The Philadelphia 76ers played a preseason game on Tuesday, routing the Guangzhou Loong Lions, 144-86. It is often foolish to glean much from preseason action, especially when it comes against a non-NBA team. I will not offer substantial takeaways, but instead, highlight a handful of plays I deem relevant to the Sixers in the regular season. I’ll explain what I saw unfold and why I think it holds value.
11:00 to go in the first quarter
What I saw: Ben Simmons ICEs the pick-and-roll, funnels his man toward Al Horford and along the baseline, helping to prompt a turnover.
Why it matters: With new assistant coach Ime Udoka now in the fold — who will assume the job of defensive coordinator — the Sixers are going to employ more of that style of pick-and-roll defense. Simmons is one of the largest point-of-attack defenders in the NBA and when his motor is running hot, he’ll make it quite challenging for ball-handlers to drive middle and properly use screens. Josh Richardson, while lacking the frame and height of Simmons, boasts a 6-foot-10 wingspan and is a heralded perimeter defender. He can embody a similar role.
Couple their presence with established rim protectors in Horford and Joel Embiid dropping back, primed to deter anything near the hoop, and Philadelphia should be well-equipped to stymie pick-and-rolls during crucial moments. Not every play will mimic the outcome above but it’s certainly a worthwhile reference point — at least for now — to observe and envision how the Sixers could have success defending pick-and-rolls. Their size and length advantage has been widely discussed all offseason. Now, we got a brief glimpse into one of the ways those traits might be so effective defensively, even if the level of competition isn’t applicable.
9:05 to go in the first quarter
What I saw: Horford and Simmons execute a pick-and-pop, while Richardson sets a flex screen for Embiid down low and Tobias Harris is spaced to the corner. Horford’s man is concerned about an impending blitz from Simmons; Richardson and Embiid occupy their assignments with the decoy action; Harris commands attention on the perimeter. All of that activity leads to a wide-open jumper for Horford, which he misses.
Why it matters: Aside from Ersan Ilyasova, I’m not sure the Sixers have rostered a viable pick-and-pop threat (apologies, Mike Muscala) during Simmons’ first two years. Embiid is obviously a capable outside shooter, but he much prefers operating from the block and mid-post rather than in ball screens. Horford provides them with one and gives Brett Brown offensive flexibility. This is a set I could see being commonly used and one in which either action is the dummy play.
If the choice is to feed Embiid, lifting Harris to the wing would create more space for an entry pass and post touch while ensuring the big fella has a valuable release valve against double-teams. There’s also the potential to turn the play into a look for Richardson from deep. After he sets the pick for Embiid, Horford could be waiting near the elbow to give Richardson a pin-down screen, freeing him for the triple. Throughout every hypothetical here, Simmons is one defensive miscue away from threading the needle for a good look or attacking the rim himself.
This feels like a simple setup with optionality to incorporate the offensive skill-sets of all five starters: Embiid’s post scoring, Horford’s pick-and-pop prowess, Harris’ and Richardson’s outside shooting, and Simmons’ passing/finishing.
8:15 to go in the first quarter
What I saw: Philadelphia gets the stop, Harris leads the break, Simmons encourages him to push the tempo, Richardson and Horford leak out beyond the arc, and Simmons jams home a stress-free dunk.
Why it’s important: The result itself is relatively meaningless and primarily the product of apathetic transition defense. I’m far more interested in the moving pieces of the play, particularly the idea of Harris initiating more fast breaks with Simmons serving as a play finisher.
Simmons is lauded for his dynamic transition game but turnovers plague his individual efficiency. Last season, he finished 54th among 153 players (min. 100 possessions) in adjusted field goal percentage in transition, but was 139th in points per possession. That discrepancy stemmed from Simmons having the fifth-highest turnover rate of the group.
Amplifying Simmons’ size, speed and finishing talent by allowing Harris to run the show — also inviting him to fire quick-hitting, off-the-bounce 3s — could be a major boon for his efficiency. Simmons has not played next to someone with pull-up shooting equity like Harris for an entire season yet. It’s worth noting that Simmons ranked in the 82nd percentile in transition when assists are included. He’s clearly a threat in these situations but his individual scoring could stand to improve. Harris has a chance to help him do that.
9:50 to go in the second quarter
What I saw: Richardson runs off of two pin-down screens, Trey Burke’s man stunts to help on the catch and Richardson dishes it to Burke, who nails the open catch-and-shoot long bomb.
Why it matters: That looks like a play the Sixers will run frequently for Richardson and the fact that he’s flanked by credible shooters (Burke and Mike Scott) on the wing makes it even more intriguing. A season ago, Philadelphia didn’t have a single primary ball-handler who regularly burned teams from deep. Not Simmons. Not Jimmy Butler. Not T.J. McConnell. Both of the team’s current backup point guards, Burke (36.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s in his career) and Raul Neto (39.6 percent), can do exactly that and it plays out in the clip above.
Burke and Richardson shared the floor for six minutes last game. Brett Brown said Neto will receive those backup minutes next game, but regardless, both can (and are willing to) drill the shot Burke hit. That’s a stark contrast to Butler, Simmons and McConnell — particularly the latter two — and means the Sixers’ second-string point guard has relevancy away from the ball.
The reads are straightforward for Richardson in this action: dish it to the wing, rise for the jumper or hit Embiid on the roll. Philadelphia finally has the necessary personnel to stretch the floor and simplify some of the decisions that arise in Brown’s offense. Rarely will it look this easy, but having initiators with on- and off-ball value translates to NBA-caliber competition. Expect to see similar concepts once the regular season arrives.
8:45 to go in the third quarter
What I saw: Richardson sets a slide screen for Simmons before running off a flare screen from Horford. A defensive miscommunication leaves Richardson unattended, Scott swings it to him and he misses the trey.
Why it matters: I’m not even invested in this play because it resulted in an open 3 for Richardson. It caught my attention because of the initial action, which is largely ineffective and appears to be nothing since Richardson and Simmons merely go through the motions at half-speed. What I like, however, is the potential impact of Richardson deploying a side screen for Simmons while Horford waits to crack Richardson’s man with a pick — assuming all three parties are operating at top gear.
The slide screen can do two things for Simmons: prompt a switch and allow him to post up an undersized defender or spark defensive confusion and create a driving lane with two good shooters (Scott and Harris) ready on the weak-side if their man rotates to protect the rim. If an advantage isn’t established by the initial screen, Horford is available to spring Richardson free.
From there, Richardson can fire away, dribble into a pick-and-roll with Horford, or attack the closeout. And if too much concern is paid to Simmons and Richardson, Horford has room to slip the pick and dive inside. If Scott’s or Harris’ man helps off, Horford’s short-roll passing would prove valuable. Every good offensive action wields a bevy of options and that’s the case here. I’m intrigued to see how this set shakes out during the regular season.