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Taking a deep dive into Nick Nurse’s playbook

The Philadelphia 76ers again have one of the best offenses in the NBA. Here’s how Nick Nurse and Co. have pulled it off.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers are set to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday, in what will be their 16th game of the 2023-24 regular season. For anyone who likes rounding down in order to make the math easier, that game will essentially signify the ending of the first fifth of this Sixers’ season.

While there’s obviously some concern with the team’s play as of late — having dropped four of their last six games — the Sixers are still sitting pretty at 10-5, and they possess the fourth-best Net Rating in the league according to Cleaning The Glass. Overall, this first fifth of the season has been fantastic for Joel Embiid and Co.

So let’s take a look at what they’ve been doing. Specifically, what first-year head coach Nick Nurse has instituted on the court that has helped guide the Sixers to having the fourth-ranked offense in this young NBA season.

Horns Chin — Flex

I already wrote about this one last week for Liberty Ballers, but here’s just a quick refresher for anyone who didn’t get a chance to read that piece.

The Sixers first broke out “Horns Chin” action against the Portland Trail Blazers in their third game of the regular season. Most fans might remember this as the play where Tyrese Maxey back screened for Tobias Harris, which led to a wide open dunk.

The concept here is pretty easy to understand. The Sixers are in a Horns alignment, which is just two players roughly stationed at the elbow area. Once the ball is entered to Embiid, Maxey sets the Chin screen, which is just basketball jargon for a back screen at a diagonal angle that occurs on the opposite side of the ball. With the other Sixers’ players properly spaced to the corners, it’s a hard play to stop. In that above clip, either Scoot Henderson helps down on Harris, and potentially gives up an open three to Maxey, or he stays with the dangerous guard, and Harris has a lead on Jerami Grant for the dunk.

Starting against the Atlanta Hawks during the In-Season Tournament, the Sixers turned this play into a Flex progression, which is what I wrote about last week. A Flex screen involves a player coming from the paint and setting a cross screen at the block for a teammate cutting out of the corner. The Sixers have almost exclusively had Harris as the player receiving their Flex screens, and the most common screeners they’ve used in these actions are Maxey and De’Anthony Melton.

Quick-Hitting Level Screens

It’s important to understand that Nurse hasn’t reinvented the wheel or anything with this Sixers team. A lot of the actions he leans on are basic concepts that are prevalent across all 30 NBA teams.

A good example of that is the team’s propensity for Level screens. All it entails is a cross screen across the top of the key from the opposite side the ball handler is on. Another way to think of it is as the reverse of a Flare screen, with the player coming toward the ball instead of drifting away from it.

For guards like Melton and Maxey, they can get quick looks from three if the defense falls asleep or ducks under the screen. For a forward like Tobias Harris, it can be a good way to get going downhill and attack the basket.

Additionally, if there’s no look for a drive or three off the initial level screen, the Sixers will flip the action back and flow into a ball screen at the top of the key.

Iverson Rip

Philadelphia fans should be familiar with this action, given its namesake is the most iconic Sixers’ player of the 21st century.

But for the uninitiated, “Iverson Action” is when a player (usually a guard) gets two cross screens across the top of the key from players positioned roughly at the elbows. Coach Larry Brown instituted this for the Sixers’ offense during his five seasons as the head coach. Given that Allen Iverson was more wired toward scoring than playmaking for his teammates, it was better to put him in roles more catered toward a shooting guard than a point guard. Thus, the Iverson Cut was born, with the idea that getting the superstar guard the ball on the move could get him better opportunities to score in the halfcourt.

This has become a common action for basketball teams at all levels, including recent Sixers’ teams (Doc Rivers almost exclusively ran Seth Curry off this set during their time together).

Well, here in 2023-24, Nurse has broken out Iverson action too, though more often with a wrinkle on top. Coming out of timeouts, the Sixers’ head coach likes to run Maxey off the Iverson cut, but turn the play into Iverson Rip, as Maxey will curl around the second screener in hope of receiving a pass on the cut from one of his teammates for a layup.

Usually, a team can better defend this by switching the Rip screen at the elbow, or by helping off the opposite side corner a tad. Thus, Iverson Rip isn’t a play Nurse can spam like he did Horns Chin/Flex during the Hawks game. However, it’s a great quick-hitter that can almost always get you a good shot out of timeout or stoppage in play.

Flip and “Fake Flip”

This is another action I’ve already touched on here for Liberty Ballers. Once again, it’s very basic stuff that plenty of teams run, but Nurse clearly has instructed the Sixers that they need to be hammering this play whenever possible.

“Flip” is basketball jargon for a dribble-handoff where both players are moving, with the player who brings the ball up flips it back to a teammate who is already running in a circular motion behind him to catch the pass with momentum.

“Fake Flip” is pretty intuitive from there. It’s the same action, only this time the original ball handler runs a fake dribble-handoff and keeps the ball. If that ball handler is Embiid, often he’ll veer in the direction of the opposite wing, progressing into a separate dribble hand-off with forwards such as Kelly Oubre, Jr., Harris and Nicolas Batum.

A Special Sideline Out-of-Bounds (SLOB) Play

Every head coach has a SLOB play that they love to hit the defense with every once in a while, and the same is true for Nurse.

I’m not perfect, so I don’t have the exact name for this set. To my eye, it’s a variation of “Chicago Slice Punch, Screen-the-Screener”, though there is no Slice screen set for Embiid to give him space before catching the ball in the post, so I’m fine calling it “Chicago Punch STS” for now. (If any basketball genius out there has the correct nomenclature here I would love to be told the official name of this SLOB set).

The reason I recognized this set from Nurse and Co. is that Doc Rivers used Chicago Punch Slice STS three years ago against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the Sixers’ second round playoff series. Essentially, what happens is that the ball is thrown to the post, a guard back screens for a forward at the top of the key, and then that guard who set the back screen receives a screen himself from a near side player in order to pop open for a three-pointer. Hence the “Screen-the-Screener” part of the play.

Here’s a full video breakdown of how the Sixers used to run it under Rivers.

And here’s a look at how they’ve run it as a SLOB here under Nurse. They haven’t scored much off it yet, though as you’ll see in the first part of the clip, the Sixers do get a clean look at a three for Maxey.

The concept is very understandable. Like Horns Chin before it, Maxey’s back screen asks the defense a basic question — do you want to help/switch and give Maxey a head start on the perimeter and possibly and open three, or do you want to stay attached to Maxey and give a forward (usually Harris) a chance to get an open layup or dunk.

Additionally, though Embiid lost the ball in the clip above, it shows the third option on the play. If the defense gets too distracted on containing all the movement happening around them, they might surrender a one-on-one post-up opportunity to the league’s reigning MVP.

According to Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are averaging 119.9 points per 100 possessions this season, excluding garbage time. If that number holds for the entirety of this season, it would set the record as the most efficient team offense in franchise history, breaking the record set by last year’s Sixers’ team.

Though there’s a lot of factors at play in the Sixers’ hyper efficient attack — including Maxey’s superstar leap, Harris’ improved finishing around the rim, Embiid tapping into more of his passing skills, and a whole lot more — Nurse and his playbook deserve a lot of credit. He has this team headed in the right direction.

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