76ers

Sixers must clean up problems with pick-and-roll defense before playoffs

Sixers must clean up problems with pick-and-roll defense before playoffs

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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It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

Updated: Tuesday, 5:09 p.m.

We now have a diagnosis on Ben Simmons' injury. Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, a team source confirmed Tuesday to NBC Sports Philadelphia (see story). Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium first reported the news.

Speaking before the Sixers' win Monday night over the Hawks, head coach Brett Brown was unsure how long the injury would sideline Simmons. The 23-year-old sustained the injury at practice Wednesday going up for a rebound, according to Brown, and irritated it in the first quarter of Saturday night’s game against the Bucks.

“I don’t know,” Brown said. “And it really is like how long is a piece of string — who knows? Who knows? … Whatever the time equals on days, games, period of time, we can talk more honestly as this thing shakes out.”

However, it sounded as if Brown was preparing for his two-time All-Star point guard to be out for a while. He framed the situation as one the Sixers can cope with if other players take advantage of the chance to play expanded roles.

There’s 25 games left. … It’s an eternity,” he said. “Just keep going back to the end game. What’s the bottom line? I’ll say it again — if you get their health and their spirit, it’s got a chance to equal form. … And it’s all about landing the plane. And so with 25 games left, we’ve taken a hit with Ben. 

"I do see it this way. I’m not spinning it. It’s an opportunity for us to learn and something will emerge. And we need something to emerge. It’s not like we were all saying, ‘Oh, here it is, it’s anointed.’ It wasn’t that. So, I think we’re going to learn something and find something. If this was six games out, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. When it’s 25 games out, it is, with all my heart, what I think. That’s what I said to the team, that’s what I really think and that’s what I’m going to try to pull off.

Who specifically will take over ball handling duties? Brown said it “will be done by committee” for the time being, and he named a few players who he expects to be in that mix. Monday night, the team started Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. 

“The candidates could be Raul Neto or [Furkan Korkmaz] or Alec Burks or J-Rich, Shake," he said. "So, you have capable people that aren’t traditional point guards but have the ability to get the ball up the floor. Then at that point, you’re probably going to have to be in something that has motion and continuity instead of just giving Chris Paul the ball and saying, ‘Go to work’ out of a pick-and-roll, as an example.”

Regardless of Brown’s attitude, the tangible impact of not having Simmons will clearly be significant. He leads the league in steals, has assisted on the most three-pointers and is a highly athletic, versatile and talented player.

The loss of all those attributes will no doubt be difficult to overcome.

“When there is a vacuum, as there is right now with Ben, something will happen,” Brown said. “Somebody will step up. I’m trying to see the world through those eyes, and I really do — it’s not even creative coach speak. I see it as an opportunity, and I think I need to see it that way.”

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons suffered nerve impingement in lower back

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons suffered nerve impingement in lower back

Ben Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back and will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks, a team source confirmed Tuesday to NBC Sports Philadelphia. Simmons will undergo daily treatment. 

Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium first reported the news. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports “there's little expectation that [Simmons would] be ready to return to lineup that soon,” and says “doctors are hopeful treatment can drive improvement, but Sixers are preparing to play without him." 

According to head coach Brett Brown, Simmons was first injured at the team’s practice last Wednesday. The 23-year-old All-Star missed the team’s first game after the All-Star break, a win Thursday over the Nets. 

“It was a play where he went up for a rebound and I looked over and he left the court, and went and got treatment,” Brown said Thursday. “And it has played out as it has played out. We don’t believe it’s anything too significant.”

Simmons sat out the Sixers’ game vs. the Nets on Thursday and played Saturday in Milwaukee. He appeared to be in discomfort after drawing a foul in the first quarter on the Bucks’ Brook Lopez. The 23-year-old stayed in the game to make 1 of 2 free throws, then exited when Matisse Thybulle committed a foul to create a stoppage of play and ensure Simmons could return to the locker room.

Ahead of the game against the Bucks, Simmons had averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds and a league-best 2.2 steals. He’d played 36.3 minutes per game, most on the Sixers and third-highest in the NBA ahead of Saturday’s games. 

Brown talked before the Sixers’ win Monday over the Hawks as if he was prepared for a long-term absence. He said the team would split up ball handling responsibilities by committee, with Shake Milton, Josh Richardson and Alec Burks among the possible candidates. Milton started on Monday. 

The 36-22 Sixers are fifth in the Eastern Conference and play the Cavaliers on Wednesday night in Cleveland. 

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