Jonah Bolden

What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

The Sixers’ offense has been a popular topic of late, and that’s understandable as Brett Brown adjusts his offense to try to get the best out of three very different stars.

The defense shouldn’t fly under the radar, however, and it certainly hasn’t with the players and coaches. 

After the Sixers’ loss to the Hawks on Friday night, Brown said it was “disturbing watching our bench guard.”

Ben Simmons said, “I think we were just too soft. We’re not taking it personal enough when guys score on us.”

After finishing last season third in the NBA in defensive rating (103.8), the Sixers are 11th in that category this season with a 108.1 rating. 

The concern about the defense is warranted, likely more than the relative nitpicking about offensive fit (see story).

Let’s look at what’s wrong with the Sixers’ defense and some possible ways to improve it. 

Subpar personnel

In an earlier film review on the team’s pick-and-roll defense, we highlighted that, outside of Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers are lacking above-average defensive players.

That hasn’t changed.

Derrick Rose blew by Landry Shamet on this play from Tuesday night.

Jeremy Lin toasted Furkan Korkmaz, easily driving to the middle for an and-one.

It’s worth mentioning (since it’s fundamental to many of the Sixers’ defensive issues), but there’s no use harping on this fact — the Sixers are a team of mostly below-average defenders. 

Miscommunication 

Besides screens involving Embiid, the Sixers switched on almost every pick at the beginning of the season. As a result, opponents could more easily target mismatches against players like Shamet, Korkmaz or T.J. McConnell.

The Sixers have become more selective about switching, leading to fewer of the blatant mismatches opponents desire, but perhaps more miscommunication now that there isn’t a near-automatic switch on screens involving non-centers.

Atlanta has Kevin Huerter set a ball screen for Trae Young on this play from Friday. Huerter’s man, JJ Redick, switches onto Young, but Korkmaz doesn’t realize Huerter is now his responsibility until it’s far too late, after Dewayne Dedmon sets a back screen to free Huerter for a lob.

Young got the easiest basket of his NBA career a little over a minute later. It’s unclear what McConnell and Wilson Chandler had in mind on their coverage of the pick-and-roll between Young and John Collins, but it wasn’t this. 

Our best guess, based on McConnell’s animated reaction, is that McConnell was expecting some sort of help from Chandler — perhaps he thought Chandler was going to hedge the screen, given the way the veteran initially slid up to Young’s right.

On a separate note, Simmons’ feint as if he was going to protect the rim and ultimate decision to hover in between the driving Young and Dedmon in the corner is perplexing.

The play is a strong contender for the Sixers’ worst defensive sequence of the season, and a good illustration of the team’s issues with communication in a scheme that no longer switches by near-default. 

Effort 

It’s unrealistic to expect perfect effort in the middle of the regular season. Still, a team with the Sixers’ deficiencies in terms of defensive personnel is likely going to struggle without consistent effort.

Simmons’ defensive effort was questionable on a few plays vs. Atlanta.

In the example below, his teammates recover well to pick up a man in transition. Simmons is late to identify Huerter as the player he should guard and he doesn’t bother to put a hand up on a half-hearted closeout. 

Jeff Teague beat Simmons down the floor after a dead-ball turnover by the Sixers and, despite Simmons’ request for help, nobody provided it, giving Teague a wide-open lane.

A new rotation? 

In the Sixers’ 42-point demolition of the Timberwolves on Tuesday, Brown might have found a way to get more out of the personnel he currently has.

Brown used rookie Jonah Bolden as a backup center, and he was encouraged by what he saw from Bolden anchoring the defense when Embiid was off the floor.

He’s got a bounce. … And he can do some things at the rim — he’s not afraid of making tough plays, and he’s able to make tough plays. Using him as a backup five and letting [Mike] Muscala play more of a four and then sliding Wilson [Chandler] down to a three, I think it’s a good look.

You can pencil Bolden in for a bad, overzealous foul or two just about every game, but his defensive tools jump out on tape. 

He can hang with players on the perimeter incredibly well for somebody who is 6-foot-10, and he has good instincts as a shot blocker.

His length and athleticism allow him to recover when he’s caught leaning in the wrong direction, like on the play below vs. Dario Saric.

And he protects the rim well even when he’s not blocking shots. Here, Bolden cleans up Shamet’s mistake, sliding with DeAndre’ Bembry and forcing him into a difficult attempt.

With Bolden, the stats — albeit in a small, 257-minute sample size — back up the eye test. His 99.1 defensive rating is the best on the Sixers. 

The Sixers’ defensive issues are deeper than their backup center, but tweaking the rotation to have Bolden at the five behind Embiid could alleviate some of the problems with the team’s defense when Embiid sits. 

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Sixers stock watch: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden all trending up

Sixers stock watch: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden all trending up

It’s important to remember after all the drama that the Sixers actually played a bunch of basketball games last week.

Their five-game road trip was mostly positive, actually. They had a clunker without Joel Embiid in Portland, but they were a JJ Redick missed jumper in Boston from finishing the trip 4-1. They also hung on for a win over the Mavs upon their return home Saturday.

Here is this week’s stock watch.

Stock up

Joel Embiid

After missing the game against the Blazers, the Eastern Conference Player of the Week returned to his dominant form. In the last three games, Embiid averaged 31.7 points, 16.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, two blocks and 1.7 steals.

The craziest was the win over Dallas when he seemed like he was having a quiet night and wound up with 25 points and 12 boards. Ho hum.

One very positive development is Embiid’s improved three-point shot — though he insists he hates taking them. Over his last five games, Embiid is shooting 44 percent from three (8 of 18). Fans often complain about the All-Star center taking too many threes, but it does help the team’s spacing. And if he’s going to shoot like he has recently, let it fly.

Ben Simmons

Simmons also had a phenomenal week, averaging 20.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and seven assists. He’s posted triple-doubles in four of his last 10 games. He’s also been assertive and aggressive and looking for his shot a lot more.

All of that is nice, but Simmons makes the list because of his newfound willingness to take jump shots. He made 2 of 4 in Saturday’s win. A pretty huge development for both he and the Sixers. Let’s hope more takes (and makes) follow.

Jonah Bolden

It’s no secret the Sixers’ bench has been a glaring deficiency. One of the things the bench has desperately needed is athleticism. Enter Bolden.

Bolden has provided that athleticism and a high activity level to give the bench a big boost. His abilities to rim protect and switch one through five are huge in the modern NBA. Over the last four games, he’s averaged eight points, 6.8 rebounds (2.8 offensive) and almost a full block in 21.6 minutes.

Brett Brown acknowledged that Bolden, who hadn’t gotten regular minutes until the team’s West Coast swing, has earned a spot in the team’s rotation. It should be interesting to see what Elton Brand does with his bench and what it means for Bolden as the trade deadline approaches.

Stock down

The team’s collective immune system

Jimmy Butler and Wilson Chandler have both missed the last two games because of an upper-respiratory infection. On Monday, Simmons missed practice with an upper-respiratory infection. Something is clearly going around the locker room.

Break out the hand sanitizer and Vitamin C. This team and its thin bench needs all the bodies they can get.

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Sixers weekly observations: Making sense of an especially eventful week

Sixers weekly observations: Making sense of an especially eventful week

Apologies in advance for the familiar refrain, but it’s true — it was a busy past seven days for the Sixers.

The team stands at 26-14 after a 3-1 week, with a 34-point loss in Portland followed by wins over the Clippers (a game that featured two fights and an ejection), Suns and Mavs.

Just as notably, there was also plenty that happened off the court.

• We’ve already covered the report that Jimmy Butler has “aggressively challenged” Brett Brown and the Sixers’ offense in some detail, reviewing film on how Brown is using Butler, opining that it’s too early to jump to conclusions and giving you Brown’s response to the report Saturday night.

For the most part, Brown’s pregame comments Saturday were predictable. He adamantly downplayed the exchange with Butler, saying it was inaccurate to characterize it as “disrespectful.”

The more surprising part of his press conference was the defense of his offensive system. Brown was clear that the Sixers’ offense won’t radically change, though he is willing to keep tweaking it for the team’s benefit. If the offense is going to run through any player, however, it’s Joel Embiid.  

More [pick-and-rolls] should be run, but not to the detriment of Joel Embiid and not to the detriment of some other things.

I think if you put a gun to my head and said, ‘where should our bread be buttered?’ It’s through Joel Embiid, and then Jimmy Butler. And JJ [Redick's] going to move and do his thing, and Ben [Simmons is] going to find his way — that’s the ecosystem. That’s on me to create that.

Brown is open to listening to his players, but because he has three stars with distinct strengths and weaknesses, he can’t cater entirely to the requests of one if he believes it will hurt his team.

Fortunately for the Sixers, you sense Butler and Brown share a passion for winning. If that’s the foundation of an intense, active dialogue that might be perceived by whoever leaked to ESPN as “disrespectful,” so be it. 

• Brown has had some less than pleasant problems to deal with. When Wilson Chandler and Butler are healthy again, he’s going to have a good problem, thanks to Jonah Bolden.

Over the past week, Bolden has averaged 8.0 points on 66.7 percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and a block in 20 minutes per game.

Bolden got his second straight start Saturday night vs. the Mavs, and Brown preferred him down the stretch over Mike Muscala. 

Though Bolden still makes mistakes and doesn’t always look comfortable on the floor, he does a lot of things well — he can move his feet with guards, protect the rim, and run the floor, plus he has a good feel as a passer and is a decent cutter.

It would be surprising at this point if he’s out of the rotation when Butler and Chandler return. The more pertinent question is what role he’ll play, and whether Muscala will see some of his minutes cut to give Bolden more opportunities.

• Every one of the Sixers’ wins this week was closer than it should have been.

To recap:

-The Clippers cut a 24-point deficit down to four points
-The Suns somehow trimmed a 30-point game down to a three-point game
-The Mavs came back from a 19-point deficit in the fourth quarter, cutting it to four

While unforced, avoidable turnovers are part of the reason for this trend, the Sixers actually won the turnover battle vs. the Mavs, 15-10. 

Regardless of the opponent or situation, it feels like the Sixers have reverted to their early-season trend of inevitable fourth-quarter drama.

As Embiid told reporters Saturday, “Once again, we got to make the game interesting.”

• Just about every game, there’s a statistical milestone we can highlight for Embiid.

A few of the latest include him becoming the fastest player in Sixers history to score 3,000 points, reaching the 1,000-point mark this season, recording a season-high 42 points Wednesday in Phoenix and his league-leading 34th double-double Saturday.

To put it all in perspective, Embiid had 25 points and 12 rebounds against the Mavs and it felt like it a quiet night for him.

Simmons is doing some pretty incredible things as well, and he looks and sounds more willing to shoot jumpers than he has in the past.

He has more triple-doubles (18) in his first 120 career games than Magic Johnson, per Elias Sports Bureau

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