I, apparently, was not a man of my word. Apologies for slacking on this weekly column recently. Nonetheless, I’m back for what I hope to be every week again. No guarantees, though.
Solid week for the Philadelphia 76ers, going 2-1 and narrowly falling at home to the two-time defending NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Now, time for some observations.
Let’s dive in.
Traveling to Spain
The Sixers’ lack of pick-and-rolls in their offense is well-documented and, generally speaking, logical. They don’t sport ideal floor spacing to dissect defenses with spread pick-and-rolls; the hub of their offense, Joel Embiid, is much more comfortable brutalizing teams on the block than he is rolling to the rim and dunking over fools. According to Synergy, they rank last in pick-and-roll ball-handler frequency at 10.3 percent. With Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris now in the fold, though, it’d be nice to see a few more.
But recently — dating back to the Lakers game on February 10, per my notes — Brett Brown has dialed up some Spain pick-and-rolls from time to time, reintroducing one of the NBA’s most popular sets to the playbook. It’s primarily been with Butler involved and has produced a variety of looks, like shots in the paint, trips to the foul line and open 3s:
Every coach comes with flaws, and for Brown, criticism often centers around his rigidity. Some think his offense is too reliant on 34-year-old JJ Redick (it probably is). Others criticize his in-game rotational patterns. I’d never argue Brown is a perfect coach. He’s not. But the willingness to tinker with the offense as new players are integrated pushes back against the notion he’s a coach stuck in his ways. From my perspective, it’s generally in-game rigidity where Brown struggles.
Spain pick-and-rolls are a highly challenging action to contain when executed properly. Led by Brown’s adjustment, Sixers opponents are seeing that first-hand every now and then.
Tobias Harris getting defensive
Tobias Harris is far from an All-Defensive Team wing. He struggles to contain shiftier players on the perimeter and fight through screens, and is prone to off-ball lapses. His Defensive Plus-Minus is plus-0.03. His Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus is minus-0.6. All things considered, he’s probably a neutral-to-slightly-below-average defender. One place he’s stood out in his time with the Sixers, however, is on the block, shutting guys down in the post.
Synergy’s defensive numbers can be fluky and misleading, but Harris has only given up 0.692 points per post-up possession (13 possessions* and 86th percentile) during his time in Philadelphia. I’m confident citing those marks because the film backs them up. Harris is a witty and stingy post defender.
*Small sample size dangers, no doubt. It’ll be interesting to see if he can maintain these shiny stats moving forward.*
It hasn’t just been one-on-one situations in the post when Harris has excelled, also displaying a tendency to muddy up looks around the rim as a weakside roamer:
Harris’ offensive versatility is often lauded — and for good reason — but he’s been a very valuable interior defender for the Sixers thus far. He isn’t a super switchy stretch-four, but there aren’t a ton of players in the NBA with the skill set to comfortably defend down low, rotate to alter shots as a help defender, operate pick-and-rolls offensively, spot up for 3s, and run off screens. Harris has flashed the capability to do all those things since migrating from Los Angeles.
Without their superstar in Embiid, Philadelphia’s offense has predictably struggled. In six games since the All-Star break, it’s sputtered along to a 106.1 offensive rating, good for 25th-best in the NBA. At times, the half-court offense grows stagnant, resulting in contested jumpers or desperation 3-pointers. Redick’s slump has surely contributed; he’s averaging 11.5 points on 43.1 percent true shooting over this span. But that too is tied to Embiid. Next to Embiid, Redick has posted a 62.5 percent true shooting. Without him, it craters to 52.5 percent.
In turn, Brown has drifted the offense away from Redick’s patented dribble handoffs, floppy sets and pindown screens. Now, they’re playing mismatch ball, setting screens to simply force a switch and let Harris, Butler, or Ben Simmons (primarily the first two) go to work.
The most obvious example of this recent stylistic shift is T.J. McConnell’s newfound role as a screener. No, the Sixers aren’t trying to deploy any pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops with their 6-foot-2 point guard as the play finisher. His screens are merely a channel to enact switches:
It’s more than just McConnell, too. Various ancillary players around Harris, Butler and Simmons are setting screens to breed mismatches. And when they do, attacking the weak link becomes the basis of the offense.
I’ve noticed this trend perk up the last two games. Maybe it’s a matchup-dependent scheme. Maybe Redick continues to hover around 10-12 shots per game rather than 14-16 while Embiid is out (I’m wary of this being the case). But either way, Philadelphia seems to have established some offensive identity without the big fella, something it lacked early on in his absence. Whether or not it’s actually effective enough to tread water remains to be seen. At the very least, there’s direction. That’s a start.