Billy Lange

Sixers weekly observations: Is there any downside to resting Joel Embiid for road trip?

Sixers weekly observations: Is there any downside to resting Joel Embiid for road trip?

Seventy-six games down, six to go.

In our observations this week, we examine the Sixers' move to rest Joel Embiid and highlight a key question facing the Sixers following assistant coach Billy Lange's departure for St. Joe's and Jim O'Brien's return to the front of the bench to take charge of the defense. 

• In my mind, there are a few potential downsides to the Sixers' decision to rest Embiid, none of which hold much weight when examined closer.

1. It could stunt the team’s growth as the playoffs approach
The Sixers’ new starting five has played just 10 games together, and they’ve gone pretty well — they’re 8-2. If Embiid plays the final four games of the regular season (along with the four other starters), they’ll have 14 games of experience together, which certainly isn’t a ton for a team looking to make a Finals run.

Still, it’s unlikely three more games would make much of a difference. As we touched on last week, Brett Brown isn’t a believer in installing new, exotic actions or strategies with the season winding now, so it’s not as if Embiid is going to suddenly have to play catch up as far as Xs and Os are concerned.

2. It could make Embiid sluggish in the playoffs
Embiid has said in the past that he feels he gets out of shape quickly, so this worry is understandable. That said, Embiid had 33 points and 12 rebounds on March 10 vs. Indiana after missing the past eight games —  he’s proven he can be dominant even when not in perfect shape. His knee feeling as good as it can should be a higher priority. 

3. The Sixers should worry about playoff seeding first 
The Sixers are almost certainly going to be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They have a 4.5-game lead over both the Celtics and Pacers, each of whom have five games left, and they're not going to catch Toronto (see standings). 

With the three seed secure barring a 1964 Phillies-like collapse, there’s plenty of value in a player like Jonah Bolden getting a chance to boost his case for postseason minutes. 

• Though the Sixers’ defense regressed some this year compared to last, when the team had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA, it’s difficult to attribute much of that to Lange’s coaching. He was hampered by a perpetually rotating cast of players, many of whom were below-average defenders — you’ll recall a point when Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, JJ Redick and T.J. McConnell all had key roles.

With the personnel Lange had, the Sixers were inevitably in trouble when defenders failed to fight through screens and switches were required. Lange may not have minded switching one through four, but he wasn’t instructing his players to allow Joel Embiid to guard point guards (see film review).  

One of the big questions Brown was frank in discussing before the season began was how Embiid would cope in a “five out” environment, when opponents drew him away from the hoop by removing a traditional center from the floor. Against the Bucks, it looks like the answer is having Embiid guard Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

When the Nets used Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center Thursday with Embiid on the bench, Lange and Brown decided to stick with Boban Marjanovic at center and asked him to take advantage of the matchup offensively. 

Whether that’s a sustainable solution in a postseason series, and whether there are any new strategies O’Brien and Brown might use to counteract a “five out” look in the playoffs will be an important storyline to follow. 

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Sixers assistant coach Billy Lange agrees to become next head coach at St. Joe's

Sixers assistant coach Billy Lange agrees to become next head coach at St. Joe's

Updated: 1:29 p.m.

Brett Brown’s coaching staff is losing a key member.

Assistant coach Billy Lange has reached an agreement to become the next head coach at Saint Joseph’s.

Lange will replace Phil Martelli, who was unceremoniously let go on March 19 after 24 seasons coaching the Hawks. The agreement was first reported by the Inquirer.

This is a tricky situation for Brown and the Sixers. It seems likely Lange will be forced to leave his current post and begin recruiting.

"I am proud of his appointment and he and his family will be missed as friends and Billy in a professional capacity, very much," Brown said in a statement. "He has been with me from day one and to see where he started and now where he has ended up, is a fantastic human and basketball story. We will be following him closely. Go Hawks."

With the departure of Lloyd Pierce to take the head job in Atlanta this past offseason, Lange has been in charge of the Sixers’ defense.

The team’s new switch-heavy scheme has had some growing pains this season — especially in the pick-and-roll. With Lange out, it will be tough to make a change with just eight games remaining. Monty Williams, who has plenty of experience in the NBA as a player and head coach, could step into the role.

For St. Joe’s, Lange seems like a solid hire. It’s going to be tough for the school to restore the goodwill it lost with Martelli, but Lange has as many local ties as anyone — if not more. 

Lange is a Haddon Heights, New Jersey, native. He has tons of Philly college hoops connections, having played for John Giannini at Rowan University and having coached under Herb Magee at Philadelphia University, Speedy Morris at La Salle and Jay Wright at Villanova. He’s also had two head coaching stints with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and Navy.

For the Hawks, getting a coach with so much history with Philly hoops and with NBA experience seems like a good get. For the Sixers, it adds a little uncertainty to a season filled with high expectations.

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Breaking down Sixers' defensive woes and ATOs

Breaking down Sixers' defensive woes and ATOs

Without Joel Embiid, nobody expected life would be easy for the Sixers after the All-Star break.

In this film review, we’ll examine the defensive issues exacerbated by Embiid’s absence as well as the Sixers’ smart, efficient after-timeout actions, one reason why the team has managed a 2-1 mark since Embiid has been sidelined by left knee soreness.

Defensive woes

Pick-and-roll defense has been a season-long concern for the Sixers. 

Brett Brown has either needed to expose the not-exactly-agile Boban Marjanovic or use smaller lineups without Embiid, which has left the Sixers vulnerable whenever their initial pick-and-roll coverage fails. On the play below, JJ Redick falls a step behind Rodney Hood. That leaves Mike Scott, at the center spot in this lineup, to pick up the Blazers wing. Scott’s help leads to an easy dunk for Enes Kanter. 

Redick gets crushed by Bam Adebayo’s screen on this next play vs. Miami, which puts Jonah Bolden in the spot Scott was on the play above — forced to cover for Redick and pick up the ball handler, Rodney MacGruder. As Adebayo rolls to the rim, Redick makes the belated decision to keep trying to defend MacGruder instead of take Adebayo. With Jonathon Simmons late on his weakside rotation, Adebayo has plenty of free space at the rim. 

Both a delayed rotation and the lack of a legitimate rim protector again hurt the Sixers late in New Orleans. Jonathon Simmons and Jimmy Butler blitz Jrue Holiday on the pick-and-roll, a high-risk late-game strategy. Tobias Harris helps late off Frank Jackson in the corner, which is actually a reasonable approach here given that the Sixers are up three and don’t want New Orleans to have a shot to tie the game. But, as a result, Julius Randle scores inside. 

Notice again that the Sixers had no true big man on the floor. 

The Sixers’ defensive issues haven’t come exclusively on pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. Communication in general has been problematic, an understandable concern for a unit with very little experience playing together. Still, some of the defensive mistakes the Sixers are making — even with the valid excuse of no Embiid — are worrisome. 

After a timeout, Harris and Redick appear caught off guard by a quick down screen in the corner by Derrick Jones Jr. for Josh Richardson. If you look at the Sixers’ bench, you can see assistant coach Billy Lange, who’s in charge of the team’s defense, throwing up his hands following Richardson’s dunk.

The next trip down, the Heat run the same action. Harris and Redick overreact to Richardson's dunk, with both players sprinting to cover him curling up to the wing. Jones slips to the rim unattended as Harris realizes his mistake too late. 

ATO success

On a more positive note, Brown, assistant coach Monty Williams and company have been very successful at creating good looks for the Sixers through ATOs.

Butler has often been the beneficiary. On this play vs. Portland, the Sixers run “Thumb point,” a regular part of the offense. Redick camps out under the baseline next to another wing, then decides which down screen to curl around. Here, as is often the case, the off-ball movement clears out the lane, and Butler drives by Damian Lillard for the dunk. 

Butler backdoor cuts have grown into an after-timeout feature. The play below starts out as if it’s going to be the Sixers’ common “Ear tug” lob, with Jonah Bolden screening for Butler at the nail. After Bolden receives the ball from Simmons, Butler moves up like he’s going to take a handoff from Bolden before capitalizing on Holiday denying him the ball.

Jahlil Okafor was the man who paid for overplaying Butler on the action below. JJ Redick sprints up to get the ball at the top of the key, then gives it to Marjanovic at the left elbow. Redick acts as if he’s going to set a down screen for Butler at the right elbow, a clever misdirection that fools Okafor.

Late in games, the Sixers’ primary goal on sideline out of bounds plays is often just to get the ball inbounds. That wasn’t the case on this sharp action vs. New Orleans, which began with Redick setting a cross screen for Butler. Once Marjanovic found Butler, Redick set a back screen for Simmons at the elbow. Though Butler missed an open Simmons under the rim, the Sixers kept the ball moving. And again, Butler got himself a bucket after a timeout. 

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