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Sixers March Defense more Lamb than Lion

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Yes. 57 games of Joel Embiid has been great.

Yes. 67 games of the future rookie of the year Ben Simmons has been stellar. (That’s right. I said it. End the voting, now. Give Simmons the award. Let’s not be cute with Donovan Mitchell.)

Dario Šarić finally came over and has played in 67 games. (Yes, I know Dario has been over for quite some time, but that calling card of the Process Faithful will never NOT be funny.)

All of those things (and more) have fueled the Sixers season to their 38-30 record and a potential playoff match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers (if the season ended now) and potential Sixer, Lebron James.

From an overall team perspective there has been one new calling card for the 2017-2018 Sixers, and that’s defense. If you’ve watched enough games since the start of the Brett Brown era, you always notice that the Sixers play extremely hard on the defensive side of the ball.

They hustle. They get many of the loose rebounds and 50/50 balls, and the Sixers did that every night – even in the ten win season of two years ago. The numbers and statistics never really showed since the Sixers showed up in the bottom half of the NBA’s defensive rankings.

This year is different.

As of today, these are the Sixers defensive rankings:

  • 14th in opponent’s PPG (105.8)
  • 6th in DRtg (106.3)
  • 2nd in opponent’s FG% (.439)
  • 3rd in opponent’s 3pt% (.344)

All that looks good, right? You’d be happy with that. Why wouldn’t you be? (I can sense that you all know there is a “but” coming.)

There has been a dangerous trend with the Sixers that has begun this month. Their defensive numbers for the month of March have been faltering. The Sixers are 6-3 in March after their 120-116 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night, but they could be far worse.

In nine March games, the Sixers have allowed 106.7 PPG to opponents. That is a high spike from the last two months when they allowed 101.0 PPG to opponents in January and 100.4 PPG to opponents in February.

The 116 they gave up to Brooklyn on Friday night marks the fourth time in nine games the Sixers have allowed 110+. They allowed the Knicks to score 110 on March 15th, 114 to the Hornets on March 6th, and 118 to Milwaukee on March 4th (a game they led by as many as 17 in the third quarter).

The Sixers DRtg has seen a similar spike. January’s was 102.8. In February, the rating was 100.3, and through nine games in March, it’s 105.7. Thank goodness for that 112.9 March ORtg, right – their highest this season.

Why the slight slide in defensive inefficiency?

Part of it can be attributed to exhaustion. Let’s face it. Embiid hasn’t played this many games in a regular season … well, ever. He just began doing back-to-backs, recently, and there have been times where he’s looked as gassed as I have after one full court run at a rec center. (Don’t judge me. I’m 37 years old.)

Backup center Amir Johnson has been logging minutes for the Sixers and Brett Brown has been flirting with the newly acquired Ersan Ilyasova at the center position to give Embiid breathers, but they don’t have the same impact.

Opponents’ ORtg when Embiid is off the floor is 6.3 higher than when he’s on (109.7 vs. 103.4). You can’t expect Johnson to have that kind of impact, but when the opponents’ ORtg is actually +1.6 when Amir is on the floor, you may want to consider alternatives – like Richaun Holmes, for example. Sixers Twitter is ripe with #FreeRichaun tweets on a nightly basis.

The Sixers defense of the three ball should rise concerns, as well.

For the season, the Sixers allow opponents to shoot just under 35% from deep (.344). Their number in March through nine games: 38.1%. In fact, the Sixers have allowed teams to shoot 40.1% from three since the All-Star break.

Now more than ever, the NBA is played on the perimeter, so there has to be a high demand for defending the deep shot. When the playoffs start, this can be exploited by the right team.

The Cavaliers, for example, shoot 36.8% from deep. The Pacers (another potential round one match-up), shoot 37.1% from three, and the Washington Wizards shoot 37.4% if the Sixers meet them in a 4/5 match. Should the Sixers slip to the 7-seed, the Celtics shoot 37.4% also, and they’re sixth in the league in three-point attempts per game (31.4).

There are 14 games to go in the regular season, and this slide will hopefully get corrected before the playoffs begin. Where one trend has improved (turnovers), another trend has surfaced.