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In quest of a ring, the Sixers pushed their chips onto the defensive end of the table

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Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Elton Brand and the Sixers front office placed a big, franchise defining bet on defense and size last summer. Out with a pick-n-roll and isolation scoring specialist in Jimmy Butler. Out with one of the greatest 3 point shooters in NBA history in JJ Redick. In with Josh Richardson and Al Horford. That’s a lot of offense out the door and a lot more defense coming in. Apparently Philadelphia wanted to try to win ugly with a gargantuan and smothering defense that had no holes to attack. No flaccid defenders to punish over and over. No weak links. No sitting ducks. In most respects the experiment (at least with Horford as a starter) can already be pronounced a failure. But it would also be imprudent to count them out.

A conversation between Zach Lowe and John Hollinger on a recent ESPN podcast:

Hollinger: “They’ve been a good defensive team and I think the way they were built I think they thought they would be a phenomenal defensive team so that’s been a disappointment. And can they get to that in a playoff environment?”

Lowe: “Agreed. I think they can.”

So let’s get a better look at a Sixers defense that ranked 6th overall this season, per 100 possessions.

Cleaning the glass

Per Cleaning the Glass the site named after the importance of this category the Sixers allow the third lowest offensive rebound rate (23.5%). In short, if you miss, you probably won’t get a second shot against this ginormous unit. Only Milwaukee and Miami use more Windex than the Sixers.

A few too many free throws allowed

Per Cleaning the Glass the Sixers rank 21st in in the league in free throw rate allowed with 21.3 (this is the number of free throws opponents make per 100 field goal attempts). Keeping an eye on some rivals with top defenses the Bucks ranked 5th in the category and the Jazz (who feature another elite rim protector in Rudy Gobert) rank 7th. Maybe there’s room for a couple less personal fouls per game. On the other end of the court, the Sixers rank 21st in free throws attempted per game. So it might be a big boost if they could both foul a little less and get fouled a little more. Being ranked 21st gets you no black jack here, it just gets you below average.

Turnover percentage

Philadelphia ranked 17th in TOV% (the percentage of opponents’ possessions that ended in a turnover). This one is probably about personnel and team philosophy. The Raptors, Celtics, Lakers and Rockets round out the top 7 for forcing bungles. The Bucks (the league’s best overall D) interestingly ranks 24th here. Perhaps coach Mike Budenholzer is content to have his Deer avoid fouling and avoid gambling in order to protect the rim like a fortress, which they do. I wonder if being a little closer to one extreme or the other might ultimately benefit the Sixers, but your guess is as good as mine here.

We’re in the midst of a 3 point revolution, unless you play Philly

No team in the league allows a lower frequency of 3 point attempts (31.2%) than the Sixers. Brett Brown’s boys work extremely hard to limit the number of 3s they give up, often winding over and contorting through high screens to discourage pull ups 3s.

Here’s how it can look:

You can see the concerted effort by Philly to force lots of mid range shots. Only 3 teams force more midrange looks: Utah, Brooklyn and Detroit. And the Sixers lead the league in forcing long-two pointers, (13.4%) demanding that teams settle for a shot 14 feet away from the rim but still inside the arc.

They also rank 7th and 10th in the accuracy allowed of long 2s and all mid range shots. So they force a lot of mid rangers and long twos plus they contest them well. It’s a testament to their high level defenders (Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle are all excellent at this) as well as team strategy and effort.

Richardson’s willingness and ability here in particular allows Simmons to become a queen of the chessboard defensively. If he doesn’t have to chase water bug guards around screens, he can conserve energy for limiting a team’s All-NBA wing.

Here the strategy coaxes Khris Middleton into an uncomfortable array of floaters, leaners, and contested pull-ups.

By contrast teams like Toronto and Milwaukee, the top two defenses in the league on a points per possession basis, have a different philosophy. They offer plenty of 3s and work extra hard to protect the paint.

There’s always a trade off and it’s why Brett Brown often asks the question “which sword do we fall on?” Cleaning the Glass Founder and Former Sixers Exec Ben Falk wrote an awesome piece on the different strategies employed last year.

And while the Sixers refuse to offer 3s and hope to force mid rangers, they can sometimes get a bit aggressive. They only rank 18th in the league (36%) in the frequency of shots they allow at the rim. They rank 19th in the percentage teams shoot at the rim. So they’re not great at keeping you from shooting near the cup and they’re not great at forcing misses around the hoop. There’s room for improvement.

Notice, sometimes clever ball handlers like Goran Dragic or Kyle Lowry make them pay for playing the 3 point line so tightly:

To this point, our own Dan Olinger recently added the following:

“Brown has had Horford sit back near the basket in drop coverage for pretty much the entire season, and based on the statistics above, the results have been solid. But when it doesn’t go well for Al, it really doesn’t go well.”

Here’s some of what Dan means. Before Horford can say “are you sure you want me playing so far back in pick-n-roll coverage” Jarrett Allen looks like a young Kevin Garnett:

Lean in to big

I was listening to the Rights To Ricky Sanchez Podcast the other day with Rockets GM Daryl Morey, where he gave an intriguing answer to a great question. Co-host Mike Levin (a former Liberty Baller) asked Morey to talk a bit about how Houston made the decision to go super small (when they traded center Clint Capela for small forward and former Process legend Robert Covington).

Here was what Morey had to say:

“… if anyone studies biology…in this landscape of fitness where you’re trying to stand out, you’re occupying your niche…. what we found is we played the best small and we were not playing as well big…. We can’t match up big with the Sixers or the Lakers….so we’re gonna make them try to match up with us and let’s see who blinks first....To me playing the middle doesn’t make a lot of sense when you have to be the best of 30 you can’t really play the middle you’ve gotta go for what your edge is.”

Elton Brand and the Sixers decision makers may have been thinking along very similar lines when they decided to move on from Butler and Redick and bring in Horford and Richardson. The Sixers seemed to want to lean into the idea that with Embiid and Simmons, two enormous All-NBA caliber defenders, they could have a lights out defense. Take away the 3, put Ben on the best perimeter threat, dare teams to challenge Embiid and good luck to ya. You can see in the film and the statistics how it often plays out, and how the game plan melts a bit when Embiid sits. There’s not much time to work. The first game back is tomorrow. But the Sixers will be relying on their size and their philosophy to bring home the title.