76ers

What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

The Sixers’ offense has been a popular topic of late, and that’s understandable as Brett Brown adjusts his offense to try to get the best out of three very different stars.

The defense shouldn’t fly under the radar, however, and it certainly hasn’t with the players and coaches. 

After the Sixers’ loss to the Hawks on Friday night, Brown said it was “disturbing watching our bench guard.”

Ben Simmons said, “I think we were just too soft. We’re not taking it personal enough when guys score on us.”

After finishing last season third in the NBA in defensive rating (103.8), the Sixers are 11th in that category this season with a 108.1 rating. 

The concern about the defense is warranted, likely more than the relative nitpicking about offensive fit (see story).

Let’s look at what’s wrong with the Sixers’ defense and some possible ways to improve it. 

Subpar personnel

In an earlier film review on the team’s pick-and-roll defense, we highlighted that, outside of Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers are lacking above-average defensive players.

That hasn’t changed.

Derrick Rose blew by Landry Shamet on this play from Tuesday night.

Jeremy Lin toasted Furkan Korkmaz, easily driving to the middle for an and-one.

It’s worth mentioning (since it’s fundamental to many of the Sixers’ defensive issues), but there’s no use harping on this fact — the Sixers are a team of mostly below-average defenders. 

Miscommunication 

Besides screens involving Embiid, the Sixers switched on almost every pick at the beginning of the season. As a result, opponents could more easily target mismatches against players like Shamet, Korkmaz or T.J. McConnell.

The Sixers have become more selective about switching, leading to fewer of the blatant mismatches opponents desire, but perhaps more miscommunication now that there isn’t a near-automatic switch on screens involving non-centers.

Atlanta has Kevin Huerter set a ball screen for Trae Young on this play from Friday. Huerter’s man, JJ Redick, switches onto Young, but Korkmaz doesn’t realize Huerter is now his responsibility until it’s far too late, after Dewayne Dedmon sets a back screen to free Huerter for a lob.

Young got the easiest basket of his NBA career a little over a minute later. It’s unclear what McConnell and Wilson Chandler had in mind on their coverage of the pick-and-roll between Young and John Collins, but it wasn’t this. 

Our best guess, based on McConnell’s animated reaction, is that McConnell was expecting some sort of help from Chandler — perhaps he thought Chandler was going to hedge the screen, given the way the veteran initially slid up to Young’s right.

On a separate note, Simmons’ feint as if he was going to protect the rim and ultimate decision to hover in between the driving Young and Dedmon in the corner is perplexing.

The play is a strong contender for the Sixers’ worst defensive sequence of the season, and a good illustration of the team’s issues with communication in a scheme that no longer switches by near-default. 

Effort 

It’s unrealistic to expect perfect effort in the middle of the regular season. Still, a team with the Sixers’ deficiencies in terms of defensive personnel is likely going to struggle without consistent effort.

Simmons’ defensive effort was questionable on a few plays vs. Atlanta.

In the example below, his teammates recover well to pick up a man in transition. Simmons is late to identify Huerter as the player he should guard and he doesn’t bother to put a hand up on a half-hearted closeout. 

Jeff Teague beat Simmons down the floor after a dead-ball turnover by the Sixers and, despite Simmons’ request for help, nobody provided it, giving Teague a wide-open lane.

A new rotation? 

In the Sixers’ 42-point demolition of the Timberwolves on Tuesday, Brown might have found a way to get more out of the personnel he currently has.

Brown used rookie Jonah Bolden as a backup center, and he was encouraged by what he saw from Bolden anchoring the defense when Embiid was off the floor.

He’s got a bounce. … And he can do some things at the rim — he’s not afraid of making tough plays, and he’s able to make tough plays. Using him as a backup five and letting [Mike] Muscala play more of a four and then sliding Wilson [Chandler] down to a three, I think it’s a good look.

You can pencil Bolden in for a bad, overzealous foul or two just about every game, but his defensive tools jump out on tape. 

He can hang with players on the perimeter incredibly well for somebody who is 6-foot-10, and he has good instincts as a shot blocker.

His length and athleticism allow him to recover when he’s caught leaning in the wrong direction, like on the play below vs. Dario Saric.

And he protects the rim well even when he’s not blocking shots. Here, Bolden cleans up Shamet’s mistake, sliding with DeAndre’ Bembry and forcing him into a difficult attempt.

With Bolden, the stats — albeit in a small, 257-minute sample size — back up the eye test. His 99.1 defensive rating is the best on the Sixers. 

The Sixers’ defensive issues are deeper than their backup center, but tweaking the rotation to have Bolden at the five behind Embiid could alleviate some of the problems with the team’s defense when Embiid sits. 

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Sixers weekly observations: There's a snarling competitor under Joel Embiid's big smile

Sixers weekly observations: There's a snarling competitor under Joel Embiid's big smile

Joel Embiid is getting ready to start in his second straight All-Star Game, Ben Simmons is set to play in his first, and we have a fresh set of weekly observations to tide you over during this limbo without competitive basketball. 

• The playfulness and social media exploits sometimes obscure the fact that Joel Embiid competes.

Sure, he has off nights, but Embiid’s consistent effort, for a man of his size, is commendable. He’s played 54 games this season and scored in double-figures in all of them, with double-doubles in all but six.

It sounds basic enough — of course stars should play hard every night — but it’s not the reality of the NBA. Especially given his immense defensive responsibilities, you can’t begrudge Embiid the occasional “load management” day. In all honesty, he probably needs more. No disrespect to Boban Marjanovic and Jonah Bolden, but there’s a big drop-off at center when Embiid is out. Though he might not be the MVP, Embiid is up there in the literal sense of being most valuable to his team. 

His decision to lean into the microphone and end his press conference after another Sixers’ loss to the Celtics with, “The referees f------ sucked” wasn’t the most mature outlet for his frustration, but it was another sign of his snarling competitiveness. 

Embiid, though, is the rare superstar who usually has a smile in testy moments.

His comments after the Sixers’ blowout win over the Rockets on Jan. 22, in which he and James Harden each picked up technical fouls following a combative exchange in the second quarter, come to mind.

I was just walking back to my basket and I think [Harden] pushed my leg and naturally I’m going to react, and I did. We both got technical fouls and we move on. To me, I’m having fun. I’m always having fun and a lot of guys take it seriously. Especially when it comes to that, we just had one guy our last game that was acting crazy. But it’s fun to me. I love it. 

That guy who Embiid referred to as “acting crazy,” Russell Westbrook, is now his teammate on Team Giannis in the All-Star Game. It should be an interesting night, as should Feb. 28, when the Sixers play the Thunder in Oklahoma City. 

Lingering questions

The Sixers fell to the Celtics in the playoffs last season for plenty of reasons, among them an inability to take care of the ball, Simmons’ struggles, exemplary defense by Al Horford and Aron Baynes on Embiid, and Boston’s guards capitalizing on mismatches.

While the Sixers might be lucky enough to avoid the Celtics in the postseason, those are all issues which still be addressed. To Brett Brown and company’s credit, you sense they’re closer to having answers.

Simmons has gone from a subpar post player to one of the most efficient in the league, and he didn’t have a bad game last time out against Boston, with 16 points on 7 for 9 shooting, five assists, five rebounds and two steals. His free throw shooting (2 for 7 Tuesday vs. the Celtics) is still a concern.

Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris should remove some of the pressure on Embiid to dominate offensively every single game in a series. That said, sharper decision-making against double-teams by Embiid and, perhaps, creative movement around Embiid in the post — as opposed to standing around and watching him work — would be helpful.

Since the Butler trade, the Sixers are 26th in the NBA in turnovers (15.2 per game) and 22nd in turnover percentage (14.8 percent). Those numbers mean little out of context. When turnovers occur in the playoffs — ideally not in bunches, and not of the careless, unforced variety — is more important. 

And finally, you’d expect Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis and Mike Scott will boost the Sixers’ playoff defense, or at least make the team less vulnerable to mismatches. 

But 24 games isn’t much time to juggle experimentation and jostling for playoff positioning. It should be fun, at least for Joel Embiid. 

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NBA All-Stars rave about new-look Sixers

NBA All-Stars rave about new-look Sixers

It’s All-Star Weekend, so we thought we would find out about what fellow All-Stars and other players think about your new-look Sixers.

And let’s just say, this should make Sixers fans feel pretty good ...

“They’re different. Obviously, they’ve been good, but they added more depth, more athleticism, more scoring, more star power, and you look at that starting lineup and it’s really good, and you’ve got TJ (McConnell) coming off the bench with James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons, so it gives you some athleticism coming off the bench. They are up there.” — James Harden

“Big. Long. Athletic. It will be interesting to see how much better they can get, adding Tobias Harris and those guys, because they have already shown they can be one of the top teams in the East, so with those new additions, I think the sky is the limit for them. It’s going to be fun to watch.” — Mike Conley

 “When you have four guys that are really All-Stars on a team, and then a bunch of other guys around them that can play really well, it makes it interesting to see how it’s going to work out. It makes them tough.” — Danny Green, who also said Tobias Harris should’ve been an All-Star

“Right now they are extremely dangerous, need a little bit more time to play together, but they can match (anybody in the) world.” — Nikola Jokic

“Tough ... they are probably in the talks to win the championships, for sure.” — Luka Doncic

“They’re a super, super talented team … We’ve got a good rivalry going, they are super competitive, we are very familiar with them, and they are very familiar with us. Lot of trash talking out there, that’s what makes basketball super fun, when you’re super competitive like that and everyone is watching.” — Jayson Tatum

 “All the players they have, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler now, and also got JJ Redick as a shooter and now they just incorporated Tobias. They’re going to have to get their chemistry together with him. They are just going to be a totally different team.” — Kawhi Leonard

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