76ers

Exploring Sixers' 'Ear tug world,' a fundamental part of team's offense

Exploring Sixers' 'Ear tug world,' a fundamental part of team's offense

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 

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.

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

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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

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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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