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Scrimmage against Thunder shows flaws in Sixers’ pick and roll coverage

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Did the Thunder expose another chink in the 76ers’ battered armor?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Feeling frustrated about the things the Philadelphia 76ers choose to do on the basketball court is nothing new. It’s practically something one must go through as means of orientation. But so far in this bubble restart, their play has been pleasant. The Sixers dominated the Memphis Grizzlies and built a 24-point lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder before pulling the first stringers. Ben Simmons is finally, maybe, possibly shooting threes and Matisse Thybulle has become even more of a defensive bully while simultaneously making his case as the best vlogger in the history of YouTube.

And yet, I still find myself aggravated by one thing: the Sixers’ strange variance of pick and roll coverage.

At first glance, one would assume that this isn’t a huge problem. Philadelphia finished with the 10th best pick and roll defense against ball handlers, allowing only 0.86 points per possession, and 13th in points allowed to the roll men at 1.09 PPP, per NBA.com. However, in their scrimmage Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder (one of the most pick and roll heavy teams in the league), I found the coverage method assigned to three specific players to be particular noteworthy, and at times, counter productive.

Al Horford

Just by the pure numbers, there’s once again not a great or even rational case for Horford being a minus pick and roll defender. The few times he defended ball handlers in the pick and roll, they scored a mere 0.50 PPP, putting the big man in the 99th percentile of the league in that category. However, roll men out of these actions scored a clean 1.00 PPP, putting Al at the 50th percentile league wide, not to mention he was faced with 0.7 possessions of roll man attacks per game compared to 0.5 per game from ball handlers. But neither of those account for the points accumulated by the ball handlers Horford is asked to defend when he drops back near the rim following a ball screen set by his own man.

In Sundy’s scrimmage, the Thunder wasted no time taking Horford to task, attacking him in the pick and roll in two of their first three possessions.

Brown has had Horford sit back near the basket in drop coverage for pretty much the entire season, and based on that statistics above, the results have been solid. But when it doesn't go well for Al, it really doesn’t go well. He looks slow and unathletic on both of these drives as Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are able to take off from the edge of that first semi-circle in the paint and float in shots for two points.

To be fair, Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander finished in the 95th and 83rd percentiles respectively for scoring amongst pick and roll ball handlers. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Horford — most guards struggle with those kinds of floaters. But on the other hand, most of the teams the Sixers do have to worry about moving forward are filled with proficient pick and roll scorers. The Celtics’ ball handlers finished 2nd in the NBA with 0.98 PPP. The Bucks finished 7th. The Raptors, Pacers and Heat check in at 13th, 14th and 15th.

Heck, the Sixers currently are staring down a first round matchup with Boston, who had three players finish over the 90th percentile in Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. For context, the Sixers only have one player that meets that qualification — Alec Burks — and the sample size in which he achieved that mark was far too small at 11 games.

Just watch here how the athletic and shifty Gilgeous-Alexander is able to get just behind Horford, even though big Al was dropping deep in the paint. He just doesn’t have the quickest reactions, and unfortunately opens up his hips to allow SGA an at-rim attempt that he coincidentally blows thanks to some help defense from Shake Milton.

Personally, I’d try to have Horford step up rather than drop, as I’m afraid he doesn’t have the length or burst to protect the rim in drop coverage like an Embiid or a Brook Lopez. Sometimes, it could be an all out switch, and other times it could just be a drop that occurs higher up in the paint, like on this play in the second half of the OKC scrimmage.

Horford is smart and knows how to reach and jab without fouling, meanwhile the Sixers actively discourage roll passes with their intimidating length. When Al steps up to meet SGA on this play, the young scorer aborts the play and tosses it over to CP3 for a contested shot over Ben Simmons. All very good stuff.

Yet, there is something we have to touch on from that clip above that isn’t Al Horford-related.

Tobias Harris and Furkan Korkmaz

Take a look at this picture and see if you can think of what went wrong.

Against OKC, Brown had Tobias Harris hedge ball screens when his man set the pick, a style that has largely been abandoned in the modern NBA. Screeners have been taught to slip should their defender step up too far, as it basically gives them a free runway either to the rim or for an open three. It’s to the point that some players like Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies almost never make contact on their screens in favor of sprinting into open space as soon as they can to gain the advantage. Thus, the high hedge has largely died at the higher levels of basketball.

But that apparently hasn’t stopped Brett Brown from trying to bring it back with Harris. Perhaps the theory is that Harris doesn’t have the quickness and flexibility to switch on to smaller guards, while also lacking the sheer size and vertical leaping ability to drop. Thus, Brown likely wants Harris to deter the initial attacks and trust that the Sixers’ clogging defense can provide him ample time to recover.

Let’s just say that probably won’t work.

Not only does Harris fail to impede Paul’s progress, but he somehow takes Josh Richardson out of the play too with his clumsy, slow hedge. Paul has all the space in the world and the deadly Danilo Gallinari is open. The play results in a quality look for a player that shot 40.6% this season on corner threes and the Sixers get very fortunate with the miss.

Yet, this still hasn’t discouraged Brown from trying the high hedge with another one of his players — the defensively challenged Furkan Korkmaz.

Watch this comical sequence here, as Korkmaz kind of, sort of tries to set up for a charge, then admits defeat and backs up with his hand in the air, only to be bailed out by an incredible late contest from Matisse Thybulle i.e. Dennis Schroeder’s mortal nemesis.

There’s a case to be made for hedging Korkmaz. He’s the worst defender in the Sixers’ rotation by a mile and switching him would just make opponents hunt him JJ Redick style. By having him jump out at the ball handler, Kormaz is at least given a chance to recover and not cause too much damage.

That’s probably the thought at least, because having Korkmaz hedge did not protect him at all from getting hunted on defense. As you can see in the play below, Schroeder waves his teammate off to get Korkmaz involved even after the Sixers tried to switch him to a non-screener off-ball. The outcome is a Washington Wizards level of bad paint protection.

Of course, this is not the most pressing concern to the Sixers because Embiid is a drop coverage savant that forces teams to take an ugly number of mid-range jumpers. Co-star Ben Simmons is a hybrid athlete that can switch everything and fill in any crack in the overall team defense. But the Sixers’ opponents know this to and will do everything they can to avoid the Embiid-Simmons duo. Maybe that means Horford needs to take a step up to apply more pressure to attacking guards. It definitely means that Harris and Korkmaz need to dispose of their self-destructive hedges.

The Sixers are a weird team and they will need to think up a weird solution for their pick and roll coverage if they want to advance deep into the bubble.