Soon, the games the Philadelphia 76ers’ play will count — for real. Currently, we’re left trying to figure out what exactly is worth digesting from their first four preseason games. Last week, I analyzed some clips I deemed relevant outside of a preseason context. I’m back to do the same, highlighting four plays from Philadelphia’s games against the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons.
I’d offer insight into Sunday’s contest against the Orlando Magic, but the angle of the only available stream was wonky enough to induce vertigo and I’ve yet to track down a replay anywhere. Despite that hiccup, there’s more than enough film to parse through from the other games. Like last time, I’ll explain what I saw unfold and why I think it holds value. The first three plays are from Friday; the final two are from Tuesday.
5:05 to go in the second quarter
What I saw: Devonte’ Graham and PJ Washington organize a pick-and-pop, so Matisse Thybulle attempts to ICE the play and direct Graham baseline. Ben Simmons has to respect Washington’s outside jumper, which means Thybulle is steering Graham toward an unattended hoop. The issue is exacerbated when Kyle O’Quinn fails to make the rotation and leaves Simmons trying to offer rim protection from behind, ultimately leading to a foul.
What it means: In last week’s version of this piece, I broke down a play that had Simmons ICEing a pick-and-roll. I was complimentary of the tactic and wrote how it projects to be an impactful defensive approach, especially in concordance with the Sixers’ surplus of size and length. The play directly above, however, is a prime avenue to exploiting ICE coverage: pick-and-pops with stretch bigs.
They force the drop defender to step out of the ball-handler’s driving path, which requires attentive weak-side rotations. O’Quinn’s passiveness as the help defender isn’t concerning in preseason, but sheds a light on the weak-side man’s importance to defending pick-and-pops when deploying the ICE philosophy. Because the on-ball defender plays so aggressively high with their back to the screener, switching the pick isn’t really an option. The only choice is either serving up open 3s or clearing the runway to the basket — at least until a rotation is executed.
Independent of individual talents and effort, there is not a one-size-fits-all philosophy to shutting down ball-screen actions. ICEing the pick-and-roll/pop is a fine way for Philadephia to go about it, but success isn’t guaranteed and one play from Friday’s game emphasizes that fact.
11:45 to go in the second quarter
What I saw: Simmons backs into a post-up against Miles Bridges, while Tobias Harris subtly drifts to the opposite wing using flare screens from Josh Richardson, Shake Milton, and Al Horford. The potential for Simmons to call his own number draws the attention of multiple help defenders. Simmons tracks Harris’ path the entire way, lofts a pass for the open 3 and the closeout doesn’t arrive in time to deter the long bomb.
Why it matters: Without the threat of a pull-up game, Simmons’ half-court passing can often be muted. Utilizing him as a fulcrum from the block is a way to extrapolate his facilitating flair and increase his offensive impact. It’s something the Sixers experimented with at times the last two seasons, but has even more value this year now that Jimmy Butler — the team’s best perimeter creator — is gone.
I’d also wager the team’s jumbo starting lineup will help promote these types of actions, as Simmons isn’t going to be pinned against like-sized front-court guys very often. Opponents will have to reserve them for Embiid, Horford, and Harris. Plus, Simmons’ open-court speed and coordination is overwhelming for most defenders his size. Smaller matchups invite Simmons to punish dudes on the block, lure help toward him, and find the open man.
Notice how Washington isn’t quick or fluid enough defensively to recover around those screens. Harris won’t be guarded by rookies every night, but he’ll certainly have opportunities to exploit slow-footed bigs off the ball. Philadelphia likes to run flare screens for Harris and this is one set that does so while continuing to flow the offense through its primary initiator.
9:30 to go in the second quarter
What I saw: Milton and Horford engage in a side pick-and-roll, Milton slips the pocket pass to Horford and Simmons dives to the basket from the baseline. As Simmons crashes in, Dwayne Bacon slides down — and off of Richardson — to eliminate him as an outlet. Horford mentally absorbs all the moving parts and whirls a feed to Richardson, who cashes the triple.
Why it matters: The Sixers have long tried to find ways to ensure Simmons derives offensive value without the ball in his hands. The simple solution is to make him a roll man, but that’s tough to do unless he’s a center, which isn’t a viable route defensively.
Brett Brown has said he’s shifting away from inserting Simmons at the dunker’s spot, something that has long clogged the paint and shut down plays before they even start. To a degree, that should help open up the offense. Yet the fact that Bridges is parked in the lane before the pick-and-roll even begins demonstrates how it’s far from a catch-all solution. Much of Simmons’ off-ball improvement has to be organic, born though impromptu screening and cutting.
That’s exactly what happens on the play above. Simmons sees he’s being ignored, cuts baseline and spurs a chain reaction; such off-ball awareness could be a sign of progress. As a short-roll, on-the-move playmaker, Horford is primed to capitalize on the events Simmons sets into motion. Aside from Simmons, those skills are something the team didn’t really have last season and presented challenges for the third-year guard to function effectively away from the ball.
Milton won’t likely see many rotation minutes, but Burke or Neto can be the ball-handler in this set. With Harris and Richardson occupying defenders around the arc, Simmons’ cutting and the pick-and-roll itself have room to maneuver. Most intriguingly, we’ve found an example of how Horford and Simmons complement one another in the half-court.
1:05 to go in the first quarter
What I saw: Milton sets a flex screen and Embiid fakes like he’s going to use it to set up shop on the block. His man, Christian Wood, attempts to fight through the pick and maintain contact. Instead, Embiid darts behind a pin-down screen from Mike Scott and tees up beyond the arc.
Why it matters: Scanning through old clips and notes, I found the Sixers sparingly ran this for Embiid over the past two seasons. I’m not advocating for them to increase Embiid’s usage in the play, but rather, it’s a roadmap to diversifying Harris’ and Horford’s offensive involvement.
The play works because Embiid’s man has to account for his post scoring and prepare to navigate around the flex screen. Both Harris and Horford are capable down low, while boasting better 3-point credentials. It’s probably only feasible with those two when Embiid is out of the game. He frequently populates the block and if there’s not the possibility of a post-up, the defender won’t be baited by the flex screen.
The offense will look different in certain aspects this season without Butler or JJ Redick in the fold. Harris and Horford are going to be two of the main cogs and this action is a creative way to leverage their versatile talents.