The Philadelphia 76ers were massively underwhelming on the defensive side of the ball in the 2018-19 regular season.
Last regular season, they ranked third in the NBA with a defensive rating of 103.8. But this year, they ranked 14th with a defensive rating of 108.9. For a team whose identity had been built on their defense, it was a pretty surprising decline.
Of course, this team looks a lot different from last year’s group.
Giving up Robert Covington (a first team All-Defensive player) was always going to hurt, but getting Jimmy Butler (a four-time second team All-Defensive player) in return meant the downgrade should be minimal. That was far from the case.
Add on the revolving door that was the fifth starter spot and bench, and the Sixers often looked like a complete mess.
Was it a lack of effort? Maybe. Just not caring about the regular season? Probably. A lack of chemistry? Definitely. Their regular season defense was uninspiring, and things looked bleak heading into the postseason.
Game 1 of the Brooklyn series only exacerbated concerns that this group didn’t have it on the defensive end. The Sixers allowed 31 points in each of the first three quarters and lost to a team they should’ve been able to handle easily.
Since then, things have been looking up. The Sixers won the next four games, wrapping up the series with a dominant Game 5 in which the Nets had just 31 points in the entire first half.
Against Toronto, the Sixers have picked up right where they left off. So far in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Sixers have a league-best defensive rating of 101.4, a major upgrade from their regular season mark of 108.9.
In a sense, this has been the opposite of last year, when the Sixers’ defense fell apart against Boston in the Conference Semifinals, putting up a defensive rating of 108.9 versus their elite 103.8 defensive rating in the regular season.
So why have these Sixers flourished against their toughest playoff competition instead of floundering like last year’s team? It comes down to the construction of each roster. More than last year, this Sixers team is built to be an elite defensive unit.
Tobias Harris has been a major upgrade over Dario Saric. While he’s far from elite defensively, he has the strength and mobility to rotate when needed and match up well with most players on the floor.
In three games against Toronto, Harris’s primary defensive assignments have been Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol. He’s not the ideal matchup for Siakam, but he’s not a disaster either, holding him to 6.0 points on 4.3 shots in 19.3 possessions per game. He’s been even better on the true center Gasol, holding him to 1.3 points on 1.3 shots in 17.0 possessions per game.
Then, there’s the bench. Last year’s midseason bench moves were all about adding shooting. The Sixers added Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova on the buyout market. They were helpful at times, but they were picked apart by Brad Stevens and the Celtics in the playoffs. This year’s additions were a lot more defensive-focused.
James Ennis has been a capable defender on whoever he’s guarded in these playoffs, and his energy and hustle off the bench have been incredible. Mike Scott is an above average 3-point shooter, but he can also hold his own when not asked to do too much defensively. Greg Monroe moving his feet as well as he has in this series makes him the defensively viable backup center this team has been missing for years.
And Jimmy Butler might not be quite as good of a defender as Cov, but he’s really stepped it up as of late. Most importantly, his ability to handle backup point guard duties pushes T.J. McConnell out of the rotation, covering up one of the team’s most exploitable parts.
A big reason for the Sixers’ defensive success is that the team is so... big. A look at this graph from my colleague Andrew Patton shows that few teams can match the Sixers when it comes to inches and pounds.
It’s pretty easy to see the effect this has on the court. This play in the fourth quarter Thursday night is a perfect example.
Ben Simmons is switched off of Kawhi Leonard, which means the Sixers will have an even harder time stopping him. And sure enough, Leonard beats James Ennis on a backdoor cut. But the Sixers are the rare team that can play a big lineup without sacrificing speed.
The Raptors have Serge Ibaka at the small ball five, but Greg Monroe is still quick enough to play up on him. He’s also much bigger than Ibaka, and his tight defense and high hands bother the passing lane, preventing the ball from getting to the cutting Leonard before help comes.
The possession ends with Kyle Lowry kicking to an open Fred VanVleet in the corner. VanVleet is 5-foot-11 and being guarded by Jimmy Butler, who is 6-foot-8. This allows Butler to play far off VanVleet in the corner and clog the lane. Without anywhere to drive, Lowry has to pass to VanVleet, and Butler uses his size and speed to quickly close out and block the shot.
The Sixers didn’t have this kind of athleticism across the board last year, and it was constantly exploited by Boston. While there are still weaker parts of the Sixers’ defense, this year’s team is able to rotate and recover much quicker, making it harder to pick out specific matchups and often forcing Toronto deep into the shot clock.
The size advantage is also showing itself on the glass. In the regular season, the Sixers ranked second in the league in rebounds per game with 51.1. And in the playoffs, they’re outrebounding the Raptors by 11 per game and holding them to an offensive rebound percentage of 19.6. Securing the defensive glass has been a key to the Sixers’ defensive success.
It’s not uncommon for the 6-foot-7 James Ennis to be the Sixers’ shortest player on the floor. No other NBA team has the personnel to match that size, meaning the Sixers can make their size an advantage against any team, not just Toronto.
Much of the focus of this piece has been on Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, James Ennis, Mike Scott, and Greg Monroe. These five key players in the Sixers’ successful eight-man playoff rotation weren’t on the roster last year, and they represent a major defensive upgrade over the players who were.
But let’s finish with a quick look at the three players who did play for the Sixers last year. All three have made noticeable defensive improvements and are being utilized better by head coach Brett Brown.
JJ Redick was a defensive disaster throughout last year’s playoffs and most of this year’s regular season. But he’s found his niche this postseason, and he’s actually done a lot of good for the Sixers on defense.
Instead of having him switch on screens (which he is very bad at), Brown has decided to have Redick guard the other team’s top 3-point shooter (which he is very good at). It was a success against Brooklyn’s Joe Harris, and it’s worked so far against Toronto’s Danny Green.
Ben Simmons is showing he can be one of the top defenders in the NBA with his defense on Kawhi Leonard. No one can stop Kawhi, but Ben has made him work hard for his points, and that makes a huge difference.
Kawhi was able to keep Toronto in the game through three quarters with some ridiculous scoring on Thursday, but he was so gassed from carrying the Raptors that he needed a break in the fourth, allowing the Sixers to make a huge run. When he came back in, he was missing shots short, clearly still exhausted.
Joel Embiid was a great defender last year, and he’s still great now. But the improved defense around Embiid allows him to have an even bigger defensive impact. His blocks are up from the regular season in large part because the Sixers are finally contesting that mid-range jumper, funneling guys into the lane and forcing them to test Embiid.
Here, Simmons fights over the screen and stays on Kawhi’s hip, dissuading him from taking the pull-up jumper and leading to a great block by Embiid. Not long ago, that would’ve been a wide open shot. Not anymore.
Another big reason Joel Embiid is getting more blocks is because Brett Brown is game planning to keep him in position to get to shots, putting him on Siakam (who likes the corners), instead of Gasol (who likes to play above the break).
Yes, a good share of the Raptors’ offensive problems are self-inflicted. But it’s more than that.
The Sixers’ new pieces are improvements defensively. Their returning players have gotten better. Their coach is pushing all the right buttons.
They have someone to guard elite wings. They have someone to cover quality guards. They have an unstoppable force at center. They have size and athleticism for days.
The small sample, combined with regular season struggles, might suggest this is a fluke, but it’s not. The Sixers were built to be an elite defensive unit, and they’re finally playing like we knew they could all along.
It took a while, but the Sixers are showing just how absurdly high their defensive ceiling is when it matters most.