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Sixers Film Room: How the Sixers use On-Ball Screens

And why they need to use them differently

Melbourne United v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The best path to weaponizing Ben Simmons on the offensive end involves minimizing his aversion to shooting, while maximizing his overpowering downhill speed. There isn’t one easy solution, but to a point, Brett Brown has succeeded in utilizing the big guard.

One play type, the pick-and-roll, Brett Brown avoids like the plague, even as it has infected today’s league like a fatal sickness. The reason Brown avoids the play is a result of fairly clear symptoms: the defender guarding Simmons comfortably goes under the impending on-ball screen, daring Simmons to shoot.

As a counter to the player diving under the screen, the former Spurs assistant calibrates the screen to a lower area of the floor: from the mid-range to the elbow, and even down to the block. Location is everything though; the higher the on-ball screen, the better.

The Negatives of Lower On-Ball Screens

For fans, it’s nice to see Simmons attempting these right hooks, but defenders practically dare him to unfurl these shots:

Before they allow the jumper, the pick-and-roll defenders are given two options, one of which is clearly preferable: 1) switch the screen to allow Simmons’ sweeping right hook, or 2) fight through the screen and give Embiid a sliver of opportunity to feast down low.

The second video of the sequence above exemplifies how easy it is to choose the first option. Domantas Sabonis is able to switch the screen, shuffle once, to contest Simmons’ fallaway hook. Easy money.

So how is Sabonis able to switch with such ease?

It’s because Embiid sets the screen at the block. As a result, Cory Joseph, who is one pass away, is able to deny free of worry about a back-cut (and if a back-cut did occur, it would jumble up the mess in the middle even more). Collison is one of two defenders in the paint, along with Tyreke Evans. If the floor was spread out in a higher on-ball screen situation, Collison would be more inclined to stick to the shooter in the corner.

However, here, Collison can simply “bump” McConnell to Evans. All of which leads to Sabonis switching onto Simmons:

Even when the on-ball defender doesn’t switch the screen, though, he can make a deft recovery to fracture the passing window or contest the jump shot. The window is too tight to begin with — even a passer of Simmons’ caliber doesn’t have the reactionary speed to thread in the pocket-pass.

Not to mention, Simmons has trouble finishing the bucket because the player who switches — more often than not — is a stretchy big man, which adds difficulty to an already inconsistent right hook.

Here’s another scenario where Simmons’ options are limited as a result:

What happens this time? This time, the Knicks going full Knicks doesn’t even matter. A play that doesn’t score ten times out of ten on Enes Kanter’s turnstile defense isn’t an efficient one.

To detail, Vonleh goes under the on-ball screen, giving Simmons an abnormally larger window to pass through. Plus, Kanter doesn’t switch immediately, or ever, freeing the step-back or floater if Simmons wants it. Nope. Instead, the Australian guard glides across the lane, allowing Vonleh to recover in due time to affect the shot.

The Positives of Higher On-Ball Screens

As previously mentioned, the lack of a jump shot for Ben Simmons means Brett Brown has to undergo difficult trial-and-error before success manifests in the pick-and-roll. The downside is that — at least until Simmons starts consistently taking jump shots from 15 feet and beyond — defenders will comfortably sink below the screen, suctioning instead to Joel Embiid’s roll.

However, the positives are clear as well. Both Simmons and Embiid have more operating room, and thus, add space for surrounding shooters:

In the first example, Simmons has the necessary spacing to operate from the top of the key.

Simmons has a decision to make: 1) snake the screen, or 2) deny the screen. Either way, Simmons has open space to bask in.

Also, the angles look improved compared to lower on-ball screens. Cedi Osman — the defender one pass away — isn’t able to “deny” the swing pass. With Simmons revving the engine at the top of the key, no other defensive player is on help-side, so Osman has to take a conservative approach.

With help-side notably absent, Simmons can leverage his ox build to capitalize against the mismatch. Sexton is forced to switch onto Simmons while the four other defenders are glued to shooters. The only moving pieces were Burks and Sexton, who had to switch because JJ Redick’s 3-point gravity; if they didn’t switch, Simmons would simply kick it out to the shooting guard. As a result, the lane seams open for Simmons to showcase his newfound face-up moves:

The high screen-and-roll play works so well that the 76ers don’t limit its use to their superstar. No, T.J. McConnell handles the ball in these plays as well. His ability to knock down the mid-range jump shot, however, makes him a more lethal threat from a higher point-of-attack than Simmons:

Even though the outcome isn’t ideal — McConnell misses — the fact that he leveraged the extra space to shoot the mid-range jump shot is positive for spacing:

Once Simmons adds the mid-range jump-shot (like McConnell), on-ball screens, in general, become more a viable option for him, summoning yet another trick to his bag of transition and post-up plays. Nevertheless, when given the open floor to inflict damage, not many defenders — especially switching big men — can match his foot speed nor sheer frame.

Until then, Brett Brown has to explore the maze of loopholes around Simmons’ lack of a jump shot. Recently, though, he’s ironed out a counter that not only negates Simmons’ lack of a jump shot, but also leverages Embiid’s post presence.

Brett Brown’s counter

When the screens begin at the elbow area, the opposite big man “ducks-in” for a quick-hitting post-up. This play call counteracts defenses that disallow the mid-range shot from the ball handler — either by immediately hedging or switching the screen.

In the first example, Dante Exum goes over the screen, so McConnell swings it to the top. Meanwhile, Embiid aggressively ducks in, and in doing so, catches a lulling Rudy Gobert off-guard:

The fact that Rudy Gobert — former defensive player of the year — couldn’t stop Embiid from digging out post-up space should be necessary ethos to the effectiveness of this play. If it’s not, here’s another play.

This play retains its efficiency even if the defense doesn’t switch the original on-ball screen, as you see in this play against the Indiana Pacers:

In the play above, even though the lanes clog as they do with the lower on-ball screens, Simmons backs the ball out and resets the play. While he’s doing that, Embiid is “drop-stepping” for positioning in the restricted area. He begins the drop-step inches outside the block, so right when he ducks in, the “entry pass” is gift-wrapped under the basket.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ personnel is a roadblock to consistently run pick-and-rolls. The original form may never be a major part of the offense. That being said, the team does have a unique and talented bunch of players who may require Brett Brown to rewrite his playbook altogether. By starting the on-ball screens higher on a more consistent basis — all while implementing the counter — the Sixers will better execute a much-needed facet to their offense.

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