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How the Sixers create their own spacing problems

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Self-sabotage at its finest

No cute intro or anecdotal story this time, just getting straight to the point on something that’s been bother me — the Sixers are so bad at spacing the floor.

Multiple examples of this problem are presented throughout each Sixers game, but it was particularly prevalent in their final scrimmage of the restart against the Dallas Mavericks, as time and time again, they bungled perfectly fine pick-and-rolls with their mistakes.

Let’s get to it.


In their matchup versus the Sixers, the Mavs guarded the pick-and-roll by having the ball handler’s defender go over the screen, the big man drop back towards the basket, and a third defender run over to tag the roll man. Some quick mental math should immediately tell you that Dallas has forced an inequality upon themselves, as the two remaining off-ball defenders are left to guard three Sixers players.

Unfortunately, the Sixers went out of their way to solve said inequality with some truly putrid spacing.

That photo of Simmons, holding his hands up and calling for the ball behind the arc, is what got the most attention, as fans used it to defend the newly-minted power forward by saying he clearly wanted to shoot but didn’t get the opportunity. But tell me, how is Tobias Harris supposed to make that pass? The 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis is blocking his line of sight, and Luka Doncic is keeping an eye on that passing lane too, meaning it would have taken a LeBronian-level bullet pass to hit Simmons, which might be a little too much to ask of Harris.

The much bigger problem is that Shake Milton and Josh Richardson meandered to the exact same spot on the floor, allowing Tim Hardaway Jr. to defend both of them at the same time. This possession ultimately peters out to a missed fadeaway by Harris in the post. And yes, Milton and Richardson eventually space out correctly, but not until the penetration of the pick-and-roll has been stopped, which is far too late.

Somehow, the Sixers found a second way to foist this one-guards-two conundrum upon themselves later in the game.

Simmons is rolling to the hoop, Milton is one of the few Sixers players that does have that pick-and-roll pocket pass down pat, as we saw during the Spurs game, but Horford for some inexplicable reason is occupying the left block, which allows Porzingis to tag Simmons without surrendering an easy skip pass to Horford for a corner 3. The fix to this problem really isn’t that hard to solve.

Alas, Horford simply drifts farther into the paint, and the result of the play is a missed Simmons floater over the contest by Porzingis. But before any of you go blasting Horford in the comments once again, I have reason to believe this issue is more systemic than an individual mistake.

Take a look at what happens on this Tobias Harris-Ben Simmons pick-and-roll.

Did you catch that? Look at where Richardson and Korkmaz start on this play, spaced out perfectly in order to provide room for Simmons and Harris to do their thing.

But then, they decide to exchange places as the screen is set, which isn’t wrong in and of itself, only Richardson walks down to the block instead of staying on the perimeter, clogging up Simmons’ roll to the basket just like Horford did!

It’s just a basic principle of pick-and-roll offense that you can’t occupy the roller’s path to the hoop, yet the Sixers seem to have this very non-sensical weak side exchange built into their offense. Just look here as Simmons screws up Milton and Norvel Pelle’s two-man game with the same thing (Arrows on second pic indicate what should have happened, not what did).

I’ll try to get out ahead of some potential backlash right here and explain why this is bad in every way.

First, I know opponents are willing to sag off Simmons, so him spacing to the corner might not alleviate the space in the paint, but isn’t Simmons spotting up and maybe, just maybe, shooting open corner 3s what we want? And even if the defense doesn’t respect him as a shooter, it’s tough to completely ignore good players, which could create a bit of indecision in the head of Maxi Kleber in that situation.

Second, some will argue that Horford and Simmons were only filling the dunker’s spot on those two possessions, which is something teams like Houston and Golden State have long done with big men like Clint Capela and Kevon Looney. However, there is a key difference between what those other teams have executed like experts compared to what the Sixers continuously bungle. Neither team sent three guys into the paint, only two. Harden would break people down off the dribble without the help of the screen, breach the painted area and then throw the lob to Capela, while Draymond Green was free to dish to Looney after defenses sold out to blitz Steph Curry on the pick-and-roll 25 feet from the basket.

Now, as far as I can tell, Shake Milton is not James Harden (at least, not yet), and the closest thing the Sixers have to a Steph Curry is maybe Milton also, or Korkmaz? Either way, the Sixers do not have the players with those elite defense-bending abilities, and thus, should not be running a pick-and-roll that ends with three of their own dudes in the restricted area.

If anything, they should run pick-and-rolls where the three guys not involved simply stand in place behind the arc. Having guys exchange places without cutting into the paint is okay when running a side pick-and-roll, but all these actions keep occurring down the middle, which means the Sixers would be better suited to just spot up and remain shot-ready, as they do here.

No one unnecessarily lurches inside, and the result was a wide-open Tobias Harris, ready to let it fly from 3, only Burks fails to see said pass and wastes the golden opportunity.

Regardless, the overall spacing is good enough that the play eventually results in a 3 for Matisse Thybulle that he drills.

It’s not that complicated. Space the floor correctly, and the defense either has to help off someone to try and stop the penetration, giving up open 3-pointers like they do above, or not help off and likely give up a run to the rim, like Richardson gets here with the spaced floor.

Seth Curry, one of the league’s best help defenders, recognizes the problem too, but he’s helpless to do anything other than stunt at the ball. He can’t fully commit out of fear of a kick out to Shake Milton for 3.

Before reading this, many of you could have guessed that floor spacing wasn’t a strength of the Sixers, but it’s not as simple as “they’re bad shooters, therefore they have no spacing.” We don’t know if it’s a Brett Brown problem, that he has instilled in his players these horrid tendencies when running pick-and-rolls, or if the players are at fault for zoning out and failing to read the situation. Either way, it’s a problem, and one that the Sixers themselves are causing rather than their opponents.

Poll

Who is at fault for the Sixers’ spacing issues?

This poll is closed

  • 82%
    Brett Brown
    (247 votes)
  • 17%
    The Players
    (54 votes)
301 votes total Vote Now