Many fans place high expectations upon Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers. For some fans, it’s championship or bust; for others, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals suffices. The point is that every move Brown makes has some sort of underlying implication with each fan.
I think in terms of evaluating results, there’s a grey area that’s increasingly difficult to quantify. Some things you can’t blame on Brett Brown. The shots don’t automatically fall even if Brown is putting his players in the right situation. It’s not like he settles for mediocrity; he is constantly adjusting the playbook to harness his stars’ powers. In turn, I believe fans should be focused on the strategy and proceed to make judgments accordingly.
Enter the series I am donning the “Sixers Film Room.”
In the Sixers Film Room, I will first summarize the “context” — explain recent happenings that lead up to this play. Then, I will actually provide a “definition” of said play. Finally, I will dive into 1) why it’s working or failing, and 2) the film with video and picture description.
Without further ado.
With Joel Embiid sidelined with knee soreness Sunday night in Portland, the immense burden of primary scorer was shifted to Jimmy Butler’s shoulders. The former Marquette standout collapsed, recording a lowly five points on 2-for-12 shooting (his lowest scoring total since the sixth game of the season).
Butler needed to be put in ideal situations by Brett Brown because he was fatigued, having played an average of 39.7 minutes over the last two games, after being put on a minutes restriction for a hamstring injury (the prior four he averaged 28.8 minutes).
The relationship was symbiotic; the Sixers needed their new star to perform too. With Redick missing his hand-off buddy in Embiid, and Simmons a well-known non-threat from outside, the Sixers craved an offensive explosion from its newest star. Still, there were too many possessions where players were caught ball-watching in awkward positions while Butler isolated.
After the Portland game, Brett Brown harped on the grueling process of meshing the guard into the offense. “Maybe I could’ve helped [Jimmy Butler] more, but he is an All-Star for a reason and as competitive as any player that I have coach. He will be back with us and hear that sentence ‘with us’,” our own Jackson Frank reported. “Like trying to find the ecosystem of this team and trying to get us in a team mentality and have an ecosystem, share and play together. That’s my main goal with him and everybody.”
Iverson STS: Definition
The first play that illustrates Brett Brown’s concerted effort to integrate Butler into the offense is called, “Iverson STS.” The play begins with Butler aligned at one wing. To start the flow of the play, two players set a staggered screen for the star guard, who then “Iverson cuts” around them to the opposite wing.
From there, the star shooting guard is strapped with a plethora of options: a) back cut if he is being overplayed by his own defender, plus if no defender stands on the help-side, b) catch the ball and isolate, or c) catch the ball and signal for a quick-hitting pick-and-roll.
Here’s an example of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs running the action (courtesy of Half court Hoops):
So why is Iverson STS failing?
In the Portland game, there were plays when Butler struggled to finish at the rim. This was because Utah kept their help-side defense on a string. Specifically, Simmons plastering the “dunker’s spot” — nearly tip-toeing the baseline on some occasions — allowed an extra defender to smoothly rotate to the “strong side” while Butler drove full-head-of-steam to the rim.
Rewind to last season’s conference finals against the “not-so-rival” Boston Celtics, when we first witnessed a team truly expose Philadelphia’s spacing by leaving Simmons open in the dunker’s spot. This season, that line of thinking hasn’t dissipated, but in fact, has spread like wildfire, as recent opponents have now taken to vacuuming Philadelphia’s gravity by utilizing the same scheme.
Utah is one team that capitalized on the shrunken spacing, especially in pick-and-rolls.
So what occurs here? Butler Iverson cuts, and Muscala then sets a ball-screen. Really, Donovan Mitchell should be the only help-side defender because he is one pass away. With Simmons in the dunker’s spot, though, Jae Crowder sinks down, acting as the safety netting for Gobert’s drop coverage.
In the end, four players hone in on Butler’s drive, and in turn, Butler has to settle for a step-back mid-range jump shot:
Another play where help-side defense stymied the pick-and-roll in Iverson STS happened just five minutes later in the Utah game.
What happens to begin the next play? This time, Joe Ingles predicts the play — overplaying passing lanes — so Butler loop cuts under the screen. Then, instead of a ball-screen, the big man (Embiid) hands the rock off to Butler.
This was a more extreme example than the first, because the help-side can focus all their attention to the shooters. Specifically, Ricky Rubio should be the nail defender, while Rudy Gobert, likewise, should be backpedaling into drop coverage. But because Favors is block-ready in the restricted area, neither has to fulfill normal duty. Instead, Rubio can gravitate towards JJ Redick — who shoots a fiery 36.9% from deep — and Gobert can grapple Joel Embiid.
While Butler was bailed out by a shooting foul to conclude the play, the idea remains — the spacing is bad. Imagine, for a second, that Simmons was in the corner (and his defender chose to guard him). Then, Butler would have had the room to snake the screen and round the corner to dribble past Ingles (the on-ball defender).
When Jimmy Butler wasn’t struggling to gain traction in the pick-and-roll in Iverson STS, he was dragging his feet through the mud in isolation. Even with more room to operate, opponents found a way to help and contest Butler’s drives.
To be clear, the lessened spacing isn’t dependent only on Simmons being in the dunker’s spot; any player glued to the dunker’s spot defeats the purpose of spacing. With McConnell, Simmons, and Chandler the common culprits, Brett Brown needs to revamp his offense by moving around his players like chess pieces.
The culprit this time? Wilson Chandler. The power forward being in the dunker’s spot gave way to Zach Collins (his defender) migrating over and soaring for a highlight-reel block:
In this given example, you can see how having two players — whether shooters or not — guns-loaded in the corners is the essence of spacing. Take a peek at how Jonah Bolden — an 11% career 3-point shooter — somehow magnetizes his defender (Meyers Leonard) to the corner, and thus, clears the tarmac for a Jimmy Butler takeoff.
The two corner shooters added spacing, yes, but having them only bought milliseconds of time before Zach Collins rotated over to reject Butler at the rim. Butler’s fate was practically inevitable, showing that even having knock-down shooters in the corners isn’t an answer to the spacing issue.
Despite Butler scoring an and-1 layup in the second isolation example, the fatigued guard had to adjust mid-air to score over Jusuf Nurkic:
Whether it be in isolation or pick-and-roll, Iverson STS is failing because a player is glued to the dunker’s spot. It all starts with spacing, which isn’t some new problem in Philadelphia. Spacing has been a problem since the injection of Ben Simmons, and wasn’t so easily erased upon the arrival of Jimmy Butler.
There isn’t going to be an easy answer to the problem, either. You can pull Ben Simmons to the corner, and have him cut to the rim. Or you can use the Australian guard as a ball-screener more often. Either way, some experimenting will have to be done for Brett Brown to find a respectable solution, with Iverson STS providing a bit of evidence.