensate for their weaknesses. The combination of naturally poor defenders and poor effort has made this year's defense awful.
Roy Burton: I agree with Marc: There's little that Brett Brown can do to ease the pain of losing, and after four-plus months (not to mention the previous two seasons), I simply think it's beginning to wear on these guys. And it's clearly a team-wide phenomenon: Virtually everyone has regressed defensively over the past few weeks.
And, for what it's worth, the Sixers have spent the last couple of weeks playing teams that are at least on the fringes of the playoff race in their respective conferences. So naturally, a team that has something to play for is usually more focused/determined/driven than a team that has already racked up 50-plus losses.
Sohil Doshi: For the most part, it's pretty clear that the players' struggles come down to either lack of talent, lack of experience or lack of effort. The first isn't something that can appreciably change. The second will change with time. The third is pretty much the effect of all the losing and seeing a finish line to the season. I know I've definitely downplayed the whole "losing culture" thing but man, I didn't expect to have so much "dead weight" players in Year 3. Noel has looked like he's taken a step back on defense and part of me wants to give him a pass because he has to compensate for such poor defense in front of him. Similarly, I really don't get mad at Okafor's struggles unless he plays with less effort.
Jake Pavorsky: I think we all knew that the addition of Jahlil Okafor was probably going to affect the defensive numbers a little bit. He's fine defending one-on-one in the post, but you get him out in space defending the pick-and-roll or guarding quicker power forwards and he has not been good. Okafor is far from the reason for the Sixers defensive struggles though. There seems to be an on/off switch for their effort and energy. The game on Wednesday vs. Washington was a prime example of that. Philadelphia allowed John Wall and the Wizards to coast for easy buckets through the first half, and once the Sixers finally starting scoring on their own, then they became engaged on the defensive end. I get that the losing has probably taken its toll, but that's troublesome for a young group of players who prided themselves last season on working harder than their opponents. Outside of effort, they seem to be making the same simple mistakes as they did when the rebuild first began. They're coming down the court and picking up the wrong guys (which leads to mismatches), help defenders are collapsing on ball handlers when there's no need to (which creates open perimeter shots). A lot of this feels like elementary stuff they should be past now. The talent level certainly isn't where it's supposed to be yet, but some of their frequent mistakes are inexcusable. It may not be entirely fair to blame Brett Brown right now, but if they're still this poor on defense this time next year, I think it'll be time to really start asking questions about how good of a job he's doing.