For nearly a decade, LeBron James was the tide by which the Eastern Conference swayed. Any chance of reaching the NBA Finals meant finding a way to slow him down. Not a single team could reach the point of dethroning him and core after core was dismantled. The Paul George-led Indiana Pacers. The Isaiah Thomas-led Boston Celtics. The DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry buddy-cop Toronto Raptors.
Now, Giannis Antetokounmpo wields that power. Toronto constructed a formula that perplexed him and rode it to a Finals berth before ultimately winning the title. After a flurry of moves this summer, the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks stand as the East’s top-two teams. Winning the conference means toppling Giannis and the Bucks.
Last year, the Greek Freak dropped 129 points on 68.3 percent true shooting in three games against the Sixers. If you’re wondering whether that qualifies as containing him, it does not. This isn’t to say the Sixers don’t have any means for doing so. Joel Embiid proved very capable in those games, while Al Horford has a history of moderate success. In certain scenarios, Ben Simmons has even served as a viable fill-in.
But limiting Giannis — arguably the NBA’s best player — demands meticulous game-planning and execution. He dominated Philadelphia in large part because of poor team defense and communication last season. Whenever he’s on the floor, all five Sixers must be cognizant of the scheme; it’s how Toronto made him look human.
His primary individual defender — whether it’s Embiid, Horford or Simmons — has to be precise with his defensive positioning, both in relation to angles and how tightly he guards Giannis.
Brandishing the size, strength and lateral quickness to compete with Giannis, Embiid doesn’t necessarily have to sit all the way back in the paint and let the MVP pile-drive his way to the rim. While jump shots are an encouraging outcome against Giannis, it’s still not ideal to let any NBA player step into open jumpers. Embiid can protect against that and still wall off the hoop. Most notably, Embiid’s fluidity and hulking frame enable him to track Giannis’ patented, elongated Eurostep that he often busts out to overwhelm defenders.
Throughout the final two Sixers-Bucks games, it was apparent that Embiid flustered Giannis. He was less aggressive attacking the rim, was utilized more as a screener with Embiid on the floor and sought to attack bench players or mismatches. Embiid’s rare physical traits make him one of the league’s most impressive Giannis defenders. That’s quite the valuable resource come playoff time.
Yet for all Embiid’s merits, diligence is not always one of them. At times, his focus wavered. It’s salvageable in match-ups where he holds a distinct talent and physical advantage. But not against Giannis, especially in a hypothetical Eastern Conference Finals battle. Biting on hesitation or crossover dribbles and jeopardizing key defensive positioning isn’t acceptable.
Contesting his jumpers at the expense of protecting the rim is untenable. The efficiency of open outside shots doesn’t outweigh Giannis’ dominant interior scoring. Last season, according to NBA.com, he converted 26.4 percent of his 3-pointers deemed “open” or “wide open.” Meanwhile, he shot 67.8 percent in the paint overall. Ideally, he’s uncomfortable on all of his attempts but the gulf in efficiency between looks from deep and ones at the rim is quite large. Those numbers must be accounted for when guarding him.
Giannis’ shot chart is also applicable in deciphering how to contain him. During the 2018-19 regular season and playoffs, he took 258 triples. 221 of them came from the left wing and top of the key. A heat map helps to visualize this concept (regular season only):
This is important because it means defenders can sag way off in the corners and right wing. They’ll almost exclusively have to gear up for a charge to the rim. When he’s operating at the top of the key and left wing, defenders should be ready to close out. Given Giannis’ slow wind-up on jumpers, it’s possible a timely closeout deters him from shooting and stalls the possession. These details matters and must influence how the Sixers operate.
Whereas Embiid and Horford were the lone bigs on their respective teams equipped to slow down Giannis last season, Philadephia now has the luxury of toggling between the two. In a potential seven-game series, that matters. Neither has to guard him for 35 minutes every night. They can balance the responsibility while preserving themselves, as each projects as an offensive centerpiece (Horford less so, but still to a degree, given his playmaking and shooting).
In last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, Horford defended Giannis less frequently as the series progressed. Giannis, perhaps the NBA’s most physical player, wore him down. Aside from lacking the explosiveness and length of Giannis (two key details, for what it’s worth), Horford’s biggest weakness was a failure to match the physicality when tasked with full-time Giannis-stopping duties. Expecting one guy to carry that burden isn’t reasonable — and now, the Sixers don’t have to do so.
While Embiid’s success against Giannis is derived primarily from size and athleticism, Horford’s defensive IQ is the root of his profits. He mirrors Giannis’ movements and is aware of his tendencies.
Embiid and Horford will shoulder much of the Giannis obligation each game, but Simmons isn’t entirely incapable, even if viral videos suggest otherwise. Giannis holds a significant strength advantage over the third-year guard, though Simmons’ lateral agility and perimeter mobility can be effective.
Simmons’ approach has to be different than Embiid’s and Horford’s. Rather than camp in the lane and dare Giannis to shoot, Simmons should crowd him from the outset and seek to exploit Giannis’ underwhelming ball-handling chops. Simmons isn’t long or physical enough to serve as a deterrent at the rim; he has to do all he can to prevent Giannis from getting there in the first place.
The obvious rebuttal is to just post Simmons up, either backing him down from the perimeter or feeding Giannis the ball in advantageous spots. The strength deficit Simmons is dealing with significantly caps his impact against Giannis. And considering the presence of Embiid and Horford, he won’t be thrust into action very often.
Even so, Simmons is clearly Philadelpha’s third-best option. Where it needs to make use of this is when Milwaukee draws up slide screens or pick-and-pops with Giannis as the primary ball-handler. This is an action that gave the Sixers trouble last year, as the shooting gravity of the screener prompted hesitation between the two defenders — wondering whether to switch on the play — and sparking an open 3 or path to the bucket.
When the Bucks run this, it would be prudent to have Simmons be the one defending the screener. That either means pre-switching (switching off the ball before a screen is set in order to avoid undesirable mismatches), so he’s guarding the screener or reviewing hours of film to determine which member of the Bucks most commonly acts as the screener and pinning Simmons on him. Because too often last season, Giannis feasted on switches, enjoying easy scoring opportunities like this.
Similarly, the Sixers have to be more reluctant in switching screens. It was a core principle of their defense last season, but it left them in precarious spots quite often against Giannis. I understand it’s difficult to alter a scheme for one opponent, but Milwaukee is the opponent in the East. Any updated defensive philosophy should be viewed through the lens of beating Milwaukee. The previous one wasn’t conducive to success against the conference’s potential bellwether. Whenever possible, Horford or Embiid have to be on Giannis. Switching doesn’t allow for that.
One issue that will almost assuredly confront the Sixers is the fact that they’re likely to take a step back offensively from last season (losing your two best perimeter shot creators does that). A less efficient offense means more missed shots and more transition opportunities in which Giannis is staring down an ill-equipped defender in the open court, preparing to exploit a mismatch bred from fast-break chaos.
Better timing on help rotations is another area Philadelphia must shore up. Defenders were far too quick to send help Giannis’ way and it left the Sixers susceptible to breakdowns.
Turning Giannis into a playmaker is the ideal way to limit his production, but the reads can’t be that easy. Rotations away from the ball have to be better. If a defender plays off his man to help on Giannis, somebody else has to swing over and eliminate the simple kick-out pass. Force him into cross-court reads. This is what Toronto did — perfecting its rotations and timing on help — and the result was 22.7 points per game on 51.8 percent true shooting for Giannis (27.7 and 64.4 during the regular season). Look how pristine this positioning is:
There’s not a simple pass for Giannis to make in that screenshot. Compare it to the clips above and the difference in execution is striking.
Giannis has taken substantial steps forward as a distributor over the course of his career but it remains the biggest weakness in his offensive repertoire aside from the jumper. He’s prone to spraying inaccurate drive-and-kick passes to shooters — often missing their shooting pocket and disrupting their rhythm — or just missing reads altogether.
The Raptors exploited this flaw, notably ignoring any poor shooters on the floor — a tactic Philadelphia should try to emulate. Eric Bledsoe, a career 33.6 percent 3-point shooter, is the obvious candidate for this treatment. Compounding Bledsoe’s struggles as a shooter next to Giannis is his divide between catch-and-shoot and pull-up efficiency.
Last year, he shot 29.3 percent (58 of 198) on catch-and-shoot triples and 38.4 percent (63 of 164) on pull-up 3s. Over the past six seasons (as far back as the tracking data goes on NBA.com), he’s made 34.6 percent of his pull-up 3s and 34 percent of his catch-and-shoot ones.
Since 2016-17, he’s taken 450 long balls off the dribble compared to just 263 spot-up attempts. If the Sixers sag off, they know the results are likely to be less favorable than any look Giannis generates in the paint, and that Bledsoe’s propensity for pull-up 3s provides defenders time to recover. It’s particularly effective when Bledsoe is stationed in the corners, curtailing Giannis’ rim-charging plows.
Philadelphia can’t prepare for all of Giannis’ perimeter face-ups like that, though. What Giannis wants is for defenders to play way off their assignment — primed to step in as a helper — allowing him to rip fastballs to his host of spot-up shooters. Those are his most impressive reads as a playmaker and they stem from the defense showing its hand too early.
Reducing the amount of open 3s Milwaukee creates requires keen awareness as a team defender. Be in position to tightly contest any 3s, while also readying yourself to help on Giannis or rotate to eliminate the simplest read on a kick-out pass. It’s an incredibly challenging set of tasks and emphasizes how difficult it is to truly contain Giannis.
Limiting Giannis like the Raptors did necessitates near-perfect execution from a five-man unit. Having Embiid, Horford and Simmons is an enviable building block but one that can be muted by lapses in team defense from the other four players on the court.
Much of this analysis has treated Giannis as a primary ball-handler — which he generally is. But if or when Philadelphia is able to slow him down in that capacity, Milwaukee has the luxury of unleashing the Greek Freak as a roll man. He’s ranked in the 97th percentile as a roller two of the past three seasons, terrorizing the lane with length, physicality and finishing acumen.
The one potential counter to this is popularizing Horford-Embiid lineups. That would give the Sixers a Giannis “stopper” (OK, let’s call it a deterrent instead) without stripping them of high-level rim protection in help defense contexts. If Giannis gets the best of Embiid in a pick-and-roll, Horford can still slide over and alter the shot inside. Most teams don’t have this option and it’s the one thing that could slow down Giannis: The Roll Man.
Despite all the ways Philadelphia might be equipped to contain Giannis, I’m still moderately doubtful it comes close to reproducing Toronto’s efforts. The Raptors were loaded with good-to-great defenders in their eight-man playoff rotation: Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell. Powell is the worst defender of the group and he’s essentially a neutral on that end.
The Sixers, meanwhile, lack that type of depth, even if they appear to have better one-on-one defenders to throw at Giannis. Their offense is going to need shooting and those with that skill — namely Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Raul Neto — aren’t standout off-ball defenders. At the very least, they’re worse than what Toronto had to offer.
While testing Giannis’ playmaking is the optimal route to limiting him, it’s far from foolproof. He progressed as a passer over the course of the Boston series and became more cognizant of how to capitalize on all the defensive attention he commands. His year-to-year improvement in that regard is one of the most impressive parts of his overall evolution.
Individually, Philadelphia is home to three players who can pose problems for Giannis. Look at the entirety of its projected rotation and holes begin to materialize. There are schematic changes that need to be made to replicate Toronto’s triumphs. It isn’t impossible, however, and Brett Brown is no stranger to playoff adjustments.
Slowing down Giannis is a team-wide initiative built upon discipline, precision and awareness. Whether those are hallmarks of this Sixers squad is yet to be determined.