The Sixers' pick-and-roll defense and how Al Horford makes it better — with insight from Al Horford

The Sixers' pick-and-roll defense and how Al Horford makes it better — with insight from Al Horford

In a “backup center,” the Sixers could do a lot worse than Al Horford. The 13-year veteran is an improvement across the board over the Sixers’ backup fives last season.

His pick-and-roll defense is one of the most valuable ways in which he’s an upgrade. We got some insight from Horford on how he and the Sixers approach pick-and-roll defense, and we already have plenty of evidence how Horford helps in that area.

'Force the ball off the screen'  

The Sixers have a variety of pick-and-roll coverages in their back pocket, but Horford explained their core principles in simple terms.

“I think the biggest thing is just communicating, making sure that it’s the big man, the ones who are looking at everything and communicating to the guards,” Horford told NBC Sports Philadelphia before the team’s preseason finale. “And then once we alert them, it’s important for the guards to be able to get up onto the ball and force the ball off the screen.”

The aggressive objective of “forcing the ball off the screen” is often difficult to achieve. Matisse Thybulle does it well on the play below, with the help of early communication from Horford, stepping on top of Robert Williams’ screen and staying attached to Kemba Walker.

When the guard falls a half step behind in his effort to fight over the screen, the Sixers encourage “rearview contests.” Though Luke Kennard gets in front of Thybulle, the rookie effectively makes his presence felt from behind.

A well-honed feel 

On both of the plays above, Horford drops into what assistant coach Ime Udoka calls “center field,” which still seems to be at the heart of the team’s pick-and-roll coverage. When watching Horford defend the pick-and-roll, you notice his nuanced sense for how far to drop — and when to do so. 

The more familiar you get with different guys throughout the league, you know their tendencies,” he said. “We’ve watched a lot of film and I have a good sense of how far I need to be up, how much I need to be back. Usually coaches do a good job of preparing us and letting us know. But it’s just a feel in the game. It’s kind of to your discretion.

In the play below from the Sixers’ game against the Pistons, Ben Simmons is buried by Thon Maker’s screen. Horford drops a few steps into the paint initially in response to Simmons falling out of the play, but it’s not a panicked backpedal. He maintains his balance and doesn’t give up more ground than he has to, tightly contesting Tony Snell’s runner.

This next example is similar to one that hurt the Sixers on many occasions last season, with the guard — James Ennis, in this case — falling out of the play and allowing the ball handler an open mid-range jumper.

The subtle difference, however, is Horford has the skill in those spots to at least contest Brad Wanamaker’s shot, even if he can’t truly put a hand in his face. It’s the best Horford can do in this situation when the guard badly loses the first battle. 

When Horford drops back into “center field,” his main goal is frequently just to buy his guard some time to recover. He gives Josh Richardson a chance to make an excellent “rearview” block on Gordon Hayward here, at first stepping up above the foul line to deter Hayward, then falling back to take Daniel Theis on the roll when Richardson has worked his way back into the picture.

Temporary 2-on-1s 

The result of a Sixers guard being soundly beaten by a ball screen is typically a 2-on-1 for the opponent, at least temporarily. Horford is strong at coping when such a moment occurs.

He positions himself in the right spot during the sequence below, staying in front of Tim Frazier while simultaneously blocking Andre Drummond’s path for a roll to the rim. Drummond catching the ball nine or 10 feet from the hoop with Horford on top of him does not pose a serious threat to the Sixers. 

Two-on-ones are, of course, not ideal for the defense. Frazier accelerates off Drummond’s screen here, which seems to catch Richardson by surprise, and Drummond rolls hard to the rim. Fouling a career 54 percent free throw shooter is not the worst result for the Sixers, given the circumstances.

Not a preference ... but not a last resort, either 

Udoka has noted he thinks highly of Horford and Embiid’s ability to switch, but Horford was clear in saying that’s not the heart of the Sixers’ approach.

“I think that to our preference, we probably want to keep our matchups, even though we can switch — at least that’s what Coach has expressed to us,” he said. “We’ll do it how he wants us to do it, and if for some reason we need to make adjustments throughout the game, we will.”

Horford’s defense at the end of the first half of the Sixers’ regular-season opener shows why the team is confident in him switching. He comes up high on a pick-and-roll between Walker and Marcus Smart, then the Sixers make the late call to switch. Horford does a decent job hanging with the three-time All-Star, and it sure helps to have Embiid behind him in the paint.

Having the foot speed not to get obliterated on a switch, knowing how to survive in the second or two when his guard is out of the play, using fouls in the appropriate moments — none of these are flashy qualities. They're all skills Horford possesses, though, and reasons the Sixers can feel good about asking their guards to defend pick-and-rolls aggressively. 

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 

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Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K


Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K

Matisse Thybulle is known for his defense in real life. In NBA2K, that is definitely not the case.

With the NBA season suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak, Thybulle and the Suns’ Mikal Bridges played each other in 2K on Friday night and streamed the action on Twitch.

Though Thybulle gave Bridges a little bit of a scare with a big third quarter, the virtual Suns beat the virtual Sixers, 75-64. 

While the intensity obviously didn’t compare to a typical game night at Wells Fargo Center, both Thybulle and Bridges — a Villanova product and a Sixer for about 20 minutes before a draft-night trade two years ago — were very into it.

Thyulle decided to sub himself into the game after just 28 seconds, and Bridges did the same 30 seconds later. 

“Which one’s shoot again?,” he asked. “Square?” 

As his team fell behind, Thybulle had some stern words for his players.

“Al, you’re better than that,” he said when Al Horford bit on a pump fake. “You’ve been in the league too long to be making those mistakes.” 

When Ben Simmons had a floater blocked, Thybulle wasn’t thrilled. 

“Ben, you’re 7-foot,” he said. “Just dunk it.” 

And a Mike Scott lay-up early in the third wasn’t what Thybulle was hoping to see. 

At one point, he tried begging for mercy from Bridges.

“Stop running pick-and-roll, I don’t know how to guard it,” he said. “Please. Come on, man.” 

Unfortunately for Thybulle, Bridges did not stop and the rookie left with a loss, albeit an entertaining one.

“I apologize to the Sixers, to my family, my friends, the people of Philadelphia,” he said. “This is not acceptable.” 

After personally finishing with no points on 0 for 3 shooting, Thybulle promised he'll be practicing.

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