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How to attack the Sixers: lure Joel Embiid away from the rim and run run run

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In a clip below, Sixers’ Head Coach Brett Brown talks about the two biggest problems for the Sixers defensively: limiting pick-n-rolls, and transition defense. We’ll look at both in this piece.

The former will probably continue to be problematic. The Sixers’ biggest weakness on defense has been well-documented by many, including our team at LB. But the latter, transition d, might be easier to address before the playoffs.

Here were some of Brown’s thoughts on the matter last night after an important win against the Nets, courtesy of Ben Mallis of pickandroll.com.au:

Pick-n-Roll defense

Philadelphia struggles against the pick-and-roll because they don’t have great point of attack defenders, at least the ones whose speciality is slowing down a quick guard.

In my estimation, this is primarily a personnel issue, although Coach Brown is focused on what he can do with the players he has so he’ll point towards effort and communication. He is right that there is still room for improvement with the group he has.

The problem becomes amplified when there is a superstar scoring guard (like Kyrie Irving) and a center who can score inside and out. A Kyrie Irving-Al Horford pick-n-roll has given the Sixers absolute fits. [1]

Here is what Liberty Ballers own Dr. of Poems, Justin Carter recently wrote:

Philly is tied for 20th with Houston in PPP against pick-and-roll ball handlers. Meanwhile, offensively the Bucks and Celtics rank in the top 10 in PPP for that playtype, the Raptors rank in the top 15, and I have concerns about this team having the speed to effectively defend pick-and-rolls against some of the other top teams in the East.

To zoom in even more, here are where some of the guys who’ll be on the floor the most for the Sixers rank in defending against pick-and-roll ball handlers:

Jimmy Butler: 26th percentile

Tobias Harris: 44th percentile

JJ Redick: 50th percentile

Ben Simmons: 72nd percentile

And below is a video of how it has looked over the last handful of big games. The plan is simple, spread the floor, lure Joel Embiid (or Boban Marjanović) away from the hoop and cause confusion. Pay particular attention to how teams like to have their big set the pick up high because then Embiid has to make tough decisions like leaving open shooters or leaving the paint area:

Astonishingly, Embiid has been one of the teams best perimeter defenders lately, matching up pretty well against Irving and MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo out in space. But I cherry picked some of the times it didn’t work out since it is a problem for the team. It’s also not realistic to ask Embiid to cover 30 feet away for 2, 3, or even 4 playoff series anyway.

Quick tangent:

Philadelphia probably need to ramp up other scorers like Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler (before the 4th quarter ideally). The two combined for just 15 points last night against Brooklyn. That’s weird. Come playoff time, Joel (who had 39) ideally would save a bit of energy on offense so that he can be the best defender in the entire playoffs. He should be able to set some screens, space the floor, or draw some doubles and kick it out more when he’s in, and coach Brown can hopefully get more out of a Harris-plus-Butler combo with reserves than he has lately.

Harris and Butler’s chemistry isn’t there yet and it might be impacting the defense via feedback loops (more misses, more turnovers, more demand on Embiid offensively which saps his energy). Not to mention, it makes life less fun for guys evaluating a long-term fit.

Transition Defense

One area where the team can improve more easily is their transition defense. Before you jump to the comments to “well actually,” I know they rate very well in the category. They’re the number one team in the NBA in transition defense on a points per 100 possessions basis, courtesy of Cleaningtheglass.com. So why is Brett Brown so concerned with this?

Frankly, they play too much of it.

Even though they rank 1st in transition defense points allowed per play, they rank 23rd in terms of the frequency of transition opportunities they face on a nightly basis per the same site. Only 7 teams get run on at a higher rate and none of those teams are elite. Most are awful.

They allow just 114.1 points per 100 plays in transition. That’s a league-leading rate when defending fast breaks. But normally, they allow just 95.7 points per play in the half court and just 109.4 points per 100 possessions overall. Even when you’re good at stopping breaks, it’s still much harder than when you’re back and can set your D.

I probably know what you’re thinking. It’s the turnovers, isn’t it?

The Sixers rank 27th in turnovers per game with 15.3. Only the Lakers, Suns, and Hawks average more. You know what this often looks like:

That is 1 full turnover less per game from a year ago when they coughed it up 16.3 times per game, but it’s still bad. But the surprise to me was that the Sixers don’t allow a ton of transition opportunities because of steals.

It’s often live rebounds where teams get transition buckets on Philly. Only the Hawks wind up getting run on more after a missed shot, per Cleaningtheglass.com. That’s very bad and probably correctable.

Remember the big win over the Bucks back on St. Patty’s Day? The Sixers only turned the ball over 13 times! And yet the Bucks feasted with 32 fast break points, almost double their 17.4 fast break points per game. Lots of them appeared to come after rebounds and sometimes even after makes.

On the year the transition game has been a bit of a strength for Philadelphia. They have averaged 15.2 fast break points per game on the season (rank: 8th best), and they have allowed 14.4 (rank: 21st).

But over the last 9 games, the Sixers have been outscored 144 to 103 in the fast break points category. [2]

This represents some potentially low hanging fruit. They should be able to fix this before the playoffs. They need to put in the effort to get back on D but also figure out who they’re guarding when they do. This hasn’t always been simple for them.

Here is a video with how it has looked at times vs. a few good opponents:

Not much time to practice

Stopping All-Stars PGs running pick-and-rolls with 3 point shooting centers is a challenge for lots of teams. The 76ers need to improve their P-n-R defense but it won’t be easy. The more time they have to practice their communication and switches the better though.

But the transition D off misses (and sometimes even makes!) should be something they can address rather quickly with effort and communication. It’s not quite as simple as I may be making it sound. Sometimes the players jog when they can run and sometimes they mix up who they’re guarding. That’s takes practice, communication, and focus.

But other times the issue may be because of their offense.

As you saw in the video above, they may send an extra player to crash the glass; when that fails, it presents a chance to run on the Sixers. They sometimes don’t space well for Embiid to post up. If Simmons is in the “dunker spot” lurking around the baseline, and a shooter or two are along the baseline waiting for 3’s, it’s off to the races when the defense grabs the board since they then have 3 or more Sixers 94 feet away from their own goal.

So this isn’t super simple. But it can and should be improved upon over the next 7 games.

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[1] Because of how much they struggle to defend Irving and Horford Philly should really do all they can to keep Anthony Davis from teaming up with Kyrie Irving and playing in the east next season, whether that’s in a green jersey or a blue and orange jersey. It would be mayhem.

[2] Likely a combo of missing stars, playing elite teams, and then taking a night or two off in Atlanta and Orlando.