If you’ve ever noticed Brett Brown tugging on his ear on the sideline, chances are he’s calling an action out of the Sixers’ “Ear tug world.”
It’s a series that begins with what many teams call a “Horns” alignment — two men at the elbows and two in the corners. The Sixers’ Ear tug world is one of the fundamental parts of the team’s offense, and assistant coach Monty Williams has played a key role in shaping it (see story).
With the Sixers taking a break from competitive basketball for the past week, we decided to explore the team’s Ear tug world in more detail.
The lob is the most basic Ear tug action. When the primary option is the lob — often after timeouts — the Sixers sometimes call this play “Elbow rub,” per Mike O’Connor of The Athletic.
The man at one elbow curls around a screen from the man at the other elbow at “the nail” (middle of the foul line). He’s open a surprising amount of the time.
Some of the Sixers’ Ear tug actions start with a flare around the first screen instead of a curl directly to the rim. After flaring off Boban Marjanovic’s screen, Jimmy Butler read Jamal Murray’s overplay well and made a sharp back cut. An alley-oop was again the end result.
Spicing it up
On the play below, Joel Embiid sets a screen at the nail for Wilson Chandler. However, you can tell the play isn’t designed for a lob to Chandler by his rather casual trot in the direction of the hoop. Instead, Ben Simmons gives the ball to Embiid, who dribbles into an inverted pick-and-roll with JJ Redick.
You’ll notice this a lot with Redick and Embiid — because Redick is guarded so closely, as a screener he’s often able to basically wedge his man into Embiid’s defender.
The Sixers also sometimes have Redick run around screens in their Ear tug world.
As usual, this play starts off with a screen at the nail. And again, you can tell the Sixers aren’t looking for a lob initially — Murray plays physical defense on Tobias Harris, who doesn’t seem too concerned with getting all the way to the rim.
The Sixers instead have Simmons dish it to Embiid at the top of the key, and the big man hands it to Butler. Off the ball, Redick brushes around down screens from Harris and Embiid and dips in for a jumper.
Embiid post-ups are a frequent Ear tug objective. The goal isn’t for Embiid to curl around a screen for a lob, but for him to establish position on the block.
Below is a simple example, with Landry Shamet and Embiid the two men at the elbows. Shamet flashes across Embid to the wing, Embiid goes down low, and the Sixers clear out the left side of the floor to give him maximum space to work.
Brown introduced a clever action to get Simmons a post-up on Jan. 19 vs. the Thunder. The play started with Redick darting across Chandler’s screen at the elbow. Redick is essentially in Shamet’s spot on the play above, with Chandler in Embiid’s place. But instead of Chandler stationing himself in the post once Redick receives the pass from Simmons at the wing, he stays at the elbow.
There, he sets a back screen for Simmons, and the point guard makes a UCLA cut to the left block. When Simmons drives baseline, Jonah Bolden frees up Butler with a back screen on the weak side of the floor.
A similar action got Simmons an easy dunk on Jan. 8 against Washington, though it wasn’t technically part of the Sixers’ Ear tug world.
Simmons tosses the ball to Embiid at the top of the key, then accelerates to the hoop off Chandler’s back screen at the elbow.
These sort of basic actions are a lot more effective than you might think they’d be, looking at them on paper. And because the Sixers get so many successful lobs out of their Ear tug world, teams now have to be wary of that option.
That makes the creative layers Brown and Williams have added to the Sixers’ Ear tug world a greater threat.
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