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April 12, 2019

Mailbag: Will the Sixers change their defensive strategy to stop Nets' guards?

Sixers NBA
030819-BrettBrown-USAToday Erik Williams/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown protests a call against the Houston Rockets during the first quarter at Toyota Center.

With less than 24 hours to go until the Sixers and Nets tip off the opening round of the NBA playoffs, it's time to for another mailbag. I've tried to answer as many of your potential questions as I could about Joel Embiid's health, the season that was, and what a matchup with the Nets will look like with my articles over the last few days. Now that those are out of the way, I made time for your actual questions.

Now that the playoffs are here, mailbags are going to be a once-a-week activity instead of every other, so if you have questions you want to be answered, feel free to shoot me an email at any time or send a raven with a handwritten note. Whichever works best for you.

And now, the questions for this week.

I don't think there's a lot the Sixers need to change about their gameplan heading into a playoff series with Brooklyn. It will be aggravating for fans if D'Angelo Russell is given lots of open midrange jumpers (assuming he knocks them down), but it is ultimately a winning strategy.

Brown made it clear that this is the path the Sixers are going to take with Brooklyn when he spoke to reporters on Friday afternoon about their plan in pick-and-roll coverage, with D'Angelo Russell representing a real challenge for Philly.

"We're going to go with one [gameplan], and try to stamp off on perfect vanilla, and then make sure we have a Plan B. When you start getting into C's and D's, you got some problems," Brown said. "[Sometimes] when you start thinking you're going to make multiple adjustments, it means you're chasing."

The coach would go on to recall a series from his days as a Spurs assistant, in which San Antonio kept changing their pick-and-roll coverages to try to contain Dirk Nowitzki. The instability ended up backfiring and leading to communication issues. Not only did the Spurs not slow down Nowitzki, but they also ended up confusing themselves.

I think you're going to see a lot of the same from Philly against Brooklyn. Look at these plays from the regular season, and it's easy enough to figure out:

Bait the Nets into mid-range shots, fight over screens where appropriate, switch when you have the personnel to execute it. Rinse and repeat.

I'll revisit this one when I've seen Zhaire Smith play extended minutes in the NBA. I think Bridges was disappointing as a shooter in year one, but he did everything defensively you could have asked for on a terrible team, and he certainly would have looked nice in the playoff rotation in Philly.

Still a believer in Smith, but I am also still troubled by the fit here, of course.

I think I would take Mike Scott on this one rather easily, just because Butler isn't shooting enough of them right now. Scott is going to be an integral part of the rotation and have the greenest of green lights to let it fly when he's open. Butler will have a far more substantial impact on the series, but give me Scott if we're talking threes only.

I will say two series, and I say it with less confidence now given what we know about Embiid's health. I still don't think the Sixers should be in danger of losing to the Brooklyn Nets with or without Embiid, but they would not have a chance in hell to beat the Raptors without him.

The continuity may not be there, but this team still has an insane amount of high-end talent when all is said and done. As of right now I would not take the Sixers in a series against the Raptors, but we haven't seen the Sixers play Toronto since the Tobias Harris acquisition, nor do we have an understanding of how the players are going to be rotated in the playoffs. Philadelphia's poor bench may end up not mattering much if the starters just log a ton of minutes, which is how the playoffs tend to go.

By the way, while we're on the subject of Philly potentially playing without Embiid, let me say this — if they can't beat the just over .500 Brooklyn Nets with Ben Simmons and two guys who are going to head into the summer in pursuit of max contracts, what is the point of building around this group at all, Brown included? You don't get to crow about your talent and then fall to pieces and call yourselves the best non-Warriors lineup if everything goes to hell the moment one guy goes down. Show me something.

The Boban problem is really just a matchup-related issue. He can thrive against certain matchups, regardless of the quality of the team, but he's going to be putting his teammates in a bad spot when he's up against an opponent that will target his weaknesses.

Brooklyn is not really a team that can do that, in my opinion, which is part of why I believe the Sixers should be able to beat the Nets regardless of Embiid's health. Their bigs won't force Boban to cover the perimeter, and he can focus on hanging around the rim and deterring drivers, which is what the Sixers want to have him do anyway.

In a round two showdown with Toronto? That's a different story. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka can both drag him out of the paint, and then it's up to Philadelphia's leaky perimeter defense to lock things down. Good luck with that one, because Boban doesn't have the recovery speed to aid you if you get beat.

I think the Sixers would be much better served with Milton on the roster than, say, Greg Monroe. The only real advantage is if the Sixers can theoretically agree to a deal with him in the summer instead of effectively burning a year for this playoff push. If they're convinced he's going to be a real player for the future, okay, but that's hard to square with keeping him playoff ineligible when you have a glaring need for more guards and wings. 

I am not an especially big Joerger fan. He has now rubbed two different front offices the wrong way, and while the situation in Sacramento may just be Vlade Divac's fault, Joerger's reputation would scare me a bit with some volatile personalities already in Philly's locker room.

I don't believe the Kings should have fired him, but I don't think he's the guy who represents a clear upgrade over the incumbent. Finding one of those is not as easy as some of you believe.

What a delightfully earnest question. I will submit my reply in video form:



Zhaire Smith basically has to be the answer here. There's nobody on the roster who would really be a huge shock as a rotation inclusion because of how thin they are and how uncertain everything is due to health. If you told me the Sixers had to throw Greg Monroe on the floor because Embiid isn't healthy and Brown got desperate, I wouldn't be the most surprised person in the world.

And even though I am basically at the point where I expect Smith to get playoff minutes, it's still a bit shocking that he is going to be thrown into the pressure cooker after appearing in just six games. The rookie went through quite an ordeal this year, yet he has arrived ready to fight at just the right time for the Sixers.

My alternative answer: Jonathon Simmons. Do not let the final game of the season fool you, he should be nowhere near influencing a do-or-die series as long as no one gets hurt.

From my view, there's no hardline stance here, nor should there be. If the Sixers are fully healthy in round two and just get steamrolled by Toronto, I could see the case for making a change. Yes, the instability is significant and Toronto is a very good team. But taking a pie in the face in round two for a second straight year probably wouldn't sit well internally. This scenario could also prompt some ego tug-of-war between players, and bringing in a new voice is one method to change that tune.

On the other hand, let's say they drag out a series to seven games and lose on Toronto's home floor and the group generally feels good about where they're at together. The feeling in the locker room is that they just need more time to work together, Butler and Harris sign new deals, the era of the star-studded team begins next season. Is firing Brown the right move then? I don't think so.

Whether they should be making decisions based on a single playoff series is up for debate as well, but that's just kinda how the game goes. My general beliefs with regards to a potential coaching change:

  1. Context matters (see above)
  2. Is there an upgrade available that you know you can hire?
  3. Will moving on from Brown cause any issues with your star players?

If the answers to two or three are not "Yes" and "No" respectively, the conversation is over and you can ignore point No. 1. I am always open to the idea of upgrading your organization whenever and however you can. It would be up to the Sixers to prove they could actually do that.

Neither should be getting major burn, frankly, but I imagine McConnell will probably edge out Smith for minutes. Brown trusts the former and will eventually want the latter to be an integral part of his rotation, but it's too soon for that now. Smith may get a taste, but McConnell is a fixture. Can't see that changing.

And finally, one Game of Thrones question to wrap it up. GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS BELOW YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

I think there has been far too much time spent setting up Jon Snow as the show's hero to pivot out of it in the end. His family origin, cheating death, his alliance with the show's most popular matriarch, it just seems too obvious to go with anyone else. In the early seasons, you could have convinced me that there would be a less traditional ending, as the battle for the Iron Throne was chaotic and ruthless and could hinge at a moment's notice.

Now, we are dealing with more traditional fantasy. It has been made clear who the "heroes" of the show are. Betting against Jon and Dany at this point seems unwise.


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