Given the hopes of fans and the team alike before 2018 free agency began, the Philadelphia 76ers’ summer has been an underwhelming one. LeBron James and Paul George signed elsewhere. Kawhi Leonard was snapped up by top Eastern Conference competitors, the Toronto Raptors.
The Sixers can still improve through star development rather than star hunting, though. And while a lot of that progression rests on whatever improvements we see from Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and a Drew Hanlen-trained version of Markelle Fultz, one area we know the Sixers can excel is defense.
Last season, the Sixers’ plethora of size and athleticism fostered the third-best defense in the NBA. Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Embiid anchored the team with his unique and overwhelming combination of length and agility. Meanwhile, Robert Covington blossomed into an All-Defensive First Team forward and Ben Simmons shone, showcasing remarkable versatility and IQ for a rookie.
Simmons’ entrance and a far heavier dosage of Embiid (up from 25.4 minutes in 31 games as a rookie to 30.3 minutes in 63 appearances) were the leading changes in lifting the Sixers’ from 17th in defensive rating in 2016-17 to third. With elite rim protection and massive lineups that can switch so freely, Philly’s young core isn’t just special for its offensive talents. And with its integral defenders still in place after free agency and the draft — and let’s not forget Amir Johnson’s savvy and TJ McConnell’s grit off the bench — a couple of roster changes could lead to an even better defensive showing in 2018-19.
Mike Muscala obviously isn't a shot blocker, but these plays show his solid mobility at 6'10". He can defend well enough.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) July 19, 2018
That, combined with a little passing and good 3PT shooting, is going to fit in nicely with the #Sixers' bench pic.twitter.com/cga0HDqmeU
A lack of athletic, two-way wings was one of the Sixers’ biggest problems in the playoffs last season. J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli were singled out and attacked by anyone the Boston Celtics could throw at them — it’s no surprise that three of the Sixers’ five worst defensive playoff lineups (minimum 10 minutes played) featured both Belinelli and Redick.
Depending on how Markelle Fultz looks early on, Chandler is primed to be the Sixers’ best bench player to start the season. He’s reliable enough on catch-and-shoot 3s (38.3 percent) and can do more off the dribble, from drives to the odd pull-up, than some of the team’s younger wings (and Covington). That alone will let Chandler provide a nice spark.
Then, there’s the extra dose of defense he provides. Like his offensive game, Chandler’s defense is nothing special, but he’s solid. He has good strength and size to cover other forwards and enough agility to switch onto some guards (just don't expect him to hang with the fastest opponents on the perimeter). His length also gives him the chance to offer a touch of help around the rim, unlike Philly’s smaller wings.
At the very least, he’s a far better defender than someone like Belinelli. A trio of Covington, Simmons and Chandler on the wing backed up by Embiid inside would be imposing for any team to face.
The potential of Markelle Fultz’s 2018-19 campaign is about far more than just (hopefully) made 3-pointers. Besides his playmaking and creativeness off-the-bounce to attack the rim, his defense was a pleasant surprise to close the regular season. At 6’4” with a 6’10” wingspan, he has the size and more than enough quickness to be a plus defender against guards. Now that he's healthy and preparing for a larger role (one that's shooting dependent, of course), this adds another dynamic to the bench from day one.
Fultz showed off encouraging effort and IQ as well. He was often alert off the ball, and demonstrated some natural instincts to break up passing lanes and help effectively. Mix that with his athleticism, and you can get plays like this. Fultz keeps an eye on Trey Burke’s incoming drive, recongizes that no one else is in position to help, and shifts over the lane to elevate for a huge block:
Fultz-Covington-Simmons-Chandler-Embliid is a potentially fierce defensive lineup to try, with plenty of size, switching ability and Fultz in place to stick with a smaller point guard (like Terry Rozier, who was too nifty for Covington to keep up with in the playoffs). If Fultz can shoot well enough to stay on the floor with Simmons, then so many options open up.
Zhaire Smith is everything Marco Belinelli wasn't for Philly — a hyper athletic, fast, long, disruptive defender. There’s no way you can hope to cook Smith repeatedly on the ball.
The problem for now is that he’s also injured. In typical, cursed, Sixers first-round draft pick fashion, Smith suffered an acute Jones fracture in his left foot at a Las Vegas development camp.
An acute Jones fracture would be the same injury which sidelined Ben Simmons during his rookie season. A frequent timeline given (*note: not by anyone who has reviewed Smith's injury) is 10-12 weeks. But, again, each injury is different. https://t.co/zZ1kRRaR3G— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) August 7, 2018
It couldn’t be a more frustrating way to hinder his early progress. The Sixers could have used the depth that Smith’s athleticism and defense provides. Until a potential return before Christmas, Furkan Korkmaz, for instance, who lacks the bounce and lateral quickness to be a plus defender, is in position to earn a few extra minutes.
That said, Smith’s injury still isn’t going to have much of an impact on the team’s overall performance. He was drafted for his upside. Until we see him prove he can perform as a near average catch-and-shoot 3-point threat, and ideally sharpen up his ball handling, he won’t be earning many minutes.
However, if his offense is reliable enough to increase his role later in the season, he’ll really be able to show just how valuable his defense can be.
Generally speaking, rookies aren't good defenders. Sure, there are guys like Simmons who shatter expectations, but it’s generally unfair to expect a first-year player to be a positive defensively. It’s just that difficult to adjust to the increased size, speed and talent of the NBA after leaving college.
Smith is perfectly built to follow (to an extent) in the footsteps of his young teammate, though. Smith can provide spells of defense where he’s a menace on the ball. He uses his lateral quickness and fast reactions incredibly well to bother players on the ball, and has the explosiveness and drive to contest shots all around the court (the Summer League and college clips in the video below are nice examples):
With the ability to switch onto some small forwards, especially as he continues to add strength, Smith can do everything the Sixers' defense was missing on the wing in the playoffs. Throw in his instincts and awareness off the ball, and he has every chance to adjust to the NBA quicker than most. Elite defensive teammates and good coaching from Brett Brown will be essential there, too.
One of the more interesting lineups the Sixers could (ideally) try next season is Fultz-Smith-Covington-Saric-Simmons. While Simmons certainly can’t be asked to play defensive center in long stretches, he has enough size and physicality to try this situationally for short bursts against smaller teams.
Again, Simmons playing with Fultz and Smith is probably a long shot. But if Fultz and Smith can shoot well enough to get this group on the floor (which is a huge “if”), deploying Simmons at center could be the way to do it, unleashing an insanely dynamic, switchable lineup that can even encourage Simmons to operate more as an off-ball screener/pick-and-roll diver next to Fultz’s playmaking, too. If everything clicks, this is one of the Sixers’ most intriguing, high-upside lineups.
The Sixers’ potential defensive improvements may not up their league ranking. The reigning NBA-best defense of the Boston Celtics isn’t easing up any time soon, especially now they’ll be adding Gordon Hayward (yet another impactful, switchy wing) to the mix and they retained Marcus Smart in free agency. The second-ranked Utah Jazz kept Derrick Favors and they still have Rudy Gobert, the NBA’s best rim protector, surrounded by a host of long wings. The fourth-ranked San Antonio Spurs may have taken a hit after losing Kawhi Leonard, but now that he and Danny Green are in Toronto (who already ranked fifth last season), the Sixers will face an even better defense in their conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder can’t be forgotten, either. Without Carmelo Anthony and the return of a healthy Andre Roberson, they’ll be at their peak.
Nevertheless, the Sixers could still maintain top-five status. As long as Embiid is healthy for most of the season again, they’re ready to elevate their defense with another year of experience and some extra athleticism and versatility at their disposal. When Smith returns to join Chandler off the bench, Philly’s defensive ceiling will be a little higher still, heading into next year’s playoffs with far less concern on the wing.
In a year with some offensive question marks due to the uncertainty of Fultz and no star additions, that’s something to be excited about.