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How the Sixers greatly improved their defensive versatility this offseason

They actually have some defensive flexibility around Joel Embiid now and should tap into it.

Houston Rockets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Among James Harden’s many superlative talents, fighting around, through, under or over screens is rarely included. Any defense containing Harden will likely emerge, to some degree, as switch-heavy out of necessity. Harden switched the majority of picks last season with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The problem, though, is a sizable part of the rotation wasn’t designed to switch across various positions, which meant Harden’s approach left some folks in precarious spots. There was discordance between what suited Harden and what suited some of his teammates. Compounding this issue was Philadelphia’s poor wing depth often prevented the team from profitably switching because only a select few — Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle — could reliably guard 2s, 3s and 4s.

Rotation options like Shake Milton, Georges Niang, Furkan Korkmaz and Seth Curry (pre-trade) did not offer much of a wide spectrum in their defensive assignments. Even Tyrese Maxey, for all the defensive intrigue and prowess he holsters, needs pigeonholing.

Harris’ playoff defense was a glimmering bright spot. But once the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat recognized his limitations navigating screens, they spammed them and shifted Harris off of Pascal Siakam and Jimmy Butler, letting the All-Stars feast on fortuitous mismatches. Those fortuitous mismatches shouldn’t be as common for wing creators in 2021-22.

Months later, the Sixers’ offseason has aimed to remedy these shortcomings. P.J. Tucker can switch 1-4 and defend 3s and 4s for long periods. De’Anthony Melton can switch 1-3(ish) and defend 1s, 2s and (certain) 3s for long periods. Danuel House can switch 1.5-4(ish) and defend 2s, 3s and (certain) 4s for long periods.

Milton and Korkmaz seem likely to begin the year outside the top 10 of the depth chart. Curry is a Brooklyn Net. Maxey and Niang will persist as mainstays of the rotation, but their rigidity is now an exception, not the norm.

All three acquisitions are excellent lateral movers with gusto and aggression at the point-of-attack. They’re also all different in how they thrive on the ball (here are our in-depth scouting reports on Tucker, Melton and House). Tucker is as physical as they come. He immediately makes his matchups uncomfortable, aims to extend them well away from their preferred destination and touts strong, swift hands to perturb the handles of creators.

Melton wiggles around screens and lives to deploy his mitts for steals, deflections or jump balls. House is best against wings — though can slide down to guards intermittently — applying his 6-foot-6 frame and keen understanding of angles to stymie creation endeavors. His style is closest to Green’s, and he pairs it with heightened movement chops.

While their offensive contributions can be mercurial, they’re all vast improvements over Thybulle, who is the premier defender of the bunch here, but also comfortably the least adept offensive player. His shortcomings have long hamstrung the minutes and types of lineups Philadelphia feels comfortable featuring him in. These additions should make the Sixers’ perimeter defense less reliant on Thybulle and enable them to be more selective in the matchups he’s needed for. They won’t have to stomach his offense for the sake of hoping to prop up the defense as often.

By and large, the Sixers will still adhere to drop coverage with Embiid; it’s his best scheme and complements the collective personnel well. They don’t usually have secondary rim protector in most lineups — Paul Reed at the 4, anyone? — and distancing him from the hoop leaves them susceptible to breakdowns, as would any team sending its anchor outside the paint.

I will note: Tucker is a very good interior helper. It’s just that wasn’t exhibited as often in Miami as it was during his Houston days because the Heat’s defense was built on preventing shots at the rim altogether and utilized him on the perimeter to help accomplish that. I imagine we’ll witness this skill a good deal more in Philadelphia than we did in Miami. The coaching staff should recognize this part of Tucker’s game and incorporate it into its schemes. He gives you more leeway on the perimeter next to Embiid inside.

Embiid is a supremely versatile ball-screen defender, comfortable dropping, switching, hedging and trapping, especially when he goes full tilt. Last season’s roster was not conducive to spotlighting that malleability as frequently as ideal. The acquisitions of Melton, Tucker and House can change that.

I like the idea of playing drop with Melton as the perimeter stopper to display his slithery, economical screen navigation; you can switch at times too, depending on the screener. A trap with Tucker and Embiid is downright menacing. Tucker and Bam Adebayo were absolute juggernauts on traps last year. Tucker can replicate that with his new frontcourt mate. If necessary, you can also switch with those two.

Switching actions involving House and Embiid should be the primary tactic. Thybulle’s screen navigation last season regressed from 2020-21, but is still a strength of his. You’ll keep Embiid in drop when Thybulle is on the ball, though switch isn’t untenable in the right situation either. Of course, the surrounding three players in any of these lineups must be offensive threats to amplify Embiid and the entire attack.

I also like the idea of having Embiid show on some pick-and-rolls with Tucker, Harris and House to let them recover around screens, given how their screen navigation exploits lag behind Melton’s and Thybulle’s.

Defensive fit can sometimes be reduced to a binary of good defender vs. bad defender. Just like offense, though, defense is a complex concept with nuanced layers and skills that make for compatible or incompatible groupings. Embiid is multifaceted enough to be compatible around virtually any defensive arsenal. That’s important because the Sixers brought in three good, divergent defenders whose pairing alongside the big fella requires specific and different tactics for maximization.

Barring another substantial move, the Sixers’ presumptive starting five of Harden-Maxey-Tucker-Harris-Embiid still lacks a bit of coverage versatility defensively. I do like Tucker and Harris switching a lot of actions, as well as Harden and Maxey. But some concerns remain with regard to screen navigation, and how Harden and Maxey fare on those switches. There are gaps for opposing offenses to target.

However, the units available when mixing and matching starters with reserves is rather alluring. A Harden-Melton-House-Tucker-Embiid quintet could be quite harmonic on both ends: three versatile defenders who double as credible spot-up shooters around a dynamite creation and pick-and-roll duo. A Maxey-Thybulle-House-Harris-Embiid unit is pretty interesting, as is Harden-Melton-House-Harris-Reed.

Keeping one of Maxey or Harden on the floor at all times for ball-handling purposes may curtail some of the optimal defensive versatility, but that’s the trade-off you accept to amplify the offense. Plus, I expect Maxey to build on his quite promising 2021-22 defensive campaign and continue progressing toward becoming a high-level guard defender.

When your perimeter fleet is so one-dimensional, as was typically the case last season for Philadelphia, the depths you’re invited to explore defensively dwindle. Experimentation and versatility can and should be defensive tenets next year for the Sixers. Versatility on both ends is integral to any successful playoff run; counters when an opponent quells your primary means of flourishing is essential and reinforced every postseason.

Philadelphia can now prepare for those situations during the regular season by prioritizing the versatility its personnel allows. Doing so may better position itself moving forward, compared to where it was three months ago, suffering yet another early playoff exit.

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