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Defending guards has been the Sixers’ achilles heel all year: if they don’t address it, they’re toast

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Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Addressing the team’s biggest weakness should be top priority for the Sixers before the February 7th NBA trade deadline. The Sixers still get torched by the opposition’s backcourt.

My fellow writers and analysts here at Liberty Ballers have essentially made a case study of this issue all season long. Jackson Frank, Tom West, and others have compiled some great video threads:

Andrew Patton tried to learn if what our eyes keep telling us is actually true, and here is what he concluded :

However, the combination of the data plus watching all the games (and reading what more knowledgeable people wrote) leads to a conclusion I am reasonable comfortable with — the Sixers get lit on fire by lead guards too often.

And it may not simply be lead guards. There are only five teams in the entire league to date who allow more points per game to opposing backcourts: (only the Wizards, Cavs, Kings, and Hawks allow more than Philadelphia’s 46.3 points per game allowed to guards).

Data courtesy of Hashtag Basketball, (that comes before they allowed a combined 53 points to De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield on Saturday night in Sacramento):

The Warriors, Spurs, Lakers and Sixers are the only teams in the NBA with winning records who are even below average in this category. All of the Sixers’ Conference rivals (Pacers, Bucks, Celtics, and Raptors) rank in the league’s top ten. The NBA instituted a new change this year referred to as the “freedom of movement” rule. It essentially has made it even more difficult than it was to defend opposing perimeter players.

The Sixers have had a bigger problem with it than most and it seems to be a flaw in their roster construction more so than a player or coaching issue (in this writer’s humble opinion). Of course injuries to Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith have not helped.

The NBA trade deadline is days away and rumors are swirling. Markelle Fultz may be on the trading block. Forward Wilson Chandler is now out for a few weeks with a strained quad. Nikola Mirotic, a stretch-four, is someone the team may have their eyes on and for good reason.

But unless the Sixers address what has been their achilles heel for 53 games now they may find themselves watching the Eastern Conference Finals on television. If they can even stomach it.

Using 538’s projections to estimate seeding for a first round matchup come playoff time, Philadelphia may first need to contain the likes of Kemba Walker or a D’Angelo Russell -Spencer Dinwiddie duo, all players who have given the Sixers fits:

Assuming the Sixers are able to secure home court and handle that task, they’d next need to limit Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, or the Eric Bledsoe-Malcolm Brogdon tandem:

Per Synergy Sports, the Sixers are the 11th ranked defense but one of the play types they really struggle to limit are “pick-n-roll ball handlers” (ranked 24th). They receive the league’s worst rank (30th) for defending players coming off screens.

All teams seem to know how to attack Philadelphia but better teams do it relentlessly. Watch how slow the Sixers’ defensive rotation can appear at times when a 3 point shooter simply runs off a couple screens:

Since the team acquired Jimmy Butler he has taken on the difficult role that Robert Covington used to occupy. That is commonly defending an opponent’s top perimeter threat. But Butler can transcend defensively when he doesn’t have to expend all of his effort on an All-Star guard like a Kemba Walker or Kyrie Irving (not that they’re particularly good matchups for anyone).

Look at what Butler is capable of against six-time All-Star Blake Griffin all because he is matched up against a 28% 3 point shooter in Pistons’ rookie Bruce Brown. The veteran understands he can afford to hedge, diagnosis the entire play, then blows it up like a free-safety who has a read on the quarterback:

That is something Butler could do more of if the Sixers had one more reliable on-ball defender.

Being aggressive at the deadline (with draft assets or a player like Fultz who is not in the lineup and has been rumored to want a change of scenery anyway per The Athletic) and tackling their greatest weakness is worth strongly considering.

They need an athletic guard who is strong at the point-of-attack and can defend a pick-n-roll and be semi-resistant to screens (while knocking down open triples on offense) even more than they need another power forward.

Our Adam Aaronson offered a few of these guys last week in his unbelievable and thorough prospectus. He added some more options Saturday.

I offered a few that could be available on the Pacers, a team who ranks second in the league in defending guards. And of course a huge push to bring back Jrue Holiday, an elite two-way guard is worth making before Thursday.

But the ultimate decision is in the hands of the team’s rookie GM Elton Brand and his collaborative front office. Are they willing to part with the assets it would take to address the team’s needs or will it remain their achilles heel come playoff time when the back courts get even better?