Sixers film review: The intriguing potential of the Sixers’ late-game offense

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Sixers film review: The intriguing potential of the Sixers’ late-game offense

With the exception of Friday's letdown vs. the Cavs, just about every single Sixers game these days seems to come down to the final few possessions. 

The Sixers have fared well in those close contests — the team is 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer. 

At the end of games, head coach Brett Brown has a few actions he favors that aim to put his best players in the best positions. With Jimmy Butler on board, he’s started adding some new looks into the Sixers’ late-game offense.

Here’s what Brown had to say about the Sixers’ crunch time offense after Wednesday’s win over the Pelicans:

We put Ben [Simmons] and [JJ Redick] in that small-small pick-and-roll a lot. I actually want to grow JJ and Jimmy [Butler] in that look, Jimmy as a ball-carrier, JJ as the screener. … JJ actually scored on that sort of running left-handed play just out of basic pindown action, Floppy action. I tried to stay more in concepts and movement than static play calls more than normally we do. I feel like you’re going to see Jimmy be in that mix as time goes on.

Let’s break down how the Sixers’ offense operates late in the fourth quarter, as well as how it can evolve moving forward.

Redick as a screener

While Redick is renowned for his shooting, the Sixers love using him a screener, as Brown said. The one action you’ll see them use consistently late in the game, often, again and again, starts with Redick setting a middle ball screen for Simmons. If that screen is effective, Simmons can drive straight to the rim.

Typically, though, Redick will flare out behind the three-point line after setting the screen. Since most teams deny Redick the ball, Simmons usually will hit Joel Embiid on the strong side wing. Embiid can then hand it off to Redick, sealing Redick’s man and freeing the Sixers’ veteran shooter for an open three-pointer. Below is an example of that option, one we showed in our film review from a couple weeks ago.

Instead of handing it off to Redick, Embiid will often keep the ball instead, like on this play below. Because Redick draws so much attention, Embiid tends to have room to attack his man one-on-one.

Redick and Embiid improvised well on this play vs. the Suns; Embiid used another ball screen from Redick to build momentum going to the hoop.

The Sixers added another interesting wrinkle against Phoenix, one of the seemingly infinite possible options of this action. Rather than using a screen from Redick, Simmons handed the ball off to him and screened off Redick’s defender. The play then continued as normal, with Redick finding Embiid on the wing and the big man handing it back to Redick.

Keep an eye out for the Sixers starting to “grow Jimmy and JJ” in this action, as Brown said, with Butler in Simmons’ place as the ball handler.

Redick running around screens

Redick doesn’t just set screens; he receives plenty as well. The attention he attracts off the ball frequently results in open shots for his teammates.

The play below is a good example. DeAndre Ayton recognizes Redick running off a pair of screens away from the ball, so he slides to the middle of the floor. Butler notices Mike Muscala is unguarded and finds him for an open three.

You can see below the “Floppy action” Brown talked about from the win over the Pelicans. In Floppy action, a shooter is stationed under the basket, with the option to run around staggered screens on one side of the floor or a single pindown screen on the other. On this play, Redick decided to use Wilson Chandler’s screen, curled around E’Twaun Moore and finished over Anthony Davis.

The Embiid-Redick 2-man game 

Another favorite late-game action for the Sixers is the two-man game between Embiid and Redick. Embiid receives the ball at the elbow and Redick curls up from the baseline.

Because defenses know the Sixers love the Embiid-Redick two-man game, the Sixers have a clever counter. The play begins as it normally would, with an entry pass to Embiid at the elbow and Redick stationed in the strong side corner. But instead of Redick curling up, he sets a screen for Embiid. After running the conventional two-man look seconds earlier against the Suns, Phoenix was caught off guard.

The new guy 

Butler is already very much “in the mix” for the Sixers late in the fourth quarter, as Brown put it. The Sixers have tried to play to his strengths in his first few games.

Butler’s game-winner in overtime against the Hornets last Saturday night was pretty simple — get Butler the ball and space the floor.

It’s the same play the Sixers ran at the end of regulation, when Butler missed an open mid-range jumper.

“It doesn’t take much creativity to find a way to win,” Brown told reporters in Charlotte. “That’s what the great players can do and it’s what we spoke about with the inclusion of him, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, isolation, to create his own looks.”

The Sixers are beginning to introduce more isolation looks for Butler. On the play below vs. the Pelicans, Muscala and Wilson Chandler set cross screens to isolate Butler on Jrue Holiday.

Looking ahead, the Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll is a strong option for the Sixers, though one they haven’t used much yet. Butler got an open jumper out of that play vs. Phoenix and Embiid tipped in his miss.

A play we showcased in our last film review continues to be a part of the Sixers’ late-game package — Butler makes an Iverson cut, then receives staggered ball screens from Simmons and Embiid. 

In his six games with the Sixers, Butler has 26 fourth-quarter points and seven assists. He's capable of much more.

Normal offense

Though some of the Sixers’ offense late in the game is used exclusively in crunch-time situations, like the isolations for Butler against Charlotte, much of it is what they run throughout the entire game.

The Sixers’ “Ear tug world,” commonly known as “Horns” throughout basketball, starts with two big men at the elbows and two wings in the corners. On the play below, one of the men at the elbow sets a screen for the point guard, then receives a flare screen from the other big man. Muscala got a decent look here vs. the Jazz.

You’ll also notice the Sixers frequently run their normal, “A to B” motion offense late in games, which starts with a simple pass exchanged between the point guard (A) and the center (B). In this example, Simmons dribbles to the elbow extended, while off the ball, Redick comes off a wide pindown screen from Embiid (the Sixers call this a “sprint away” screen). Simmons notices Nikola Mirotic is helping off Chandler and makes a good read to find Chandler for an open three.

Trusting his players to make something good happen usually works for Brown, but not always. 

With less than two minutes left vs. Utah, the Sixers wanted to find a way to get Embiid the ball in the post. Redick attempts to free himself for a pass from Simmons but is denied the ball by Ricky Rubio. For some reason, Simmons still tries to give Redick the ball.

The play below is the worst result you can imagine when Brown leaves his players to their own devices. Though Redick is an excellent screener and shooter, he’s not the guy Brown wants to handle the ball late in the game. Mikal Bridges picks his pocket here as the Sixers try to ice a win over the Suns.

Those couple plays aside, the Sixers generally have been able to get the ball in the hands of their four top offensive players — Simmons, Butler, Embiid and Redick. With Redick’s effectiveness as a screener and a shooter, Simmons’ passing ability, Butler’s skill in isolation and pick-and-rolls, and Embiid’s many talents, the Sixers have the tools to be elite offensively in crunch time.   

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Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

In the wake of the absurd scandal involving Bryan Colangelo and burner Twitter accounts, the Sixers searched for their next general manager and handed Brett Brown the job on an interim basis. Eventually, they promoted Elton Brand.

He was certainly not their first choice, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

“When they opened that job up, when Colangelo was gone and before they promoted Elton Brand, they went after any number of high-level, accomplished executives around the league,” Wojnarowski said on The Woj Pod. “They were willing to offer Daryl Morey, Bob Meyers, Dennis Lindsey, Sam Presti. There may have been more.”

Brand’s only previous executive experience was as the GM of the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats (formerly the 87ers). It makes sense that the Sixers would have preferred more established candidates.

The Sixers were “rebuffed” in their efforts to hire Morey, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported in July of 2018. A mentor to former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, Morey won the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award in 2018 and is still GM of the Rockets. 

Stein also reported the Sixers “commissioned a clandestine run at prying Myers away from the Warriors that was likewise rebuffed.” Myers has served as the Warriors’ general manger since 2012 and won three championships with the team.

Lindsey is the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Jazz, while Presti has been GM of the Thunder franchise since 2007. 

The Sixers had an interview with former Cavs and current Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin but, according to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, “felt he wasn’t a good fit for their front-office structure” and wanted to “make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say.”

In July of 2018, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Amy Fadool, “It’s very consensus-oriented, there’s a lot of people in the dialogue, and we want to make sure we find the right fit for that.”

Wojnarowski noted on the podcast that Harris and the Sixers’ leadership above Brand remain influential.

“Ownership’s got a lot of say in Philly," he said. “You’ve got a group of owners that are involved, that are there. How many team have multiple owners courtside each corner of the arena, each night?

Brand has made several major moves since assuming the GM job in September of 2018, including trading for Jimmy Butler, shipping Markelle Fultz to Orlando, trading for Tobias Harris and then signing him to a five-year, $180 million deal this summer, and giving Al Horford a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed. At 37-23 this season and 9-21 on the road, Brand’s roster has not performed the way he envisioned. 

Wojnarowski and Max Kellerman also talk about expectations for the rest of the Sixers' season, the history of Sam Hinkie’s Process and more on the podcast, which you can listen to here

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Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

When you’re given the largest contract in the history of a storied franchise like the Sixers in the city of Philadelphia, you’re going to face scrutiny.

Tobias Harris has gotten his fair share since inking a five-year, $180 million near-max deal this past offseason. The 27-year-old hasn’t consistently provided the scoring needed to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Though at times, like Thursday night against the Knicks, Harris has looked like the player GM Elton Brand traded for and then chose to re-sign as a franchise cornerstone. 

With Embiid and Simmons both on the shelf, this is the version the Sixers need to see a lot more of.

“At the beginning of the game, had some good looks going,” Harris said. “We had good pop to our flow, to our offense, and was able to get some just in-the-flow plays. Once I'm able to get into the flow and the ball is able to move around, that's where I'm at my best. And I just carried that throughout the game.”

Harris, who was one off his Sixers high with 34 points, has said since he arrived before last season’s trade deadline that he flourishes in systems with good ball movement. That’s likely why he’s shot the ball better from three with Simmons on the floor (37.5) than off (29.5).

Simmons leads the NBA in assists on threes whereas with Embiid, his methodical approach in the post can make the offense stagnant at times. With both off the floor, Harris will have to do more to get his own shot.

Brett Brown admitted after Thursday’s game that he’s simplified the offense with his two All-Stars out. Against the Knicks, Harris just attacked mismatches all night, punishing smaller defenders in the post and driving on New York’s bigs.

“With those two out, we'll have to find our identity of how we're going to play,” Harris said. “You saw tonight, we had a lot of just wide-open looks out of the initial pin down action either between Al [Horford] and [Josh Richardson] or Al [Horford] and [Alec] Burks so we got a lot of easy ones going and just were able to go at different mismatches that we felt.”

The trio of Harris, Horford and Richardson struggled in Cleveland, going 12 of 35. They all had bounce-back games of some sort, but it was Harris who likely got the most heat and responded in the biggest way.

Does he feel like it’s his responsibility to carry the team right now because of the large investment the they made on him?

“I would be naive to think there’s not a hint of that,” Brown said. “I think he’s really competitive and if you paid him a nickel or $170 million, I think that you’re going to get a highly competitive player. ... He’s very prideful. That’s why he’s good. 

“He’s trying to do his part obviously to earn his keep, but I think it’s way deeper than that. I think he just wants to be on a winning team for a long time and try to help steer this program to trying to find, at some point, a championship.”

With the fans, there's a sentiment of Harris being overpaid, so not much is made when he hangs 34 on a bad Knicks team. It makes sense. Fans would rather root for an underdog like Shake Milton, who's come out of nowhere to earn important minutes.

Harris has become a leader and a respected player in the Sixers’ locker room. That’s his only concern.

“There's obviously outside noise that comes involved with [signing a big contract],” Harris said. “I always look at it like the only noise that really carries weight for me is noise in our locker room, and with the guys on our team and coaching staff. I truly believe that you can ask every single one of them in the locker room, the value that I bring to this team, on and off the floor, and they will vouch for that. That's the credibility that I go with. ... So I just try to do my job on a daily basis, be a professional every day and go to work.”

With 22 games left and the Sixers trying to claw their way up the East with their All-Stars banged up, Harris will have ample opportunity to show his value to everyone else.

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