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.
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.
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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