76ers

Sixers will hang their hat on defense, but those shooting questions haven't gone away

Sixers will hang their hat on defense, but those shooting questions haven't gone away

It was clear this offseason that GM Elton Brand built the Sixers with a specific idea in mind.

He wanted his team to be a gargantuan defensive bully. The Sixers have bought into it, with just about every player stating the team’s goal of wanting to be the No. 1 defensive outfit in the NBA.

The biggest concern seemed to be their lack of three-point shooting with the departure of JJ Redick. Unfortunately for Brett Brown, his team did little to quell those concerns.

A rough shooting preseason was capped by a 7-for-27 performance in a listless 112-93 loss to the Wizards Friday night (see observations).

When asked about it before the game, Brown thought the storyline was overblown.

“I think it's not as big of a problem as maybe the marketplace does,” Brown said pregame. “I think that we have shooters here. Are they at the standard of JJ Redick? No. But if that's the bar, well, it's pretty high. And so I think as you go through the list of players, although you're not seeing like a high volume, low 40 percent … type of high-volume threes at such a pretty high percentage … you're not seeing that on the roster. But I still have confidence that we have a team that can shoot. Will that be our identity? No. Will it be needed? Yep. But I think that we're a better shooting team than what I sense the marketplace thinks.”

The numbers don’t help Brown here. 

Al Horford and Mike Scott both shot over 40 percent from three. None of the other main rotation players even shot league average — not including Ben Simmons’ immaculate 1 for 1.

Josh Richardson (33.3), Tobias Harris (25), Joel Embiid (22.2), Matisse Thybulle (26.7) and James Ennis (12.5) contributed to the Sixers shooting a paltry 31.7 percent from three this preseason.

Even given those numbers and the especially poor performance Friday, Brown is still standing by his claim.

“I stand by my comment,” Brown said postgame. “I think that we have better shooters than the marketplace believes. Those comments, my comments, aren't well supported when you look at the statistics in the preseason, but I do think that. I still think that and it's stuff that we need to believe in that and not shy away from it. I don't want to at all and we won't shy away from it. I think that the attention that we have given to offensive rebounding may help ease some of those misses if we can do what we hope to do from that perspective. But I think that we have better shooters then we have shown in the preseason.”

Brown does have a point in that aforementioned players have shot much better throughout their NBA careers than they’ve shown through five preseason games.

But it has to be considered a legitimate concern. The Sixers are sort of bucking trends by trotting out their huge, defensive-oriented roster, but they recognize that shooting is still a must.

In the second quarter Friday, the Wizards went to a zone defense. It’s not the first time the Sixers have seen that this preseason and, after how poorly they managed it Friday, it likely won’t be the last. The obvious caveat is that it was a flat performance by the Sixers in general. They definitely had the feel of a team just going through the motions as a date with Boston on opening night looms.

The ball movement at times has been excellent and it’s led to some great looks. To a certain extent, the shots just didn’t fall in the preseason. 

“I think the looks have been good,” Harris said. “I think we'll just continue to find each other's own games and where we want those looks from beyond the arc. It's obviously early too in preseason of games where we've been able to get some good looks. Some of them haven't fallen, but they'll continue to come with time and just us figuring out where each other needs the ball, wants the ball with threes we want to take, and I think the more we hunt the threes, the better off we are to be able to shoot it at a higher percentage.”

The Sixers are going to hang their hats on the defensive end, but they’ll need to shoot at least a little to get where they want to go.

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How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 



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Sixers' turnover issues start with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

Sixers' turnover issues start with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

There’s no other way to slice it: The Sixers’ 119-113 loss to the Wizards Thursday night was ugly (see observations).

Ugly because their defensive effort was poor. Ugly because the Wizards are simply not a very good basketball team. Ugly because it brings their road record to 5-7 on the season.

But mostly ugly because of the 21 turnovers that led to 30 Washington points — 15 of which were committed by the team’s two young All-Stars.

It appeared the Sixers took the lowly Wizards lightly.

“I think we just came in too relaxed,” Ben Simmons told reporters postgame. “Didn’t take care of the ball. Waited too long down the stretch to try to get the game back.”

The Sixers actually came out with a purpose and built a 33-25 after one. Then everything fell apart.

Careless play on both ends tilted the game. On defense, the Sixers lost track of Davis Bertans, one of the better three-point shooters in the league, who hit 5 of 5 from three in the second quarter. They also committed six of their turnovers in what turned out to be a 40-point period for the Wizards.

The Sixers made a push and got the game to within five, but it was too little, too late.

“Terrible,” Tobias Harris said when asked about how the team responded. “We gave them looks. Bertans came out and killed us, especially in the second quarter. We turned the ball over. They got 30 points off our turnovers. That's the name of the game right there. Honestly, you got to give them credit, they made shots, but we couldn't guard them, we couldn't stop them tonight.”

Harris was one of the lone bright spots for the Sixers. He poured in a season-high 33 points and turned the ball over just once.

The biggest issue was the play of Simmons and Joel Embiid. Simmons remains unwilling to shoot and his indecisiveness on drives was a big factor in his seven turnovers. This should’ve been a game that Embiid dominated with Washington’s frontcourt banged up. Instead, he took just 12 shots and turned the ball over eight times.

Embiid expressed frustration over the carelessness with the ball but felt like he was making the proper decisions when passing out of the post.

“My teammates were open,” Embiid said. “Tobias got it going. We went to him a lot and I just do whatever I’m asked to. It doesn’t matter how many shots as long as I make the right plays. It doesn’t matter if I take 12 shots or 20 shots. I’m just doing whatever I’m supposed to, follow the game plan and go from there.”

Turnovers have been an issue since Brett Brown was hired. That’s largely been because of youthful rosters he had and Brown wanting them to get out and run. 

Those excuses are gone now. Brown has said so himself.

As has been the case with the team’s high turnover numbers this season, Simmons and Embiid were the main culprits. They’re high usage players so it’s to be expected to some extent.

But nights like Thursday simply can’t happen.

“Well, we're always trying to help our two young guys,” Brown said. “You're trying to help those guys get better. And it's not going to win anything. It won't win any game that matters, let alone a regular-season game. It's not going to put us in any position where we can close out a game. We have to get better in that area and I got to help them.”

There’s no reason to panic or think the issues aren’t correctable, but the Sixers need to take better care of the basketball.

And it starts with Simmons and Embiid.

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