How has Sixers' top-rated defense been so good? Is this sustainable?


The Sixers believed last season that a big, talented defense would pave their path to contention. It didn’t quite work out that way, of course, as the team finished with the NBA’s eighth-rated defense and fell short of expectations on many fronts.

Their defense likely received less hype entering this season, but it’s been the best part of the team with the NBA’s best record so far at 6-1.

Below are a few statistics that illustrate the Sixers’ high-quality defense through seven games, from Cleaning the Glass (which factors out garbage time): 

  • No. 1 in defensive rating (100.5)
  • No. 1 in opponents’ effective field goal percentage (48.9 percent)
  • No. 7 in opponents’ free throw rate (17.0)
  • No. 10 in opponents’ turnover percentage (15.6 percent)

It’s taken little time for the team to adjust to a new coaching staff that includes defensive coordinator Dan Burke, a well-regarded Pacers assistant for over two decades who headed to Philadelphia this offseason.

“I think where my confidence comes right now, even though we’re scoring a lot of points, is on the defensive end,” head coach Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ win Monday over the Hornets. “We have exhibited an ability to get multiple stops, get four or five stops in a row, and when we do that, we get in transition. I think we’re getting great confidence earlier than I thought we would. I love where we’re at in that department. I think our guys are thinking it, and so that’s probably the part that I enjoy the most.”


Under Rivers and Burke, a key difference has been enhanced aggressiveness in pick-and-roll coverage. While Joel Embiid said during training camp that playing “up to touch” sometimes puts him in a “bad spot,” he’s taken to it well. The Sixers certainly haven’t eliminated drop coverage, but there’s been greater variety in the team’s approach, as well as a frequent willingness to tweak schemes to address opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. If the Sixers think something besides drop coverage can deter a good pull-up shooter or unsettle a shaky decision-maker, it appears they’re happy to slide Embiid up near or even beyond the three-point line. 

Pick-and-roll ball handlers are producing only 0.67 points per possession against the Sixers. All available history tells us that figure probably isn’t sustainable, but it’s presently second-best in the league and one indication that the adjustments with Embiid in pick-and-roll defense are working. Roll men are managing 0.96 points against the Sixers, 10th in the NBA, which suggests the team’s aggression isn’t leading to many easy opportunities for big men either. 

“It’s going good,” Embiid said. “I always tell them, I might not stuff the stat sheet when it comes to blocks and stuff … but my job is — especially since I want to be the Defensive Player of the Year — my job is to make sure no one drives in the paint and they don’t get anything easy. By me coming up or by me staying down there and protecting the rim, that’s all I’ve got to do. We’ve been doing a great job.

“I think whenever I’m on the court, I just try to do my best, and we’ve been doing great. It’s been working well, and I think so far we have the best defense in the league. And that’s where we want to end up at the end of the year. That’s going to help us a lot, especially when we get to playoff time.”

Embiid and Dwight Howard have indeed combined to guard the interior very well. Opponents are shooting 54.3 percent against the Sixers at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, the lowest mark in the NBA. And, despite Embiid’s accurate claim that traditional box score numbers don’t reflect his full defensive impact, he’s averaging 1.7 of the Sixers’ NBA-leading 7.3 blocks per game. 

The Sixers are less focused now on preventing three-point attempts, a priority under the previous regime. They’re currently eighth in opponent three-point frequency, according to Cleaning the Glass, after finishing last year second. It’s not as if the team has eschewed the notion that strong defense against the most valuable shot in basketball matters — that would be an uncharacteristic stance from a Daryl Morey team — but there’s less fixation on the three.


Whereas the Raptors, Heat and Bucks gave up the highest proportion of three-point attempts last year, emphasizing at-the-rim defense instead, the Sixers seem to be approaching defense holistically. The team doesn’t want to spend too many resources in one area or have a glaring flaw. 

That vision is easier to execute when you have All-Defensive Team talents in Embiid and Ben Simmons. Excellent effort can clean up many of the mistakes bound to coincide with a new team and a short offseason, too.

On a second-quarter possession Monday night, the Sixers survived Simmons allowing PJ Washington to drive past him to the rim, as well as Matisse Thybulle making an empty swipe at the ball and leaving Devonte’ Graham unguarded. How? Dwight Howard recognized Washington’s drive was clearly a more pressing threat than Jalen McDaniels beyond the arc, rotating down to help Simmons and force Washington to pass. After Thybulle’s gamble, Simmons then identified his teammate's error, picked up Graham at the foul line and watched him miss a late-shot clock fadeaway jumper.

If those sorts of sequences remain common throughout the season, the Sixers should have the ability to stay among the league’s top defenses. Simmons and Embiid’s health is also essential. 

With just two of the Sixers’ first seven games against playoff teams last season, Embiid is aware it's far too early to draw any grand conclusions. 

“I’m excited about the way we look,” he said. “But then again, I don’t want to get too excited. We’ve got a lot of stuff to work on, and we haven’t really played against a contender. Unfortunately, I saw Brooklyn might be missing one of (its) key players, (Kevin Durant, who The Athletic reports will be quarantined for seven days because of exposure to COVID-19). 

“That’s unfortunate, but I was hoping going into those matchups to see if we can keep doing the same thing. (The Wizards), they’re going to cause us a lot of problems, too, especially defensively. They’ve got a lot of scoring threats. We’ve just got to keep on moving the ball, sharing the ball. And then defensively, we’ve been great at that end. I’ve just got to do my thing and push all these guys.”

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