How Brett Brown is adapting to injuries, constant change with Sixers

How Brett Brown is adapting to injuries, constant change with Sixers

The 2014-15 Sixers won 18 games and used 25 players. In comparison, adjusting to a few games without Jimmy Butler or a rest day for Joel Embiid must feel like nothing for head coach Brett Brown.

Let’s review how Brown has been adapting the Sixers’ offense based on the constant changes with his team.

The offense without Butler and Embiid 

The Sixers run a lot of actions out of their “Horns” alignment when Butler and Embiid are off the floor, starting with two big men at the elbows and two wings in the corners. 

On the play below, T.J. McConnell makes an entry pass to Mike Muscala at the elbow. At the opposite elbow, Ben Simmons sets what the Sixers call a “sprint away” screen (also called a wide pin down) for JJ Redick. Muscala gives Redick a dribble handoff, then a second screen, and pops behind the arc. Simmons rolls to the rim and Redick finds him for a dunk.

It’s a pretty, free-flowing-play, the kind the Sixers rely on when shot creators of Butler and Embiid’s caliber are out.

These actions often center around Redick, a player with a lot of “gravity.” This essentially means Redick attracts plenty of the defense’s attention because of his shooting ability, something the Sixers can exploit to create open looks for his teammates.

Here, Redick sets a back screen for Simmons at the elbow, then flares behind the arc off Jonah Bolden’s screen. Redick drives baseline around Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ defense is forced to scramble, and Redick hits an open Landry Shamet, who draws three free throws.

The other central focus of the Sixers’ non-Butler, non-Embiid offense is Simmons in the post. Once Simmons receives the ball in the post, the Sixers often make “split cuts off him,” a concept we touched on in last week’s film review.

After Simmons gets the ball, the man who made the entry pass and the next closest perimeter player initiate a two-man screening action. In the example below, Corey Brewer feeds Simmons and cuts to the middle, screening off Landry Shamet’s man, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and giving the rookie space to knock down an open three-pointer.

The offense with Butler and Embiid

Brown introduced an interesting twist to the Embiid-Butler pairing Tuesday in Los Angeles, giving Butler minutes at the point guard spot (see story). The early returns on the experiment were positive, with the side pick-and-roll an especially effective action between the two.

On this play, JaVale McGee moves to the right in anticipation of Butler using Embiid’s screen. As we noted last week, Butler likes to reject ball screens, and this a great example why. There’s no help in the middle of the floor until he’s already made it into the paint. 

The attention both Butler and Embiid attract is immense. Here, Butler uses Embiid’s screen and drives to the right. Tyson Chandler blocks his path to the hoop with solid drop coverage, but the Lakers bungle their rotations and Brewer is all alone on the opposite wing.

While we’re on the topic of simple looks with plenty of potential, we’d be remiss not to mention the two “snug pick-and-rolls” Brown ran with Simmons and Embiid early in the fourth quarter against the Lakers.

Simmons makes an "Iverson cut" on top of Embiid’s screen and gets the ball from Butler on the wing. From there, McGee and Josh Hart have no idea how to handle Embiid’s roadblock of a screen 12 feet from the rim. 

An action that works regardless of personnel 

Brown certainly tailors his offense to his player’s strengths, but there are plenty of foundational pieces that don’t require any elaborate adaptation. 

“Elbow rub,” which we covered several weeks ago, is one such piece. The Sixers have various options out of this initial action, but they’re frequently not required. It’s incredible how much the first look — one player looping around a back screen from another at the foul line — gets the Sixers an easy alley-oop.

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Sixers Talk podcast: About Joel Embiid's postgame interview ...

NBCSP/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: About Joel Embiid's postgame interview ...

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Serena Winters discuss Joel Embiid's postgame interview — and new career high — and what the possible plans could be if the Sixers don't have Ben Simmons for a while.

• Jo threw Serena a curveball postgame after a dominant performance (0:40)

• Players who need to step up if Ben Simmons misses significant time (16:05)

• What to expect from the buyout market (29:00)

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Joel Embiid is finding a balance with his duality

Joel Embiid is finding a balance with his duality

A couple weeks ago, Joel Embiid scared the hell out of Sixers fans with his cryptic tweet quoting the Batman villain Two-Face.

It was the same quote used by his friend Jimmy Butler while he was toiling away in Minnesota. In retrospect, the character Embiid was referencing was appropriate.

While Embiid has struggled with his own duality this season, he’s seemed to have found a balance recently as evidenced by his 49-point performance in the Sixers’ 129-112 win Monday (see observations).

I said that I was gonna get back to having fun,” Embiid said. “Having fun comes in different forms. I don't always have to be smiling or laughing all the time. I can have fun just dominating the game. Obviously tonight was just one of those nights where I was having fun like the old days. Just having fun with the crowd. Some nights, I just might want to dominate and stay quiet.

Indeed, Embiid did appear to be having an awful lot of fun out there. Then again, it’s easy to when you’re dominating the way the All-Star center did.

His 49 points were the most scored by a Sixer since Allen Iverson put up 53 against Atlanta on Dec. 23 of 2005. The only other players in franchise history to put up 49 points and 14 rebounds are Hall of Famers, Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and Dolph Schayes. 

While we’ve known that Embiid is capable of nights like this, there haven’t been as many of these types of performances as there have been in the past. The last time Embiid truly took over a game in the fashion he did against the Nets last week and the Hawks Monday was in a big road win in Boston in mid-December.

You might recall that happened after Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal called Embiid’s effort level out. Embiid admitted then that he wasn’t having as much fun this season as he had in the past. Unfortunately for the Sixers and Embiid, the 25-year-old big man still couldn’t find consistency before suffering a torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand.

When Embiid returned after a nine-game absence, he still wasn’t quite right. The splint on his left hand was clearly giving him trouble and he was letting it affect other aspects of his game. Embiid said prior to the matchup against the Clippers before the break that he needed to have a different mindset. He proceeded to play well that night.

Though he wanted to clarify his “best player in the world” comments from after the win over Brooklyn — although he kind of didn’t — the All-Star Game seemed to give him a different level of confidence.

What I said was that All-Star Game, fourth quarter, I'm out there with some of the guys that I consider the best players in the world and I'm out there just dominating,” Embiid said. “So to me, I just felt like that was a chance for me to prove that I deserve being in that conversation of being the best player in the world. 

“But like I said tonight, if I play like that every night … I mean, what more can you say? I just gotta keep on doing it. I know I'm not, but I do believe it because I gotta prove it. I gotta win. My goal is to win a championship. That's how you prove that you are the best.

The whole winning thing may be more difficult for at least the foreseeable future. We’re still awaiting an update on Ben Simmons, who irritated a lower back injury on Saturday night in Milwaukee. Simmons is still being evaluated and the team and his representation are working together to decide a course of action, per a team spokesperson.

With Simmons out and the team sitting in fifth in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers are going to need Embiid to play like this over the last 24 games of the season and beyond.

“He knows it more than I can say it,” Brett Brown said. “We talked a little bit about it. With the news on Ben and him not being here, it’s clear he’s gotta come out and he’s gotta play like he did tonight, for the most part. Nobody’s asking him to get 50 every night, but his mentality is the thing that most impressed me. And we saw the same thing against Brooklyn. We’re all going to point to the numbers and this and that. The bottom line is this: When he comes out with that activity, that energy, that mentality, he makes a statistician work and we will win a lot of games.”

So which Embiid can we expect? Whichever version gives the Sixers the best chance to win.

I think I'm finding that balance of sometimes having fun, smiling, and sometimes just being serious and just doing my job, and I can do my job smiling and I can do my job being serious. I don't know. I don't control it. Sometimes I'm gonna mix it, but at the end of the day, whatever gets us the win, that's all I care about.

Harvey Dent. Two-Face. The Process. JoJo.

After a night like Monday, you can just call him dominant.

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