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Sixers film review: The Sixers' struggles with pick-and-roll defense

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Sixers film review: The Sixers' struggles with pick-and-roll defense

If you've played the Sixers this season and you’re a guard, the chances you had your best game of the season are not low. Evan Fournier (31 points on Oct. 20); Mike Conley (32 on Nov. 10); Kemba Walker (60 on Nov. 17); and D’Angelo Russell (38 on Wednesday) all have had season-highs in scoring against the Sixers.

The Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense has contributed to that success.

Let’s look at why the Sixers have struggled defending the pick-and-roll and the adjustments they need to make.

Taking ‘drop’ coverage a step too far

In drop pick-and-roll coverage, the screener’s man drops back to help contain the ball handler. The Sixers usually go with this coverage when Joel Embiid is involved in a pick-and-roll.

Before the Sixers’ win over the Knicks on Wednesday, Brett Brown explained the thinking behind that approach.

“Long before analytics told us about the three-point shot, pick-and-roll defense kept coaches up,” Brown said. “It hasn’t changed. When you really get back to the notion of what are you prepared to die on? It’s as simple as a long, contested two."

While funneling opponents into long two-point shots is a sensible philosophy, the Sixers' drop coverage hasn’t produced many of those shots. That’s because Embiid often drops too far, as you can see in the play below from Friday’s loss to the Cavs.

Embiid has sometimes dropped all the way back into the paint, allowing the ball handler to build momentum and find his way to the rim. On the play below against the Nets, T.J. McConnell gets sealed off by Jarrett Allen’s screen. Embiid keeps dropping further and further back, then makes the late decision to stick with Allen. The result is an easy floater for Russell.

Opponents exploiting subpar defenders

Outside of Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, the Sixers don’t have many above-average defenders to speak of. The Sixers have typically switched on pick-and-rolls that don’t involve Embiid, which has made it easy for opponents to target favorable matchups.

The Cavs were able to get Collin Sexton one-one vs. Amir Johnson on the play below — not a good matchup for the Sixers.

In this example, Cleveland puts Cedi Osman on an island against rookie Landry Shamet, who at this stage doesn’t have the strength or quickness to hang with most NBA guards.

Switching one through four on most pick-and-rolls simply doesn’t suit the Sixers’ personnel. Many of their defenders are below-average guarding one position, let alone four.

Growing pains

The Sixers have had to make more adjustments than most teams in their first 23 games.

Assistant coach Billy Lange took control of the defense this season, a role current Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce previously held. Along with Lange’s new concepts, the Sixers have had to learn how to play with Jimmy Butler, and without Dario Saric and Robert Covington. The occasional ineffective game plan or miscommunication is inevitable.

Shamet was blindsided by Allen’s screen on the play below, leaving the Sixers’ defense in a scrambled state. While Shamet should have done a better job recognizing the screen, you’d expect Mike Muscala to let him know it’s coming.

On this play, another new acquisition, Wilson Chandler, was a step slow in defending the pick-and-roll with T.J. McConnell. Chandler, who is guarding Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, initially moves up as if he’s going to hedge the screen (jump out to the ball handler) and recover to his man. But if Chandler is planning to hedge, he never gets the chance. Russell threads a pocket pass to Hollis-Jefferson, who finishes in the paint.

That’s not a blatant miscommunication, but it’s a good example of two teammates who haven’t defended many pick-and-rolls together. With more reps, the decision-making should be sharper, and the communication more precise.

Tip your cap

On some occasions, the Sixers have played good pick-and-roll defense and just been beaten by better offense.

The Sixers would have been happy with the job Embiid did hedging hard and recovering on this pick-and-roll between Rodney Hood and Tristan Thompson. If an opponent keeps making these kind of contested jumpers, there’s not much you can do.

Blitzing

Against the Nets, Brown and Lange recognized that Brooklyn was killing the Sixers in the pick-and-roll. They decided to switch things up.

“In the fourth period, because D’Angelo was that good and things seemed quite easy for him, we had to make an aggressive adjustment,” Brown told reporters. “We chose to blitz and I thought that changed the game for us defensively.”

On a “blitz,” the defense sends a hard double-team at the ball handler. It’s a risky approach, since one or two smart passes can dissect the defense.

Here, Butler and Chandler blitz Russell, who has no problem finding an open Joe Harris. Luckily for the Sixers, Harris misses the three-pointer.

That play illustrates why many teams are averse to blitzing. Yet, when executed well, blitzing the pick-and-roll can be an effective option.

Below, you can see Muscala and Butler blitz Spencer Dinwiddie. Though Dinwiddie hits Hollis-Jefferson, the Sixers’ rotations are excellent. Shamet slides over to pick up Hollis-Jefferson, Muscala takes Harris, and Simmons moves over to Russell. When Hollis-Jefferson tries to force a pass to Russell, the Sixers create a turnover.

More often than not, blitzes worked for the Sixers against the Nets in the fourth quarter, when Brooklyn only scored 23 points.

“Perhaps we can do more with the blitz from time to time and not be a steady diet of that,” Brown said. “You cannot just live in that; it’s not realistic. Perhaps we learned something, that we can do that more than we thought we could.”

Given the Sixers’ lack of capable, switch-friendly defenders, and given the way opposing guards have torched them when Embiid drops excessively deep on pick-and-rolls, more blitzing would be a smart option.

The Sixers can only work with the personnel they have, but having Embiid drop less drastically, and adjusting so that teams can’t isolate the Sixers’ subpar defenders against skilled scorers at will can improve the team's pick-and-roll defense, and minimize the number of huge scoring nights from opponents.

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NBA trade deadline: 6 trade targets for the Sixers

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NBA trade deadline: 6 trade targets for the Sixers

We've reached Dec. 15, a significant date in the NBA calendar. It's the first day that most players who signed this summer are eligible to be traded

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick look at six players who might make sense for the Sixers to target. The trade deadline is Feb. 6. 

Josh Hart, G/F

Most basketball fans in Philadelphia will be familiar with the name. Hart had an impressive career at Villanova, helping the Wildcats to a national championship. After starting his career with the Lakers, he was part of the Anthony Davis trade and wound up in New Orleans. With a Brandon Ingram extension likely, it would be a cost-cutting move for the Pelicans

Hart can do a little bit of everything. He’s athletic, has a decent handle, is a strong rebounder at 6-foot-5 (7.8 per 36 minutes) and is shooting the ball decently (36.5 percent on 6.1 attempts). He’s still just 24 so it’s reasonable to suggest he could get better — especially if he’s surrounded by players like the Sixers’. His defensive versatility and ability to hit shots are likely the most attractive qualities he has.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, G

The 2014 first-round pick is playing some of the best basketball of his young career over the last few weeks. He can create off the dribble and navigate pick-and-rolls well as a ball handler and is even better moving off the ball. While the jumper will stand out (38.6 percent on 6.9 attempts a game), he’s also an excellent passer, averaging 3.9 assists a night.

The defensive end is where you worry about Bogdanovic, but there are signs he may be improving in that regard. He has good length at 6-foot-6 and decent feet. With the Sixers’ defensive prowess, it could help mitigate those concerns. 

So, why could such a useful player be available? Money and fit. Multiple players on the Kings have gotten paid and De’Aaron Fox is up next. With Fox and Buddy Hield, it's hard to see his long-term fit.

Alec Burks, G/F

As a low-risk/high-reward signing, Burks was expected to add a scoring punch to the Warriors’ bench as they looked to cost effectively retool their roster. Instead, Golden State has been crushed by injuries and finds itself with the worst record in the NBA. Burks has been solid in stepping up into a larger role. He looks recovered from the injuries that plagued him over the last several seasons.

Still just 28, Burks can flat out score. He hasn’t been the most efficient player (43.2 percent from the floor, 35.7 from three), but just has a knack for creating and scoring — not skills prevalent on the Sixers’ roster. Though it’s not the sexiest skillset in today’s NBA, Burks excels in the midrange and is an excellent free throw shooter (89.7 percent). Like Bogdanovic, Burks isn’t the best defender, but offers good size and length.

Davis Bertans, F

Bertans was involved in a complicated situation during free agency in which he was dealt from the Spurs to the Wizards with the understanding that San Antonio would then sign Marcus Morris. At the last minute, Morris reneged on his agreement and decided to sign with the Knicks. 

“That was an unfortunate situation that was handled unprofessionally on a couple of different levels,” Gregg Popovich told reporters in September. “We made that move to make the signing that we did and got blindsided. Davis was a special player, as we all know. He’s young and getting better and better. We hated losing him.”

In his fourth NBA season, the Latvian forward is having an elite shooting year. He’s averaging 15.7 points per game, is ninth in three-point percentage among players with at least 45 attempts (45.6 percent) and is 12th in three-point shots taken per game (8.5).

Outside shooting hasn’t been a significant problem for the Sixers, at least in terms of efficiency — they’re hitting 37 percent from three. Bertans, though, would provide some of the off-ball movement, respect from opposing defenses and ability to hit tightly contested jumpers that the Sixers lost in JJ Redick. 

Bertans’ salary for this year is $7 million, and he’ll be a free agent after the season.

Jordan Clarkson, G

According to SI.com’s Sam Amcico, the Sixers are “supposedly among those with interest” in Clarkson.

The 27-year-old Clarkson is averaging 14.3 points and 2.5 assists in 22.6 minutes per game for the 6-20 Cavs. He’d be able to give the Sixers scoring and shot creation off the bench.

However, it seems like it would be difficult for Elton Brand to acquire Clarkson for an appropriate price because the 6-foot-4 guard has a salary of close to $13.5 million for 2019-20.

Langston Galloway, G

Galloway, the No. 2 scorer in St. Joe’s history, could be a decent fit with the Sixers.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press reported during the preseason that the Pistons were “very open” to trading Galloway

Through the Pistons’ first 26 games, Galloway, who’s in the final season of a three-year, $21 million contract, has boosted his value a bit. He's averaging career highs in points (11.9), field goal percentage (44.8) and three-point percentage (42.9). 

“Langston is a pro," Pistons head coach Dwane Casey said, per The Athletic's James L. Edwards III. "He’s a security blanket. He’s always doing the right thing, whether he makes a shot or misses a shot. He’s always making the right play. The other side of Langston (is) his defensive ability. If you notice, we put him on the hot players because he’s a tough guy, he’s consistent and persistent. His shooting is the ultimate crown on top.”

Sounds like someone who could help a contender.

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Sixers at Nets: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers at Nets: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 5:02 p.m.

The 20-7 Sixers, winners of five in a row and 13 of their last 15, will be shorthanded for Sunday night's game against the 13-12 Nets.

Below are the essentials:

When: 6 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 5:45 p.m.
Where: Barclays Center 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia 
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

As 1 big returns, another is out

Joel Embiid is out because of an upper respiratory illness, while Al Horford will play. The veteran big has been dealing with left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s caused him to miss the past two games.

Embiid played 31 minutes Friday vs. the Pelicans, right around his season average, and has missed five of the Sixers’ first 27 games because of injuries, load management and a two-game suspension for an Oct. 30 fight with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns. The Sixers have a 3-2 record without Embiid. 

Norvel Pelle would seem well positioned to again receive meaningful minutes. The 26-year-old was Embiid’s main backup Friday and had a real impact in his 12 minutes (see story). 

‘Honestly, I liked that they fouled’ 

The final few minutes of the Sixers’ win over the Pelicans were laborious, and one reason why is that New Orleans had early success with intentionally fouling Ben Simmons. The Australian missed three of his first four attempts after the Pelicans turned to the “Hack-a-Simmons” strategy.

“My belief is he's going to have to go through some of that to get where we want to deliver him,” Brett Brown said. 

Simmons, who’s shooting 58.3 percent on free throws this year, made his final four foul shots vs. New Orleans. When the Sixers hold a lead late in the game, it’s an approach they very well may continue to see.

“Honestly, I liked that they fouled,” Tobias Harris said. "I think it’s good in these type of situations for him to get used to that, because come playoff time if a team decides to do that, we can’t afford to take him out of the game. ... If teams decide to do that he’ll be confident enough to be able to knock those shots down and we’ll need that, especially when we’re talking long term, down the road.” 

Not satisfied 

Though the Sixers are now the only NBA team that’s undefeated at home, they were far from thrilled after beating the Pelicans. 

Harris said he thought there was “a little bit of contentment.”

Embiid acknowledged the team wasn’t as engaged as it had been Thursday in Boston.

“I think we should bring the same intensity every game,” he said. “We didn’t do that tonight. Last night you could tell we were more focused than tonight. It happens — back-to-back, guys are tired. But you’ve still gotta take care of business, and we got that win.”

The Sixers’ lapses in effort and defensive execution didn’t cost them, in part because they only turned it over nine times. It also helped that Simmons, Harris and Embiid all scored 20 or more points as teammates in the same game for the first time

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