Sixers film review

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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How Sixers are trying to get best out of Jimmy Butler on offense

How Sixers are trying to get best out of Jimmy Butler on offense

Both player and coach disputed the notion that the exchange was “disrespectful” or “confrontational.” But neither Jimmy Butler nor Brett Brown disagreed with the report that Butler had “challenged” Brown about his role in the Sixers’ offense, just the characterization of that challenge during a film session in Portland.

Brown admitted Saturday the offense was still evolving to better suit Butler’s strengths in pick-and-roll and isolation. However, it didn’t sound as if he had any radical changes in mind.

So that we don’t get too twisted about this pick-and-roll thing, there is truth to that, but not to the point that, ‘Oh, now we gotta run 20.’ It’s not going to happen. We have other things going on in our offense.

Since then, Butler and the Sixers have played a home-and-home set with the Wizards, trouncing Washington Tuesday night and falling Wednesday. 

On the very first possession of Tuesday’s win, Butler came off a pin down screen from Joel Embiid before running a side pick-and-roll with Embiid. 

For a coach who had said he wasn’t going to run 20 pick-and-rolls per game, it was an interesting opening play call. 

Two wrinkles 

One of the Sixers’ favorite actions for Butler, as we’ve noted before, sees him make an “Iverson cut” and receive the ball on an unoccupied side of the floor.

Outside of this basic, original action, the Sixers have various other looks — for instance, Butler can reject one or both screens if the defense takes away the first read. And Brown has a creative version of the play in which Butler exploits the aggressiveness of a defender denying him the ball and goes back door for a lob.

One option we’re starting to see more is the second screener (Mike Muscala in the example below) giving Butler a side ball screen after he’s received the ball. 

In the third quarter Tuesday night, we saw Embiid have a key role in this action. Embiid, the first screener for Butler, gets a cross screen from the man on the opposite block, Furkan Korkmaz. When Thomas Bryant fronts Embiid, Wilson Chandler flashes to the top of the key. Butler hits him, and the Sixers execute a perfect high-low to Embiid. 

There’s no problem with the initial, isolation option for Butler on occasion, but the Sixers seem to now be incorporating more complex looks with greater frequency.

The flow of the offense 

As he said he would, Brown does appear to be calling a few more pick-and-rolls for Butler. Outside of the structure of the offense, Butler’s teammates also seem to be giving him more ball screens.

Muscala, in particular, is a fan of the “throw-and-chase" — in order words, he often passes Butler the ball and then follows his pass to give Butler a screen.

On the play below, Butler drives baseline off a throw-and-chase from Muscala and finds Ben Simmons inside.

The on-court understanding between Butler and his teammates is obviously still developing — it certainly didn’t look great Wednesday night in Washington, although you could say the same of the Sixers’ performance in general. Butler and Simmons, though, already play off each other very well.

Simmons has a decent feel for when, where and how to get Butler the ball. This play below from Tuesday night is simple enough, but it’s the kind of thing that’s easier said than done. 

With the Sixers in the midst of a sluggish start, Simmons brings the ball down the floor quickly and Butler establishes position in the mid-post. Simmons makes a solid pass fake, gets the ball to Butler, and lets him go to work.

 

2 plays to keep an eye on 

Even though he’s not going to do anything drastic, expect Brown to continue adding layers to actions already in the Sixers’ playbook.

He showed one new look off a play he’s been running frequently after timeouts called “Elbow rub,” per Mike O’Connor of The Athletic.

Here’s an example of that play, with Embiid curling around Jonah Bolden’s screen for the lob. 

In this variation, Butler takes Bolden’s spot and immediately flashes to the top of the key, while Embiid seals deep. 

The play didn’t work against Washington, but it’s something the Sixers might continue to explore. Another option could be Butler coming to the top of the key and Embiid giving him a ball screen. 

Finally, the play below from Wednesday is notable because of the personnel, not because there’s anything remotely new about it.

The Sixers typically run “Elbow” with Embiid and JJ Redick. It’s the dynamic two-man game with infinite permutations that are seemingly impossible to stop.

We saw that play a lot in Butler’s debut, just with Butler in Redick’s spot. Wednesday night, it popped up again.

Though Embiid and Butler running “Elbow” might simply have been a byproduct of Redick being sidelined by lower-back tightness, perhaps Brown will start calling it with that pair again more often as an easy, already installed method to get two of his best players working in tandem.

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Are Sixers using Jimmy Butler the right way?

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AP Images

Are Sixers using Jimmy Butler the right way?

Jimmy Butler and Brett Brown didn’t expect a fluid, flawless transition when the Sixers acquired their third star. They knew it would take time to maximize Butler’s talents.

But, speaking about his role in the Sixers’ motion-heavy offense at his introductory press conference on Nov. 13, Butler was hopeful it would all work out.

It’s different, I won’t lie. I had the ball a lot when I was in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean I can’t play the style of basketball that’s played here. That was just what I was asked to do when I was there. I don’t think that’s a problem. I’m great at sharing the ball, moving without the ball. If I need the ball, I’ll go steal it, go to the other end and lay it up. Go get an offensive rebound. 

There’s more than one way to get the ball. I think the way these guys play, sharing the ball, setting screens, slipping, all of that good stuff, I think that’s actually easier than having to create all the time in iso situations and off the pick-and-roll.

After playing in 21 games with the Sixers (during which the team is 15-6), it sounds like Butler has shifted his stance, according to an ESPN report.

“Butler has expressed a desire to teammates to play in more traditional pick-and-roll and isolation sets, rather than trying to find his place in the Sixers' free-flowing offense,” Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne write.

The report notes Butler “has been vocal in his contesting of Brown and his system,” though Wojnarowski and Shelburne say Brown had no issues with a recent exchange in Portland that some witnesses considered “disrespectful.”

All of this begs the question: Are the Sixers using Butler the proper way?

Butler specialties 

Though much of Butler’s offense has indeed come within the flow of the Sixers' normal actions, Brown does have two sets he often runs specifically for Butler.

We covered one in an earlier film review.

To get Butler an isolation look, the Sixers have him make an “Iverson cut” on top of two screens to an unoccupied side of the floor.

When teams overplay for this action, Butler can reject one or both of the screens.

Brown has also introduced a couple smart counters to teams denying Butler the ball, including a high-low lob from the second screener to Butler.

The other staple for Butler is just called “Loop,” and it’s as simple as it sounds. Out of a “Horns” alignment (two players at the elbows and two in the corners), Butler rubs off a screen and loops up to get the ball at the top of the key. Then the high post on the opposite side of the floor gives Butler a ball screen.

Other glimpses

We saw a lot of the play below in Butler’s Sixers debut.

Butler makes an Iverson cut, then gets staggered ball screens from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. For whatever reason — perhaps the analytics showed it wasn’t efficient — we haven’t seen it much lately.

Another action the Sixers tried a few times in Butler’s early days with the team was “Elbow,” better known as the dangerous two-man game between Embiid and JJ Redick. They plugged Butler into Redick’s spot.

They’ve since reverted to running that play almost exclusively for Embiid and Redick, which is reasonable enough given how well those two execute it.

From time to time, we've also seen a two-man game between Simmons and Butler. Simmons will bring the ball down the floor, directly into a dribble handoff with Butler on the wing.

On Dec. 2 vs. the Grizzlies, the pair improvised off that action well, running a pick-and-roll with Butler as the ball handler and Simmons the screener.

You can understand why Butler would want more of these sort of plays that accentuate his strengths in tandem with Simmons and Embiid.

That said, it’s not as if he’s been terrible in the Sixers’ offense. He’s still averaged 18 points on 46.2 percent shooting (38.8 percent from three-point range) and 3.2 assists. His usage rate with the Sixers is 22.7 percent, not far below last season’s 24.3 percent mark. 

One number that could merit concern is that Butler is only averaging 8.1 drives per game with the Sixers, 4.0 fewer than last season. It would be his lowest drives per game in a season since 2014-15.

But again, we’re talking about a 21-game sample size, one in which the Sixers have won 71.4 percent of their games.

There’s no doubt Brown can do a better job of using Butler by interspersing more pick-and-rolls and isolations within the Sixers’ offense. Maybe Butler’s forceful feedback will assist in that process. 

Regardless, any coach in Brown’s situation would require time to figure out the best ways to use three stars who don’t intuitively fit together. 

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