Note: all stats are up to date, but this article was written before Wednesday's game against the Miami Heat. Besides the Sixers having some struggles against Miami's zone defense (and missing some open shots), this game also served as a reminder that the Sixers need to play with consistent energy at both ends of the floor to beat good teams.
Altering your opponent’s shot profile is a sign of good defense. Preventing high-efficiency shots altogether is the perfect outcome, which is why allowing a low number of three-pointers is so valuable in the NBA. And that’s exactly what the Philadelphia 76ers have been doing.
There are two key components to the Sixers’ drop coverage scheme that are designed to limit three-pointers: guards chase opposing ball handlers over screens and contest from behind to try and force them off the three-point line, while bigs drop into the paint to cover drives to the rim. If the defense does its job correctly, the result should be an increase in lower efficiency attempts from mid-range.
So far, it’s working.
This graphic of a few notable rim protectors from LB’s Andrew Patton (who you should follow on Twitter for more content like this) is a nice visualization of the impact of the scheme and Joel Embiid’s presence. It indicates how much the volume of opponent field goal attempts changes around the floor. There’s an increase in left corner threes and a slight rise on the right wing, but the main takeaway is the stark drop in attempts at the rim and the rise in mid-range attempts, which is ideal.
The Sixers now rank 7th in defensive rating (3rd over their current 13-4 stretch since November 17) and opponents are shooting 14.5 mid-range attempts against them per game, the 3rd-highest average in the league. There’s room for improvement for their defense at the rim, but they’re still limiting opponents fairly well there, too, allowing 27.7 attempts per game in the restricted area (tied for 10th).
The numbers that stand out most in Philly’s opponent shot profile, though, are the three-point attempts. (There’s often too much randomness in opponent three-point shooting percentages, so attempts is really the best indicator of how you’re defending.)
Last year, the Sixers ranked 6th in opponent three-point attempts per game at 30. This season, they’re allowing just 26.9 three-point attempts, the lowest mark in the NBA by a comfortable margin. The Oklahoma City Thunder rank 2nd at 30.4. To put that in perspective, the difference of 3.5 attempts from 1st to 2nd place is the same as the margin from 2nd to 17th.
The Sixers are doing a good job of taking away the best kind of triples as well. They’re allowing the fewest attempts from the corners at 4.3. Meanwhile, they aren't giving up open looks, either — they're also allowing the fewest wide-open threes (6-plus feet of space) at 12.5.
Rather than simply benefiting from opponents shooting a cool percentage from beyond the arc, the Sixers are actively preventing good shots. These are all indicators of their defensive ability and potential for sustainable success.
Plenty of factors are involved here. As I’ve already mentioned, there’s their scheme. Then there’s the fact that the Sixers are absolutely massive. They leaned all the way into their hulking identity that gave the Toronto Raptors trouble in the playoffs by signing Al Horford and replacing JJ Redick with Josh Richardson. Now, with so much size across the board, there’s even more length shifting around the perimeter to cut down passing windows and contest shots.
Philly’s improved personnel has made a clear difference. Richardson has provided a major boost to the team's point-of-attack defense with his quickness, length and high effort. His ability to manoeuvre around screens and contain ball handlers, either contesting from behind to prevent threes or hounding them on drives, is incredibly valuable after the Sixers lacked more of this skill set last season.
Matisse Thybulle's impact has been nothing but impressive, too. He gets everywhere. He's averaging 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes and, out of 351 players with at least 150 minutes played, he ranks 2nd in steals (3) and 4th in deflections (5.1) in the same time frame. His instincts and timing are remarkable for a rookie. Along with constantly active hands, excellent length, speed and energy, he can disrupt plays in ways that not many others can.
As for three-point defense in particular, Thybulle’s agility to fight around screens and his blistering closeout speed take away plenty of good looks for opponents. Whether he’s preventing open shots and forcing passes, or closing out in a flash to extend for impressive blocks. He’s racked up plenty of the latter already.
Ben Simmons becoming an early All-Defensive First Team candidate has taken the Sixers’ defense up a notch as well. He’s utilizing his high IQ and every unique physical tool at his disposal to switch across each position, and his effort level has consistently been higher than ever. With a league-leading average of 2.1 steals per game and 105 total deflections (good enough for 3rd in the NBA), he’s also been particularly disruptive in passing lanes. And at the three-point line, there are few defenders who can contest as effectively as Simmons with his combination of size, speed and sharp reactions.
It's far harder for opponents to find openings around the perimeter for good three-point looks with Thybulle, Richardson and Simmons lurking nearby, either when they’re contesting on the ball or denying passes off it. The Sixers’ upgraded personnel and boosted length has unsurprisingly improved their steal rate. They’ve taken a major leap in steals per game, jumping from 19th last season (7.4) to 3rd (8.7).
The Sixers will hope this success continues and carries over into the playoffs. Their size, versatility, Horford’s presence as backup center, increased steal rate, and bolstered perimeter and point-of-attack defense makes them much harder to score against.
It will be their time to prove that they can win with smothering defense leading the way.