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Sixers early identity: “the running of the bullies” and “YMCA ball”

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NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With one game in the books and an extra day off, I thought it only right to put some extra game analysis out into the ether, even though our writers here have been all over it. It was a really exciting game for a lot of reasons, and a game against Boston is always such a valuable experience because coach Brad Stevens tailors his strategy to target an opponent’s weaknesses, usually with surgical precision. After all, how many coaches could find a way to hold the Sexers Sixers to a 103.9 offensive rating while starting Enes Kanter and Kemba Walker at key positions? Getting a win against them is a double victory because you also get to see where you need to improve the most.

It’s only one game but perhaps it can help us predict how some of the smarter teams will attack and defend these new-look Sixers and venture a guess as to the team’s early season identity. I took a look at two things that I think will be important themes this season.

1) The Running of the Bullies

Forget that Spanish tradition. The bullies are running loose on Broad Street. A year ago, even led by a bruiser like Joel Embiid, the Sixers had the 8th fastest pace per game at 102.59 possessions per contest in the regular season according to NBA.com. Expectedly, that rate dropped down to 99.63 for the playoffs (when “things are substantially slower” as our Andrew Patton recently found). But they still ranked 7th out of all 16 teams last postseason in pace. So with Jimmy Butler down in Miami and the 6’10 Al Horford in (number 5 in Kevin Rice’s Sexers power rankings) it wouldn’t have been terribly surprising to see a much slower tempo than we saw Wednesday. Instead they ran even more than their average a year ago hitting a mark Wednesday of 103 possessions. It’s just one game but we may have been swiftly disabused of any notion that all of this size now means a ground-and-pound, ‘94 Knicks or Grindhouse Grizzlies approach. Brett Brown apparently still wants this group to step on it.

A year ago the Sixers allowed 14.8 fast break points per game (22nd in the league) and scored 14.5 themselves (good for the 12th best ranking). A net negative in the transition game. Against Boston this week they won that battle 14-8. It’s one key area where the team will look to improve upon from a season ago when it was not a strength.

That all begins with Ben Simmons:

On this one above we learn that Ben pretty much has the green light from Brown to run anytime he wants to. Here, from the grab-and-go he outraces his teammates the full length of the floor. Sometimes in these situations you’ll hear a coach or a player yelling “no numbers no numbers” meaning “slow down and wait for your friends!” But Ben showcases one of two gorgeous unorthodox layups he hit on the evening without really slowing down. Looked like Steve Nash... y’know, if Steve Nash were 6’10 230 lbs.

Above, it was no fluke, Ben did that at another point on a more traditional fast break with numbers. Simmons ignited a 17-2 run that book-ended the halftime period while appearing to really lean into his unorthodox dexterity. He scored or assisted on 10 of those points in a period of just over four minutes. Coach Brown and Horford talked about how important the pace Simmons set was for them in Kevin F. Love’s roundup of quotes.

People talk a lot about his “off-hand” or “wrong” hand or jumping off the “wrong” foot or if he’s truly a point guard but his game challenges many of those norms when he’s playing at this level. In the past he’s had some spooky splits vs. good and bad opponents. This type of game could silence those narratives for a bit if Boston is roughly what people expect them to be.

The Sixers’ 14 fast break points don’t tell the full picture since they didn’t always outnumber the Celtics but still pushed for crossmatches. Last year’s Raptors were awesome at this. I bet it leaves a few statisticians wondering “wait, is it a fast break if they run but don’t actually outnumber the other guys?”

Like this one below:

One thing I noticed was Ben often encouraging players like Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, or Matisse Thybulle to bring the ball up themselves. “Sharing the game” as Knicks Coach David Fizdale loves to say. Find Ben or try to follow Ben was a big key and how effectively they can continue to run will be something to watch moving forward.

Hopefully Ben’s teammates can keep up with him as Embiid and Mike Scott may already be dealing with ankle issues. It was a very physical game played at a speedy clip. That’s harder on the biggest players.

Half court pick up at the YMCA

We heard Brett Brown say he wanted to play smash mouth offense in late September. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s not always going to be pretty. There were a lot of fouls both ways and also some possessions that looked like a game at your local YMCA or playground. You know the games I mean. One of the biggest players wants to play the point, and so a few other folks wonder where to go. You might get two or three people to start posting up at once. Or way too many people run to screen for the ball-handler and you get this big old stack. This game had that feel occasionally when they were struggling offensively. From our Jackson Frank’s great “Five Interesting Plays” here, both Ben and Horford are posting:

Horford has a size advantage and gets off a good shot but essentially has to operate in a phone booth with five defenders surrounding him due to spacing issues.

Below, Josh Richardson and Embiid two man game. They can’t force a switch or gain an advantage and ultimately wind up defended well by Kanter and co:

This one below works out very well. A variation on the Sixers “horns” set, Richardson screens and gets in a little push and the lob to Joel gets home. I also like that Embiid “Tim Duncans” this finish. No need to dunk everything, save some jumps for later:

One thing I think we’ll see a lot of this year when the starters share the floor is a routine half court set looking like a “broken play.” Maybe the defenders try to switch, or maybe Philadelphia grabs an offensive rebound and swings it around. The whole thing feels like a scramble. Unselfish bully ball feels like the best term for it below:

But when everyone feels he has a mismatch, sometimes you get these poorly spaced, poorly timed possessions crowding the strong side or the paint:

Above, Ben not in the dunker spot flashes for a post while Embiid is trying to go to work. Ben has to flee the scene but they’re all a step late the whole possession.

As Jackson Frank writes: “With two poor shooters in the starting lineup and a host of other questionable gunners in the rotation, manufacturing proper spacing is heavily reliant on the coaching the staff.” Plus at times the players are going to have to simply win even without nifty play-design.

Below Embiid wins without much room against Kanter. But Tobias Harris (who struggled more than the boxscore might indicate) misses an opportunity to pump fake Semi Ojeleye for a trip to the line. Harris working in some Dwyane Wade style pump fakes would go a long way to confusing his defenders. He won’t have speed as an advantage this year playing more 3 than 4 so they’ll really want him to get his free throw attempt rate up:

All in all, things looked good when the bullies got out and ran. And it was a mixed bag when they were slowed to the half court set and not very pretty. Both figure to be key themes for this season.