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Are the Sixers falling on the right swords? Comparing their defensive strategy to the Spurs’ and Bucks’

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The Bucks allow the most 3s per game, the Sixers work hard to allow few 3s, which strategy is more effective?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Which “sword do we fall on” is something Sixers head coach Brett Brown likes to ask and he has been discussing his “pre-mortems” for many years now in Philadelphia. He knows he can’t prevent every strategy the opposition is going to attack his teams with so he chooses to encourage the ones he feels are less efficient, like mid-range jump shots. He has not made any secret about modeling his former team, the San Antonio Spurs, where he won multiple championships.

Ben Falk, former Vice President of Basketball Strategy for the Sixers and founder of Cleaningtheglass.com wrote about the defensive scheme Brown appears to emulate, back in 2016, which he cited in a recent piece:

In the 20 years since Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan first teamed up, the Spurs have ranked in the top five on defense in all but three of those years (and were still in the top 11 in those three “off” years). In each of those 20 seasons they have not once ranked outside the top six in forcing midrange shots, but in 14 of those 20 years they ranked outside the top half of the league in forcing turnovers.

The Spurs are not overly aggressive and don’t send many traps against elite playmakers. They take rim protection without fouling very seriously. Recall what LeBron James would face whenever he attacked the paint against the Spurs in the two Spurs-Heat Finals in 2013 and 2014. James was forced to shoot pull-ups, which he became quite good at, though still not as efficient as his rim runs.

The sword coach Pop chose to fall on against James often looked like this:

So how are the Sixers doing for a team who is presumably trying to model Spurs defensive principles?

Overall the Sixers have the 13th rated defense on a per possession basis per NBA.com. It’s about average, and as Sixers fans know falls apart without Joel Embiid in the lineup.

Turnovers allowed

Just like San Antonio this season, the Sixers are among the bottom of defenses in terms of forcing turnovers. Philadelphia ranks 28th in the league forcing a turnover on just 12.2% of opponent possessions; Brown’s mentor, Pop’s group is dead last in the category.

So what are they gaining by “falling on that sword?” In other words, if they’re not pressuring offenses and getting lots of steals, what are they getting? Are they forcing tons of midrange shots? Avoiding fouls? Protecting the rim or the three point line?

Mid range shots against

The Sixers are 9th in the league in frequency of mid-range shots (all 2 pointers that are not within 4 feet from the hoop) taken against them per Falk’s site. Part of the reason Brown wants to encourage so many mid range shots is to deter teams from shooting right at the rim or from beyond the arc, more efficient shots.

Three pointers allowed

The Sixers are great at deterring three pointers, and rank 3rd in the league in terms of frequency of 3 pointers allowed. Not only do they deter teams from taking lots of 3s, they also impact opponent’s percentages as only 5 teams force lower three point percentages on the season. They’re tied with Portland for 1st in the league at limiting corner three point attempts. This appears to be a clear strength upon first glance. More on that later.

At the rim

The Sixers could use some improvement in terms of the frequency with which they allow teams to shoot at the rim (inside 4’ according to Falk’s site and inside 5’ according to NBA.com). They only rank 22nd out of 30, allowing 37.3 percent of every shot they’ve allowed to come at the rim.

That’s not really the Spurs formula. San Antonio ranks 3rd in the league, behind Milwaukee (the top defense) and Golden State (the dynasty) as those elite programs take that task very seriously. Of course, Philadelphia has undergone plenty of changes over the year. How are they now? Or at least how are they when they’re not dolling out rest days for load-management?

In the 10 games that their big 5 (Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, and Tobias Harris) have been active, they’ve still allowed a dangerously high 43% of their opponent’s shots to come within 5’ of the rim, per NBA.com. That’s bad.

Now you may be thinking to yourself: well the Sixers have Embiid who is a monster in the paint on defense, so maybe they’re strategically allowing a bit more shots there knowing he can influence or block many of them. And sure enough they do rank 10th in the league in limiting opponent FG% at the rim per cleaningtheglass.com. Even though they allow a lot of shots there, they’re pretty darn good at causing you to miss from close range relative to the rest of the NBA.

But that 10th overall rank still allows 61.6% to go in, a number that is considerably higher than any other zone on the court they defend (the next highest percentage the Sixers allow per zone is “short mid range, 4-14 feet” in which their opponents shoot just 40.7 percent).

Committing fouls

Another problem with letting teams get to the rim this often is the fouls. In order to advance deep into the playoffs, they’re going to have to quickly improve their rim protection, which helps teams foul less. If you’re not trapping and taking the types of risks that force turnovers, you really want to avoid fouling. This is a trade off the Spurs make with considerably less talent. They don’t force turnovers, but they lead the league for fewest fouls committed per possession (17.9%) and Philadelphia ranks just 19th here (20.3%).

Most of the team’s nightmare scenarios would seem to include some type of gross-dominos resulting from problems protecting the rim.

Consider this horrifying yet all too imaginable scenario during a big road playoff game: Embiid is asked to cover 3 point shooting bigs, switch onto guards, and also protect the rim which gets a bit tiring. As a result he tries to make it up by himself on offense, takes tough shots and turns it over a little too much and eventually picks up some foul trouble and has to sit for an extended period. Then the floodgates open. It’s not hard to imagine is it? But there is still time to improve.

So are the Sixers falling on the right “swords?”

Of course it always begins with the point of attack covering pick-n-rolls which is where they really struggle here. Recently, when Embiid was last in the lineup, Philly was tied for 20th with Houston in PPP against pick-and-roll ball handlers. So if they can’t stop a pick-n-roll, and they refuse to allow open 3s, then one of the swords they’re falling on (whether it’s intentional or not) is they’re ultimately failing to protect the rim.

In the same piece by Falk referenced above, he points out how the Bucks have the number one defense in the NBA but are actually giving up the most 3s per game. It’s a surprising and counter-intuitive finding since one might guess the best teams deter what has come to be seen as one of the best shots in the league; one the Sixers work diligently to take away.

So is there something to be learned here for Philadelphia?

Consider this graph from BBQChickenBBall, a piece inspired by Falk’s article to delve deeper into the Bucks curious strategy:

You can see the Bucks way up at the top but also hugging the center average. This means they’re giving up loads of triples to opposing bigs, but not an unusual amount to guards and wings. The Sixers by contrast, limit triples rather indiscriminately; Philly doesn’t want anyone taking threes. The Bucks appear to be distinguishing who they defend beyond the arc and who they leave to help out in other places. The results favor Milwaukee this year.

The difference is that the Bucks are much more likely to offer a three for someone who usually doesn’t take many. In a game earlier this season, the Bucks actually encouraged Marc Gasol (then with the Grizzlies) to shoot 12 triples. He made them pay and drilled 6 of them but the Bucks got the win in the end. The Bucks baited Embiid into taking 13 shots from downtown the last time they met. He made 4 of them, a rate they were probably thrilled with. Notice the pattern though?

The Sixers might want to incorporate this strategy just a bit more themselves. Consider some of the times when the Sixers perhaps worked too hard to prevent 3s against Toronto:

Now what?

Philadelphia will probably need another win or two in order to lock up the 3 seed. Two of those games come against the Bulls. Last time they lost to the Bulls it was partly because Jimmy Butler treated Robin Lopez as if he were Steph Curry on a hand-off:

It’s one thing to switch, but it’s another thing to give this much respect to players you’d love to encourage to shoot from deep.

Once the playoffs begins, being a bit more cognizant of low volume or poor shooters on a team like Detroit (their most likely first round opponent as of today) could certainly work out in their favor, if it enabled them to better protect the rim and foul less.

If they’re good enough to advance to the second round they’ll want to pay very close attention to the heat maps of some of the less accurate shooting wings/bigs on the Raptors.

See these, provided by our own resident analytics expert, Andrew Patton (@anpatt7) who also writes for Nylon Calculus:

For example, it appears that Pascal Siakam is a lot better from the corners than he is from the top of the key. The Raptors really hurt the Sixers with pocket-passes for layups and offensive rebounds last time they played. There might be a couple of spots per game where they relax their “no 3s” stance and sag.

Strategies like this are are worth considering. We’re in the midst of a three-point revolution and the result is that the paint is often left without a goalie. The strategy employed by the league’s winningest team might provide a lesson for Philadelphia.

We’ll get a look at the two contrasting defensive styles this evening when the Bucks come for vengeance for the Sixers March 17th victory in their crib.