Sixers film review

The Sixers' pick-and-roll defense and how Al Horford makes it better — with insight from Al Horford

The Sixers' pick-and-roll defense and how Al Horford makes it better — with insight from Al Horford

In a “backup center,” the Sixers could do a lot worse than Al Horford. The 13-year veteran is an improvement across the board over the Sixers’ backup fives last season.

His pick-and-roll defense is one of the most valuable ways in which he’s an upgrade. We got some insight from Horford on how he and the Sixers approach pick-and-roll defense, and we already have plenty of evidence how Horford helps in that area.

'Force the ball off the screen'  

The Sixers have a variety of pick-and-roll coverages in their back pocket, but Horford explained their core principles in simple terms.

“I think the biggest thing is just communicating, making sure that it’s the big man, the ones who are looking at everything and communicating to the guards,” Horford told NBC Sports Philadelphia before the team’s preseason finale. “And then once we alert them, it’s important for the guards to be able to get up onto the ball and force the ball off the screen.”

The aggressive objective of “forcing the ball off the screen” is often difficult to achieve. Matisse Thybulle does it well on the play below, with the help of early communication from Horford, stepping on top of Robert Williams’ screen and staying attached to Kemba Walker.

When the guard falls a half step behind in his effort to fight over the screen, the Sixers encourage “rearview contests.” Though Luke Kennard gets in front of Thybulle, the rookie effectively makes his presence felt from behind.

A well-honed feel 

On both of the plays above, Horford drops into what assistant coach Ime Udoka calls “center field,” which still seems to be at the heart of the team’s pick-and-roll coverage. When watching Horford defend the pick-and-roll, you notice his nuanced sense for how far to drop — and when to do so. 

The more familiar you get with different guys throughout the league, you know their tendencies,” he said. “We’ve watched a lot of film and I have a good sense of how far I need to be up, how much I need to be back. Usually coaches do a good job of preparing us and letting us know. But it’s just a feel in the game. It’s kind of to your discretion.

In the play below from the Sixers’ game against the Pistons, Ben Simmons is buried by Thon Maker’s screen. Horford drops a few steps into the paint initially in response to Simmons falling out of the play, but it’s not a panicked backpedal. He maintains his balance and doesn’t give up more ground than he has to, tightly contesting Tony Snell’s runner.

This next example is similar to one that hurt the Sixers on many occasions last season, with the guard — James Ennis, in this case — falling out of the play and allowing the ball handler an open mid-range jumper.

The subtle difference, however, is Horford has the skill in those spots to at least contest Brad Wanamaker’s shot, even if he can’t truly put a hand in his face. It’s the best Horford can do in this situation when the guard badly loses the first battle. 

When Horford drops back into “center field,” his main goal is frequently just to buy his guard some time to recover. He gives Josh Richardson a chance to make an excellent “rearview” block on Gordon Hayward here, at first stepping up above the foul line to deter Hayward, then falling back to take Daniel Theis on the roll when Richardson has worked his way back into the picture.

Temporary 2-on-1s 

The result of a Sixers guard being soundly beaten by a ball screen is typically a 2-on-1 for the opponent, at least temporarily. Horford is strong at coping when such a moment occurs.

He positions himself in the right spot during the sequence below, staying in front of Tim Frazier while simultaneously blocking Andre Drummond’s path for a roll to the rim. Drummond catching the ball nine or 10 feet from the hoop with Horford on top of him does not pose a serious threat to the Sixers. 

Two-on-ones are, of course, not ideal for the defense. Frazier accelerates off Drummond’s screen here, which seems to catch Richardson by surprise, and Drummond rolls hard to the rim. Fouling a career 54 percent free throw shooter is not the worst result for the Sixers, given the circumstances.

Not a preference ... but not a last resort, either 

Udoka has noted he thinks highly of Horford and Embiid’s ability to switch, but Horford was clear in saying that’s not the heart of the Sixers’ approach.

“I think that to our preference, we probably want to keep our matchups, even though we can switch — at least that’s what Coach has expressed to us,” he said. “We’ll do it how he wants us to do it, and if for some reason we need to make adjustments throughout the game, we will.”

Horford’s defense at the end of the first half of the Sixers’ regular-season opener shows why the team is confident in him switching. He comes up high on a pick-and-roll between Walker and Marcus Smart, then the Sixers make the late call to switch. Horford does a decent job hanging with the three-time All-Star, and it sure helps to have Embiid behind him in the paint.

Having the foot speed not to get obliterated on a switch, knowing how to survive in the second or two when his guard is out of the play, using fouls in the appropriate moments — none of these are flashy qualities. They're all skills Horford possesses, though, and reasons the Sixers can feel good about asking their guards to defend pick-and-rolls aggressively. 

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Josh Richardson film review: What Sixers' shifty shooting guard brings to the table

Josh Richardson film review: What Sixers' shifty shooting guard brings to the table

At 6-foot-6, Josh Richardson will be the smallest player in the Sixers’ starting lineup.

Before he begins his first season in Philadelphia, let’s look at what he brings to the table:

Defense: A fluid athlete 

Richardson is excellent at tailing shooters like JJ Redick, moving fluidly and staying attached well on screens and dribble handoffs. 

The 26-year-old made an impressive transition from a quick, controlled close out on the play below to sliding with Redick on his drive to the rim and swatting the veteran’s shot. It’s a nice combination of defensive fundamentals and high-level athleticism. 

Defense is clearly a part of the game Richardson values. You have to love the hustle here to chase down Joel Embiid, gobbling up ground to force the steal.

There are, however, odd occasions when Richardson has lapses in effort or allows himself to fade from the picture. The sequence below was a poor one as the Tennessee product’s careless pass bled into him getting beat back door by Furkan Korkmaz.

Just about every player has moments like this, but the Sixers will hope Richardson is just a touch more consistently engaged and active now that he’s on a contender. 

Offense: A shifty shooter 

Richardson’s instincts for how and when to find space off the ball are strong. He made a savvy shift from slow jog to sharp sprint toward the ball on this play from Feb. 21. 

That shiftiness is one of his standout skills. Tobias Harris and Redick botched the Sixers’ defensive coverage on the play below, but note Richardson’s quick curl around Derrick Jones Jr.’s screen, and his burst to the basket before Redick is ready.  

Richardson could, in some ways, fill Redick’s offensive role as a constant mover and outside shooter. His three-point shooting is not at Redick’s level (35.7 percent from long range on 6.3 attempts per game last year) but, after snaking around screens, he has more options than Redick, who’s not much of a threat to do anything besides shoot from long distance.

If he was in Richardson’s spot, Redick would typically curl up from the baseline and around Kelly Olynyk at the left elbow extended on that play. For all his strengths, Redick is not a player who, like the Sixers’ new shooting guard, can dart into the middle of the paint and hit a fadeaway jumper.

Though capable of beating his man and penetrating, Richardson isn’t great at creating separation against bigger players or making plays through contact. Ben Simmons swallowed him up on this play.

It’s fortunate for Richardson and the Sixers that he’ll be the team’s smallest starter. Surrounded by bigger (and better) players than when he was with the Heat, Richardson should see more favorable matchups as opposing defenses have to dedicate size to his gargantuan teammates. 

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Al Horford film review: Breaking down the big man's many strengths and a fair concern

Al Horford film review: Breaking down the big man's many strengths and a fair concern

Two-time national champion, five-time All-Star, playoff regular and ultimate professional — you likely are familiar with the outline of Al Horford’s long resume. He’s a Sixer now, which remains an odd sentence to write.

Before his first season with his new team, let’s look at the ways in which Horford can help the Sixers and how he can be best used.

Offense: A man of many strengths 

Watching Horford’s four matchups vs. the Sixers last season again, the skill that jumped out most was his passing. He has both the ability to anticipate defensive rotations and adapt to the play unfolding in front of him.

The sequence below illustrates those skills. Horford gains position in the post against T.J. McConnell, which prompts Jimmy Butler to sprint across the floor to double team Horford. The simple, solid read would be to sense Butler’s double team and fire it to the man he was guarding in the left corner, Gordon Hayward. Horford, though, sees Mike Scott rotate over to pick up Hayward, keeps his composure and finds the unguarded Marcus Morris.

Last season, Horford had a 24.7 assist ratio, second among centers who averaged at least 25 minutes a game, per — Nikola Jokic was first.

Horford’s pick-and-pop prowess also stands out on film. He has a good sense of timing on his screens and has a veteran’s knack for getting away with a decent amount of upper-body contact.

If an open jumper isn’t available off the pick-and-pop, Horford becomes a threat as a playmaker. 

On this play from last Christmas, Horford effectively screens JJ Redick and Kyrie Irving drives right. Joel Embiid makes the late call to have Redick switch on to Horford, which leaves the Sixers' defense slightly off balance. Horford drives hard to the left and draws help from Wilson Chandler, then hits Morris in the corner with an excellent pass.

Though he won’t wow you with advanced dribble moves or lightning speed, Horford can spark the offense in a variety of ways.

He can guard a center and grab a defensive rebound, bring it up the floor, initiate the offense and finish it all off by swishing a jumper.

Horford is not going to slow the Sixers’ offense down, even at 33 years old. If anything, he seems well suited to running with Ben Simmons and executing quick dribble handoffs like the one in the play above, both as the ball handler and as the man receiving the handoff. 

There are a lot of other things Horford does well offensively, including his outside shooting. He shot 38.2 percent from three-point range on 3.2 attempts per game over his three seasons in Boston. Horford won’t single-handedly replace JJ Redick’s shooting, but he’s someone who can take and make important three-point shots late in games.

Playing at power forward next to Embiid, Horford should thrive at times in the post. Though Brett Brown might be wise to isolate Horford down low against certain matchups and spread the floor with outlets that Horford can find in case of a double team, Horford often won’t need a set play. 

He identifies his advantage, takes his time and scores on Tobias Harris on this play from Feb. 12. The Sixers will aim to find a balance between feeding Embiid in the post and giving Horford the freedom to capitalize on these type of opportunities.

When Embiid sits and Horford takes over at center, Horford will typically have a quickness edge on his matchup. His skill as a shooter forces centers to stretch behind the arc to defend him. For big men like Amir Johnson, that tends to be a problem. 

Defense: Inside ability, a perimeter concern

Sixers fans know all about Horford’s interior defense. The concepts of anticipating favored moves and holding your ground without fouling sound easy enough, but few players could do both against Embiid.

Note how Horford sticks his chest in Embiid’s air space while keeping his hands away from trouble when Embiid searches for contact on the two plays below.

Whether Horford can guard certain power forwards on the perimeter is a fair concern, and you’d figure it’s a matchup many teams will target against the Sixers’ gargantuan starting lineup

Harris gets the better of Horford on the play below, clearing out a side of the floor and driving by him to the rim.

Horford should often have Embiid behind him protecting the rim in such situations, giving him some formidable insurance. 

In the pick-and-roll, Horford will be a major upgrade over any backup center option the Sixers had in 2018-19.

With Jaylen Brown caught on top of Boban Marjanovic’s screen here, Horford drops back to corral Harris without sagging too far. He funnels Harris into the type of long, contested two-point shot that the Sixers’ defense wants opponents to take. 

The Sixers will have some interesting scheme decisions to make regarding their pick-and-roll defense when Horford is at power forward. Switching automatically one through three, dropping Embiid on pick-and-rolls that involve the five and allowing Horford to call out his own coverage is one option that could be sensible against many teams. 

Horford will, of course, need to learn the Sixers’ defensive principles and terminology, but having a very intelligent player helping to dictate the team’s pick-and-roll defense is an idea that makes sense on its face. 

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