Updated: 7:36 p.m.
Brett Brown has never been a big fan of pick-and-rolls. Since taking charge of the Sixers, he’s preferred a motion-heavy, free-flowing offense.
Yet since the arrivals of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the Sixers have used ball screens more frequently and had success using them in a variety of ways. As their recent struggles with late-game execution indicate, it might be smart to turn to them even more often down the stretch of games.
In this film review, we’ll look at the role ball screens play in the Sixers’ offense.
Credit to Jackson Frank for touching on some of these same concepts and plays in this piece for Liberty Ballers.
As opposed to a traditional pick-and-roll, the Sixers like to set ball screens for the purpose of forcing a desirable switch.
Notice how T.J. McConnell catches Russell Westbrook off guard on the play below, securing a favorable matchup for Jimmy Butler against Raymond Felton.
The threat of a ball screen tends to attract attention from the defense, as illustrated by Mike Scott’s dagger three-pointer vs. Orlando.
Scott comes up to set a screen for Butler at the top of the key, but Butler calls him off and waves him over to the left wing. Ben Simmons instead moves in Butler’s direction as if he’s going to give him a screen, which distracts Aaron Gordon and leaves Scott open.
We mentioned “Spain pick-and-rolls” as a new element of Brown’s offense a few weeks ago.
It’s a popular action across the NBA involving three men — a ball handler, an initial screener, and a third guy, typically a shooter, who sets a back screen and then darts up.
Here’s what it looks like, with Butler the ball handler, Joel Embiid the first screener and JJ Redick the second screener.
And here’s an effective example from Saturday involving Simmons, Tobias Harris and Scott. Unlike the version above with Embiid, Harris doesn't roll to the rim — he pops behind the arc on the right wing instead. Kevin Durant has to respect Harris, while Jordan Bell stays attached to Simmons on his drive. When DeMarcus Cousins moves over to help on Simmons, Scott is free for a three.
The Sixers set up like they were going to run a Spain pick-and-roll against the Thunder but simply eliminated the initial screen.
With Oklahoma City anticipating a Butler screen for Simmons first, Redick’s hard back screen for Butler arrived earlier than expected — and it would have gotten the Sixers a basket if Butler had converted an easy one at the rim.
Despite Embiid being sidelined, the Sixers haven’t abandoned a central piece of their offense — dribble handoffs with Redick.
Simmons and Redick have thrived when Simmons is able to push the ball up the court, hand it to Redick and shield off his man.
Since defenses load up for that action, the Sixers have several counters. Redick is excellent at screening for Simmons instead, which often creates confusion among the defense.
On the play below vs. the Magic, Butler sneaks up to set a back screen for Redick on the wing, prior to when a Simmons handoff would usually occur. Redick is actually open off Butler's initial screen, but Simmons gives it to Amir Johnson at the foul line. Redick keeps running, all the way to the unoccupied right corner for a wide-open three.
Given Simmons' size and how difficult he is to guard when he builds up a head of steam, you’d like him to be used more as a roller in the offense, either after setting screens or handing it off to Redick.
Here, as the Sixers swing the ball to Butler in the post following Simmons’ DHO with Redick, Simmons seals off the smaller Westbrook and gets deep position in the post.
The Sixers have the players now to incorporate ball screens in both simple ways, like forcing the defense to switch, and nuanced ways, like variations of Spain pick-and-rolls. As he learns more about this new version of his team and studies their success in these situations, Brown should continue to make ball screens a more prominent part of his offense.
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