The Sixers need to clean up their pick-and-roll defense, and with eight games to go before the playoffs, they don’t have a ton of time to do it. 

Communication is still an understandable issue on occasion for “Sixers 3.0,” and it’s most noticeable in pick-and-roll coverage. Tobias Harris and James Ennis successfully execute a switch on the pick-and-roll below between Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon. But when Prince changes direction, their switch back is not nearly sharp enough, resulting in a dunk for Dedmon.

JJ Redick looks like he’s going to fight through John Collins’ screen and stick with Trae Young on this play, but he makes a late decision to switch onto the rolling Collins. Jimmy Butler doesn’t appear to get the message in time.

The most concerning, frequent problem is the Sixers switching far more often than they’d prefer because the ball handler’s man gets caught on top of, behind, or under the screen.

 

That leaves the Sixers with matchups like Joel Embiid on Evan Fournier. 

And Boban Marjanovic on D.J. Augustin.

These sort of switches tend to lead to good looks, even when offenses don’t immediately go at the original mismatch. Notice how Marjanovic finishes this play out behind the three-point line on the right side of the floor, leaving no help at the rim after Fournier beats Mike Scott on the drive.

The above examples can’t be blamed on scheme — they’re all about the ball handler’s defender initially getting beat and putting the Sixers in a position where they have no choice but to switch. 

Marjanovic, though an efficient offensive player and solid rim protector in certain situations, has been picked on often in pick-and-roll situations.

He drops back to help Shake Milton on this play, blocking Augustin’s path to the rim. Marjanovic then winds up in no man’s land, hanging around in the paint. With everyone switching and scrambling around, Marjanovic eventually realizes Terrence Ross is open behind the arc. He asks Milton to jump out to Ross and let him switch back onto Nikola Vucevic far too late. 

In Atlanta, Marjanovic again made a solid play on the initial action to cover for his teammates. Scott and T.J. McConnell both dart toward the middle on Young’s pick-and-roll with Collins, which compels Marjanovic to step back and stop Young from finding Collins on the roll. Unfortunately, Dedmon is trailing the play, and the thought of the biggest player in the NBA sprinting out from the lane to contest his shot is just not realistic. 

 

Though Marjanovic may be especially slow-footed, the fundamental problem of big men getting pulled away from the rim because of a perimeter player’s subpar defense isn’t exclusive to him. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers making a run to the NBA Finals without a collective improvement on that simple, central assignment of staying with your man.

They’ve also struggled with slightly more complex actions, like the “Spain pick-and-roll” Orlando used several times. Harris switches onto Fournier after Butler falls a step behind, which isn’t an issue on the surface — Harris can hang with Fournier much better than someone like Marjanovic or Embiid. But the Magic then have Aaron Gordon set a back screen and pop out behind the arc. Jonah Bolden picks up the rolling Vucevic, but nobody takes Gordon.

The Sixers’ drop coverage has been burned plenty this season by guards like D’Angelo Russell and Collin Sexton knocking down a bunch of long two-point shots. Still, the big man dropping off and giving the ball handler’s defender time to recover and stick with his man is preferable to matchups like Augustin vs. Marjanovic. You can live with a guard attempting a long two or a big man taking a contested three, as Vucevic does here.

What you can’t live with is the ball handler’s man getting beat time after time, forcing constant switching and allowing the defense to systematically attack your weaknesses.

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