In an entirely predictable fashion, the Philadelphia 76ers’ seeding games to kick off the NBA’s restart were… tumultuous. Joel Embiid experienced minor injuries to his ankle and hand, Ben Simmons suffered a knee subluxation, which necessitated surgery and will likely relegate him to spectator for the remainder of the season, and the Sixers trotted out three different starting units across eight contests en route to a 4-4 record. For a team aiming to discover some newfound cohesion ahead of the playoffs, the opportunity to do so instead became another stretch of navigating injuries and reconfiguring rotational patterns.
Despite these occurrences, a number of developments unfolded or continued throughout two weeks of action that are relevant to the Sixers’ playoff outlook in one form or another. Gleaning too much from games in which many teams withheld key players or lacked the vigor generally evident in their approach would not be wise. But there remain ways to apply some trends to a forward-thinking lens and that’s the objective here.
Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle thriving as cutters
Among various faults in Philadelphia’s 14th-ranked offense is a tendency for off-ball players to dive near the rim — awaiting offensive rebound chances — that clog the lane on drives, pick-and-rolls or post-ups. It has long been an issue and might be derived from a scheme that potentially encourages crashing the offensive glass (this is speculation). Whether this trend is independent of that is immaterial because it seems to cast a negative imprint upon the Sixers’ offensive efficiency, speaking to a general theme of poor off-ball presence from ancillary players.
During the bubble games, however, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle were active as cutters, often finding easy buckets inside based on the gravity others commanded from defenders.
Those sorts of instances differ from wandering moves toward the rim because Harris and Thybulle are operating with purpose and the intention of scoring. Too often, a teammate will meander to the block, drifting aimlessly without the goal of stressing the defense or creating an advantage.
Against the Boston Celtics, Embiid will assuredly be the focal point offensively. Boston is short on capable post stoppers, though Enes Kanter has proven to be viable in spurts, and Philadelphia’s best chance of an upset is a dominant series from the superstar center. It’s likely the Celtics send double-teams his way, as they did during the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals. If his passing from the early seeding games translates, there’s a chance he thrives as a playmaker and offensive hub.
Simple kick-outs spurring ball reversals will suffice at times, but Boston is a well-coached defensive unit and is going to rotate properly, forcing more complex reads. This is where Harris’ and Thybulle’s cutting is paramount, particularly for Thybulle, who could be ignored off the ball and dared to shoot. Exploiting that disrespect and complementing the attention Embiid elicits inside could be a valuable asset. For Harris, those heady forays to the rim represent decisive actions, something he doesn’t always tout. Against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, Harris was a quick decision-maker offensively and it resulted in 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Of course, many of his reps take place on the ball, but he’s still going to function in a background role alongside Embiid for stretches. Ensuring he’s quick to fire spot-up 3s, rip to the bucket off the catch or dart inside against inattentive defenders is paramount. Philadelphia requires a decisive Tobias Harris for its offense to spin steadily and the flashes of instinctive cutting must continue as the playoffs arrive.
Josh Richardson’s floor-spacing
The seven seeding games in which he was active were beneficial for Josh Richardson. He shot 42.9 percent from 3 and posted a true shooting percentage of 59.2. Nearly half of his field goal attempts (48.6 percent) came beyond the arc, an uptick from his season-long 3-point rate, and he appeared mildly more willing to let it fly from deep against pressured contests. Pestering on-ball defense and fluid screen navigation headlined his showing, too. His 34-point, six-triple outburst against the Portland Trail Blazers almost led the Sixers to victory.
But there’s one habit of his that transpired a few times during those games that is maddening, correctable and avoidable. Richardson has a penchant for spacing to the mid-range and it’s an imprudent method to off-ball offense, especially given the role Philadelphia demands of him as a high-volume floor-spacer beyond the arc (though, he also handles the ball at times, of course, too). Mid-range jumpers hold equity, but the context in which Richardson stationed himself there was without benefit.
The time to opt for mid-range jumpers is when it’s a strategic counter to how a defense is arranged or is the best shot presented to an offense. Richardson, meanwhile, is prioritizing those looks and they’re low-value propositions. Nothing is preventing him from scooting a few feet farther back, so he catches the ball beyond the arc. Instead, he gifts the defense a cop-out with his positioning. Notice how Embiid is frustrated by the turnover on the first clip above and likely explains where he’d prefer his teammate to stand on the weakside. He expects Richardson to be in the corner, where the skip pass would hit him in, or much closer to, the shooting pocket, generating an open long ball.
On a team without many perimeter advantage creators, Philadelphia has to maximize its chances and shot profile. When Richardson unnecessarily spaces to the mid-range, that doesn’t happen. He improved his willingness to bomb from deep during seeding games, and that deserves credit. But the Sixers are already working from a deficit in these playoffs without Ben Simmons on the floor. They cannot squander offensive possessions by reverting to antiquated basketball inclinations.
Shake Milton’s defensive shortcomings
Shake Milton’s second season has, unequivocally, been a roaring success. He went from G League star and spot rotational player to someone who earns consistent minutes on a playoff team. But, this imminent series against the Celtics will not be kind to him and his prelude performance in Orlando is indicative of that reality. The sophomore was routinely burned for buckets inside by a host of guards. Really, anyone with foot speed or functional strength had their way. And, it wasn’t merely All-Star-caliber guards. Ricky Rubio bested him. Aaron Holiday. TJ McConnell. Jerome Robinson.
If Milton is going to continue suiting up as a starter for the Sixers, which is justified because of his shooting and passing, Boston poses a daunting matchup. All four of its perimeter starters, along with Marcus Smart, wield some creation prowess — or at least enough scoring ability to blitz Milton.
Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum spearhead this brigade, but Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown solidify Boston’s quartet in the lineup. There isn’t somewhere to hide Milton, and that’s among the most pressing issues for Philadelphia, which is already set back by a talent disparity with Simmons sidelined. Walker is too quick and Milton’s poor screen navigation would be a death knell in pick-and-rolls, empowering Walker to do as he pleases (usually, pull-up 3s). Tatum, Hayward and Brown are too big and/or strong. Hayward’s craft and mastery in ball screens will torch Milton. Tatum’s off-the-bounce shooting would be unencumbered. Brown’s straight-line slashing would thrive.
Generally, if a team diverts from its offensive blueprint to target a weak point defensively, that could be considered a win for the opposition. The Celtics don’t have to reconstruct their plan, though, to draw profits from Milton’s deficiencies. They can simply funnel the offense through whoever he’s tasked with because all five perimeter guys are capable, though Brown is more of a play finisher than complementary initiator.
To combat this, the strategy for Brett Brown and Co. should resemble what they did with JJ Redick in last year’s playoffs, notably against the Raptors, refusing to switch any screen that would thrust him into on-ball defense sequences. They encountered success, primarily because Nick Nurse didn’t seek to take advantage. If Stevens does, Milton is likely in for a tiresome series defensively and one that sees the Sixers on the losing end.
Joel Embiid’s pick-and-roll coverage
Throughout Joel Embiid’s tenure in Philadelphia, the Sixers have overwhelmingly adhered to a drop pick-and-roll scheme defensively. There are flashes of other policies, but they remain just that. Once again, seeding games brought with them these flashes, as Embiid hedged or showed in ball screens a few times. It didn’t happen often, but surfaced enough to wonder if the team was briefly experimenting in anticipation of the playoffs.
With the Celtics housing two of the league’s top pull-up maestros in Walker and Tatum, and the Sixers not exactly employing a litany of proficient screen navigators, Philadelphia could diversify its pick-and-roll coverage in an attempt to curb those guys’ off-the-dribble excellence.
*Disclaimer for readers: I apologize for the glitch in the first clip and am aware the second one is from a scrimmage.*
Richardson and Thybulle are quite fluent in shedding on-ball screens, which should prove advantageous for whoever assumes Walker as their primary assignment. But Tatum’s size and release point will render it difficult for the guard-sized Richardson or Thybulle to deter his pull-up 3s; this is one of the most prominent areas in which Simmons’ services are missed in this matchup.
If Embiid hedges or shows intermittently, providing the perimeter defender time to recover and stay attached, the Sixers might bear less of the brunt of Boston’s talented chief creators. Doing so is more taxing, though. Given Embiid’s history of ankle and knee injuries, as well as the load he’s going to shoulder offensively, drop coverage to maximize his paint protection remains the shrewd decision. Even so, there are indicators to suggest it might not be the only pick-and-roll defense utilized by Philadelphia in this series. Because without Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid will lug these Sixers as far as he can lead them on both ends.