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Examining the Sixers’ best perimeter defense options

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How should the team most effectively utilize Ben Simmons and Robert Covington?

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As time ticked down in the second quarter at the Fiserv Forum, Giannis Antetokounmpo emphatically waved his hand and commanded his troops. “Get out!” he yelled.

Donte DiVincenzo floated to the wing, and the Bucks suddenly had four shooting threats dispersed around the perimeter like turrets waiting to unleash fire.

The Sixers were in trouble. Dario Saric was left on an island with the Greek Freak, forcing Robert Covington, who was guarding DiVincenzo, to shuffle over to front Antetokounmpo. Giannis whipped a no-look pass to the former Villanova guard, who then sniped the shot.

The second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks acted as a metaphor for Philadelphia’s defensive shortcomings through the first five games of the season. Giannis scored 15 of his 32 points. The defense promptly collapsed onto him, which opened up Brook Lopez to sink a career-high 5 threes. A 12-point lead disintegrated to a 7-point deficit.

In the tunnel, Ben Simmons asserted, “I feel like I should have been on [Giannis] the whole game.”

The departure of Lloyd Pierce in early May to the Atlanta Hawks opened the door for Monty Williams to come in as defensive coordinator and add his own twist, scram switches, to the team ranked 3rd in defensive rating last season. By placing Saric on Giannis, the Sixers have evidently put faith into the new approach.

But talent almost always trumps game plan, as Giannis and Blake Griffin single-handedly took over in back-to-back games. Five games in and the Sixers defensive rating stands at 18th in the league. If the approach does change, then the 76ers need to place their most versatile wing defender onto the most talented offensive threat.

Simply put, that defender is Robert Covington or Ben Simmons.

Ever since arriving in Philadelphia, Robert Covington has been synonymous with off-ball impact, even leading the league in deflections the last two seasons. This season though, that narrative hasn’t run its course. Covington has continued to be aggressive, getting his hands in passing lanes—his four deflections led the Detroit game—but has been losing the periphery of his man and the ball just as often.

Covington also excels at flying in and snatching rebounds as the shot clock expires. Although when he leaves the shooter to attack the rim, he gives up the perimeter shot from his matchup.

On the third play of the sequence below, Covington was guarding Stanley Johnson, until Landry Shamet, who was guarding Reggie Bullock, rotated to the block to box-out Andre Drummond. It was now Covington’s responsibility to slide down to the right corner to guard Reggie Bullock, who shoots 41% from there. By then, Covington’s eyes were off his Bullock, who had already zipped to the corner.

Law of averages says the world keeps spinning and Covington’s aggressiveness manifests as steals and deflections eventually. There is no precedence on the ball and thus no such expectation should burden Covington.

In ball-screens and isolations, footwork has persisted throughout his career, muddying his otherwise impeccable resume as a defensive disruptor.

Specifically, Covington step-slides instead of exploding off his back leg. What exactly is a “step-slide?” It’s when you extend your front leg as your first movement on a defensive slide instead of exploding from the power of your back leg to propel your motion.

Step-sliding breeds two issues; a) a narrow base, making it hard to gyrate your waist and; b) momentum loss, it creates friction and reduces natural explosion overall.

In the pick-and-roll, Covington doesn’t explode over ball-screens with forward motion, instead, he sidesteps and bolts into brick-walls of screens.

Against Detroit, Robert Covington had the duty of chasing around Reggie Bullock like a cat running through walls of screens trying to pounce on a mouse. Bullock, an expert in scurrying around the court in cuts and spot-ups, proved troublesome for Covington, who generally struggles to get through screens.

The Magic and Bucks also capitalized by running him through double off-ball screens when he guarded Terrence Ross and Khris Middleton.

Once the ball was swung to his man on the wing, Covington again step-slid, stepping forward instead of shuffling his feet as he closed out. Step-sliding on close-outs narrows the base and forces your body to recoil once it needs to shift quickly again.

It also projects more creating room for the offensive player. Middleton, as a result, bludgeoned damage into the heart of the defense, forcing Philadelphia to rotate, eventually seaming open a wide-open Bledsoe three.

His body has to make up for extra movement in his close-out by collecting itself—tightening up his base and torso—exposing his feet to drives from any angle. Middleton dribbles once and already has him beat.

To make up for his lagging feet, Covington leverages his 7’2’’ wingspan to get his hands in passing lanes and into dribbling traffic. His 1.7 steals per games ranked 9th in the NBA last season. Reaching, though, begets fouls. Covington slapped down fickle at Giannis when the forward drove full head of steam. It is no secret that stars draw fouls when they drive with their heads down—James Harden and Giannis both placed in the top 10 in fouls drawn last year, per NBA.com. Covington, in fact, fouled 238 times last year, ranking 7th in the NBA.

On this play, Malcolm Brogdon pushes the ball in transition while Covington gathers his feet together in lieu of backpedaling to defend the rim, which opens up the floor and leads to a careless reach-in foul.

Don’t get it twisted. I do think Covington has earned every second of the 35.2 minutes he’s averaged, merely because he is capable of affecting the game with his quick-hitting instincts. But knowing what he can’t do is just as important. His step-slides allow primary creators to beat him with dribbling. That yields defensive rotations which bleed an influx of open three-pointers—Philadelphia allowed 43 of them against Milwaukee.

Against Milwaukee, Ben Simmons mirrored Giannis with a lethal combination of length, point guard handles, and wing-man agility. And Simmons was the only player that could stop the bleeding, stopping Giannis a tune of 14.3% shooting on 7 shots. His wing peers allowed him to shoot 60% on 15 shots, per NBA.com.

Breaking down the film corroborated the data. Simmons gathered explosive movements from his hind leg, unlike Covington, which maximizes downhill speed when he veered around ball-screens or needed to shift gears against isolation attempts. First, confident in his own ability to cover ground, Simmons spreads his base wide to position his feet left or right.

In isolation, this aides Simmons because he funnels the dribbler to the baseline, and especially pertinent to Giannis, towards the direction of the opposition’s weak hand.

When confronted with a ball-screen, Simmons’ explosion from his back leg allows him to recover. With right-hand favored opponents—Bledsoe and Giannis especially—Simmons exaggerated his left foot forward.

Simmons’ ability to move his feet through ball-screens and guard in isolations firmly entrench him as the most versatile man-to-man defender on the team.

If the Sixers pin Covington against the secondary wing option, they will reap the benefits of a game-changer on the flanks. On the other side, pitting Simmons against the top wing player will alleviate worries on scram switches and on help-side.

At the postgame presser, Brett Brown and Ben Simmons both mentioned miscommunication being a cause for the various mishaps on switches. Before Philadelphia can figure switches out though, match-ups first need to be defined.