Breaking down the film to see how Sixers can best defend Kawhi Leonard

Breaking down the film to see how Sixers can best defend Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard is averaging 40 points per game on 61.7 percent shooting through the first two games of the Sixers’ series against the Raptors.

He is, despite the Sixers’ Game 2 win in Toronto, an unavoidable, extremely talented problem.

Let’s look at how the Sixers have defended Leonard and whether there's anything they can do better.

Making other guys beat you 

Leonard’s patience is one of his best qualities. He faced up against Tobias Harris on this play from Game 1, drove baseline and spun back toward the middle, where Boban Marjanovic had shuffled over, apparently to double team him. But Leonard, rather than kicking the ball out to Marc Gasol behind the arc, kept his dribble alive, waited for Marjanovic to abort the double team and knocked down a jumper over Harris.

The Sixers took time away from Leonard by doubling him when he got post position in Game 2. Greg Monroe’s double team forced Leonard to kick the ball out to Gasol on the play below and Ben Simmons rotated over brilliantly to get a piece of Danny Green’s jumper.

Simmons ... and friends

Without a doubt, the Sixers’ best individual defender against Leonard has been Simmons. Leonard has shot 12 for 25 when guarded by Simmons and 17 for 22 when guarded by other Sixers, per NBA.com/Stats.

Simmons’ length and lateral quickness occasionally seem to perturb Leonard, something that doesn’t happen very often.

The solution for the Sixers, however, isn’t as simple as sticking Simmons on Leonard, the rare player who can grab a rebound, attack Simmons, and score through the 6-foot-10, 230-pound obstacle in front of him. 

Brett Brown told reporters after Game 1 he wanted the Sixers to show "crowds" to Leonard. Though Simmons does an excellent job staying on Leonard’s hip on the play below, James Ennis ensures he’s not alone in trying to slow down Leonard on the fast break. 

Varied pick-and-roll coverages

The Sixers have aimed to tailor their pick-and-roll coverages against Leonard to best suit their personnel. When JJ Redick is involved, he’s hedged the screen hard and then recovered. It’s a smart approach because it causes Leonard to temporarily encounter an extra defender, and because Green isn’t a threat as a roller.

Here, Redick hedges, Harris drops down to pick up the rolling Green, and Simmons stays with Leonard. Gasol is open on the left elbow because of Harris’ help on Green, but Leonard settles for a contested three-pointer.

Below is another example of the Sixers’ pick-and-roll coverage with Redick. Embiid takes the rolling Green on this play, and the Raptors’ guard finds Pascal Siakam for a corner three. 

If you’re nitpicking, you could say Harris should have stayed attached to Siakam for the entire play and not initially shaded over toward Green. Still, that’s not bad execution by the Sixers — they’d prefer a contested three from Siakam over Leonard having the ball in his hands. 

Embiid plays drop coverage on pick-and-rolls with Leonard, taking a couple steps back into the paint and giving Leonard’s defender time to recover if he falls behind. And if, after the screen, Leonard drives in the direction of a defender on the wing, the Sixers would generally be wise to send additional help, as Simmons does on the play below. Leonard has no choice but to pass it out to Gasol, a win for the Sixers.

Leonard’s defender has the freedom to guard him aggressively on pick-and-rolls involving Embiid, with the knowledge that he has an excellent rim protector as insurance. Because Embiid is looming and has the ability to alter Leonard’s shot, it doesn’t matter that Butler fails to navigate over the top of Gasol's screen. 

The same principles shouldn't apply when Embiid is occupied on the perimeter (or on the bench). Butler's failure to get over Serge Ibaka's screen is more damaging when Jonah Bolden is the other defender involved in the pick-and-roll and when Embiid is, at least initially, concerned with the action behind the arc on the left side of the floor. 

The Sixers need Leonard’s man to play the pick-and-roll more conservatively in that situation, with the understanding that Bolden — or any big man besides Embiid, for that matter — is a vulnerable target if required to switch on to Leonard. 

Brown’s tweaks to the Sixers’ defense on Leonard in Game 2 were sharp, and yet the Raptors’ star scored 35 points. But by working to take time and space away from Leonard, further honing their pick-and-roll coverage to best suit the players on the floor, and using Simmons as his primary defender, the Sixers have a shot to neutralize Leonard. 

If anything, they could lean even further into the principles of showing him a crowd and helping off his teammates whenever it’s remotely feasible. While the Sixers know Leonard can beat them, they can’t yet say the same for the other members of the Raptors. 

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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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