Sixers' new defensive concepts: 'Make them feel you,' the 'corral blitz' and more

Sixers' new defensive concepts: 'Make them feel you,' the 'corral blitz' and more

Under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, Ime Udoka was responsible for "eight or nine [opposing] teams," he said Monday night, strategizing on both ends of the floor. Now, the new Sixers assistant coach has a narrower focus and is "looking forward to a different challenge."

Udoka will be taking on the job of de facto defensive coordinator for the Sixers, a position held for much of last season by new Saint Joseph's head coach Billy Lange.

He discussed his defensive philosophy Monday at Brett Brown's fifth annual "Coach the Coaches" clinic in Camden, New Jersey, and previewed several changes. We looked at tweaks to expect offensively here.

Different pick-and-roll approaches 

Pick-and-roll defense was problematic for the Sixers throughout last season. Monday night, Udoka reviewed the team's middle pick-and-roll coverages for 2019-20.

In “big-small” pick-and-rolls, dropping the big man — having him essentially play “center field,” as Udoka said —  sounds like it will still be foundational. Below is an example of that coverage, which aims to encourage opponents to take long two-point shots.

As we noted last year, that strategy often failed against smaller, quicker guards who could exploit the open space created by Joel Embiid falling far back into the paint, or who could simply knock down those long twos at an efficient rate on a given night.

Udoka demonstrated the concept of “up to touch” coverage, in which the big man will come up until he can reach out and touch the back of the screener. The idea behind this approach is to initially close down that gaping space in the middle of the floor, then have the big retreat into center field. 

So, on a play like this one from March 25 in Orlando, Embiid would be a step or two higher, to the point that he could touch Nikola Vucevic’s back. That would theoretically give Evan Fournier less room to drive to the rim once he gets by JJ Redick.

Udoka also noted the addition of Josh Richardson should make the Sixers better equipped to defend smaller guards, though it sounds like, along with different personnel, we’ll see a conceptual shift. When a coach in the crowd asked Udoka the right time to “blitz” the pick-and-roll, Udoka joked that Kemba Walker scored 60 points against the Sixers last season, prompting Brown to get up from his seat to give Udoka a hug.

The Sixers did turn to the blitz on desperate occasions in 2018-19, like when D’Angelo Russell was in the midst of scoring 38 points against them on Nov. 25.

The play above is a successful execution of a full-on blitz, with Jimmy Butler and Mike Muscala forcing Russell to pass the ball, and excellent subsequent rotations.

Udoka on Monday introduced a “corral blitz,” which entails the two defenders leveling off the ball handler as opposed to jumping out at him in the kamikaze style of a full-on blitz. When the Sixers blitzed last year, they generally did so aggressively, so that seems like it will be a notable wrinkle.

It’s not the same thing, but the corral blitz is similar to the hedge and recover defense the Sixers used vs. the Raptors in the playoffs on pick-and-rolls involving Kawhi Leonard as the ball handler and Redick as a defender.

The main difference with the corral blitz is, in the play above, Ben Simmons would also adopt Redick’s approach of leveling off Leonard instead of guarding him straight up.

New points of emphasis 

Philosophically, one of Udoka’s first remarks was that he wants the Sixers’ defense to “make them feel you,” to “jam the ball handler.” The Sixers forced 12.7 turnovers per game in 2018-19, 27th in the NBA, and he envisions that number increasing.

“That’s something we talk about, creating turnovers,” he said. “We want to up our physicality on the ball. That should help there. And there are multiple things we can do out of timeouts to trap guys and make them more uncomfortable.”

Another conceptual priority for Udoka is making the most of the Sixers’ versatility. He thinks highly of Embiid and Al Horford, and will perhaps be more willing than Lange was to let his big men switch, blitz and extend themselves beyond “center field” defensively. 

“[Embiid and Horford are] two of the best bigs at defending the pick-and-roll and protecting the paint, and guarding smalls on the perimeter,” Udoka said. “I think our versatility and flexibility there is almost endless. Coming off the bench, as well — with James [Ennis] and some of the young guys we have, we can do multiple things there.”

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How Sixers are changing their ‘organic’ offense without JJ Redick

How Sixers are changing their ‘organic’ offense without JJ Redick

The idea of “organic basketball” might, at first read, sound something like a coach giving his players a pat on the back, a few words of encouragement and freedom to do whatever they please. That’s not what it means for the Sixers and head coach Brett Brown, who drilled home the importance of “concepts and fundamentals” Monday night at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, to those in attendance at his fifth annual “Coach the Coaches” clinic. 

Brown was joined by a crew of assistants, including new additions Joseph Blair and Ime Udoka. Along with reviewing basic principles like designating for offensive rebounding purposes “go guys” and “get back” guys and the value of re-screening when an opponent goes under a pick, the Sixers’ coaches mentioned some tweaks to the core of their system. 

Here are a few that stood out which are worth tracking this season: 

New offensive spacing 

The Sixers’ “A to B” offense isn’t going anywhere. This is their base offensive set, which often begins with the point guard (A) dropping it off to the big man (B).

There are two interesting spacing changes this year. Last year, the wings were usually stationed at the elbow extended and the power forward set up at the elbow. This season, the plan is for the wings to be in the corners and the power forward to be a couple steps behind the arc, behind the “four-point line” the Sixers have painted on their practice court.

The play below is an unusual one because it’s from a Jan. 26 game in which the Sixers had to play small without Joel Embiid, but it gives you a sense of what the “A to B” offense looked like. Redick starts near the left elbow, flares around a screen from Jonah Bolden at the right elbow and a free-flowing possession begins.

Redick was effective in that foul line extended spot because of the defensive attention he drew and the options available for him using those screens at the elbows or curling around for dribble handoffs. However, as assistant coach Kevin Young explained, it makes more sense for wings like Zhaire Smith who have greater athleticism than Redick but merit less attention from defenses to be spaced out in the corners.

Putting the power forward behind the four-point line won’t be entirely foreign, and this next play from March 28 showcases how and why it’s sensible for that to be the Sixers’ default mode.

The Nets are concerned with Redick running around Embiid and Ben Simmons’ screens, leading them to overbalance in his direction. Tobias Harris being set on the opposite wing behind the four-point line provides him the space to make an effective cut.

Blair, the head coach of the NBA G League champion Rio Grande Vipers in 2018-19, will be focusing on the Sixers' offense this season. He said he advocated for these new spacing principles. 

“Some of the things we talked about offensively tonight with spacing, I was a big stickler for a lot of those things,” he said. “I’m big on the corner spacing and spacing out our four-man, as well. That’s one of the things I was adamant about trying to implement here. So, I’m happy to see we’re doing a little more with our spacing.”

More "Explosion"

The Sixers had success last year with “Explosion,” their spontaneous, unpredictable cutting around a man in the post, often Ben Simmons.

“We get the ball to Ben and there’s different actions that can happen behind it,” Brown told NBC Sports Philadelphia in March. “There is a randomness to possibilities that has helped us. But the real key is movement. Playing static is not how we want to play with Ben Simmons on a back down.”

You can see Redick feinted a screen for Embiid at the right elbow then made a nice diagonal cut on the play above vs. Sacramento. None of the cutting around Simmons, though, was planned ahead of time.

The post offense around Embiid was “a little more static,” Brown said, to surround him with easy outlets and optimize spacing.

Young said Monday the Sixers intend to “double down” on “Explosion” this year, which is not surprising. It’s an action that’s nearly impossible to game plan for, and they’ve added a stellar post passer in Al Horford who should excel in that setting. 

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History with Brett Brown a big reason why new Sixers lead assistant coach Monty Williams returned to bench

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History with Brett Brown a big reason why new Sixers lead assistant coach Monty Williams returned to bench

CAMDEN, N.J. — Training camp doesn’t officially start for the Sixers until media day on Friday, but new lead assistant coach Monty Williams is already drilling his players on everything from the proper angle for elbow entry passes to new plays that make the most of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s abilities.

The fact that there were about a thousand people watching him Monday night at head coach Brett Brown’s annual clinic for local coaches seemed irrelevant to him. 

After two years away from coaching, working in the San Antonio Spurs' front office, Williams is happy to be back on the floor, drawing up creative options within the Sixers’ sets. T.J. McConnell, Norvel Pelle, Demetrius Jackson and Anthony Brown were supposed to be demonstrating different plays and concepts for the crowd, but Williams made sure they learned a couple new plays as well. 

“I know it’s cool in the NBA to get away from your job and not talk about basketball, but I’m not like that,” Williams said. “When I leave the floor, I talk about basketball, I talk about coming up with plays. So Brett’s like that, so when we leave the gym, we still talk about basketball, we text at night about basketball. It’s a good environment for me because it fits me.”

Williams, who was the head coach in New Orleans from 2010 to 2015, making the postseason twice during that span, has a history with Brown. After a nine-year NBA career, which included Philadelphia as a final stop for the 2002-03 season, Williams joined the Spurs as a coaching staff intern during the 2004-05 campaign. That’s where he first met Brown, then an assistant under Gregg Popovich. 

“He was the guy that gave me a shot,” Williams said. “Pop invited me to be around, but Brett said, ‘I got him. He can be in my stable.’ We spent every day together talking about coaching, life, on the elliptical. That stuff went a long way with me because he didn’t have to do it, and so when I left and went to Portland, we stayed in contact. 

“I got a head [coaching] job, he got a head [coaching] job, we starting competing against each other, and we never lost that relationship. Then when this opportunity came up, it just seemed like not only the right thing to do, but it’s been a good transition for me. We have a unique relationship that started about 15 years ago.”

Williams’ main focus with the Sixers will be on the offensive end, with an emphasis on set plays and special situations, while Kevin Young will shift to working on the Sixers’ motion offense. That said, Williiams noted Brown wants his coaches to have a say in everything the team does.

“He’s always telling me to coach, helping on defense, transition, talking to Kevin about our motion offense. Brett doesn’t put a limit on what you do. That’s why a number of the guys that have been here have grown so much.”

Billy Lange will be in charge of the defense, taking over Lloyd Pierce’s old role. Pierce left the Sixers to become the Atlanta Hawks’ head coach, which is why there was an opening for Williams. 

Williams said he thinks the biggest area he can help Brown is with the details. For instance, Williams showed the crowd a few variations he hopes to add to the Sixers’ “Ear tug world,” or their series of plays that begin with two big men in the high post and two wings in the corners. “Ear tug curl with up option” ends with one of the wings starting to curl up, but instead setting a back screen on the big man at the elbow to, if the first option is available, free Embiid for a lob.

While Williams is excited to be back crafting plays for players like Embiid, he said the drive he’s seen from the Sixers' players is also something that motivates him.

“I’m seeing a competitive edge from young, talented, generational players, and that’s exciting,” Williams said. “I feel like a lot of it is who they are, but I also feel like they’re chasing something. I watch Ben in here on the floor at eight o’clock in the morning, I’m looking at a young man that’s chasing something. When I see Joel dominating pickup games, every single game trying to win the game, he’s chasing something.

"I’m seeing Markelle (Fultz) with the ability to work on his game, JJ (Redick) in his 13th year in great shape and knocking down shot after shot after shot. I’m reminded that these guys are competitive. And that makes you want to be as sharp as you can for them.”

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