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February 19, 2021

Sixers mailbag: Zone defense, Doc Rivers vs. Brett Brown, trading for Victor Oladipo

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Doc_Rivers_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

PHILADELPHIA, PA- JANUARY 04: Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers during the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Wells Fargo Center on January 04, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Brooklyn Nets are breathing down their necks, but the Sixers remain the top seed in the East despite stumbling on a recent road trip out west. Good vibes continue, but questions remain about their viability as a contender.

That happens to be good inspiration for mailbag questions, and you guys continue to have plenty about Philadelphia as we edge closer and closer to the All-Star break. While I can't humor all of your fake trade suggestions (or questions in general), I will continue to field your ideas right up until the window shuts in late March.

But before we trade anybody away or evaluate the defense, we might as well start with one of the headline questions...

Let me be clear before starting this because I'm sure any comparison of the two coaches on my end is just going to make people made — Rivers is the superior coach and has done a good job guiding a new team through unprecedented circumstances. We'll nitpick some of his choices and the viability of his team long-term, but they're taking care of business.

Here are the ways I think Rivers has set himself apart in a positive way:

  1. In-game adjustments — This was an issue under Brown I was actually expecting to be similar under Rivers, who was notorious for sticking to his guns at previous stops. Turning to zone defense has been one of the big examples of how Rivers has helped Philadelphia with in-game changes in recent weeks.
  2. Riding the hot hand — While technically I'd consider this part of the above category, Rivers' willingness to stick with guys who are feeling it instead of operating in more rigid fashion with his rotation is a contrast to Brown, whose rotations you could mostly set your watch to. Guys like Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle have been beneficiaries here depending on the game situation.
  3. Defensive flexibility — Though Dan Burke is the guy who is spearheading the defense for Philadelphia, the changes to how they setup on defense still ultimately fall under Rivers' jurisdiction. They have had mixed results at that end so far this season, but they've also been able to put out fires and work through kinks on stylistic quirks they'll need to succeed in the playoffs.

Other things fall in more neutral territory. There have been additions and changes to the Sixers' offensive playbook, for example, but there's a lot left over from the previous regime on that end of the floor. It's a positive that Rivers hasn't tried to fix what's not broken — I appreciate a coach who can recognize good ideas other people have — but the second unit's complete disarray demands more structure and hands-on approach from Rivers, so in my mind that washes out. Crunch-time execution is another thing I think skews positive and coincides with the "riding the hot hand" bit, but when you consider their second-half success is often predicated on just moving Simmons to the player he probably could/should have guarded all game, it takes a bit of the sting out of it.

Here's where I'd say we see either similar problems with Rivers as we did under Brown, or new issues that are worth looking at:

  1. Minimal staggering — On the one hand, I admire Rivers for trying to link Simmons and Embiid's minutes in an effort to basically for them to work together as partners, a decision that could pay dividends down the road. I am wary of giving him credit for looking forward, however, because this is a style stuck with to his own detriment at his last stop in Los Angeles, even at times in the playoffs. It's something to keep an eye on. Brown was much more militant about keeping at least one of Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons on the floor at all times.
  2. Bench structure and lineup choices — I've been pretty vocal about my thoughts on playing the Simmons-Thybulle-Howard triumvirate, a spacing nightmare that I hope fades as the season wears on. Like many coaches (Brown included), Rivers has given a lot of leeway to guys he identified as his rotation players early and was/is similarly reluctant to let young guys work through struggles. Tyrese Maxey's role has fluctuated wildly while Furkan Korkmaz has basically been an automatic rotation guy every night, for example.
  3. Shot profile — We'll see if this sticks long-term, but Rivers has facilitated a lot more midrange shooting this season, a choice that leaves them on the wrong side of a math battle on a lot of nights. Some of this is personnel driven, some of this is a function of defensive issues recently, but it's a concern all the same.

The single hardest thing for me to measure is Rivers' impact as a motivator, which is where I suspect a lot of people would like me to weigh in. I think the truth of his impact is somewhere in between the two schools of thought. I have long believed and written that internal drive is far more important than what coaches offer, and if we just look at Joel Embiid, his improvements as a midrange shooter and passer out of the post have as much to do with his own work and changes in personnel as they do Rivers' influence. That being said, it's also clear that the team has responded well to Rivers' voice after tuning out Brown last year.

Most of this evaluation just doesn't really matter yet. We know Embiid and Simmons can win plenty of regular-season games together even in suboptimal circumstances. The question is whether Rivers is an impactful enough tactician to help them when it matters most in the playoffs. 

Some of this is a lot of people needing to adjust their expectations with how the NBA works now compared to when they probably first started watching the league. Teams can go on crazy scoring runs with a barrage of threes and close gaps a lot quicker as a result. I think there's a similar phenomenon with how a lot of people view the overall quality of defense in the NFL, not pricing in how rules changes and the rise of pass-heavy offenses have facilitated higher scoring games even if you have a good defense and coordinator.

On top of that, Philadelphia's structure (and the aforementioned shot profile) hurts them here. When the Sixers spend long stretches of games attacking inside the arc and frequently from midrange, teams can dent leads with relatively low efficiency by simply shooting more threes than they do. It's sort of an unavoidable problem when your two best players are a center and a guy who is notorious for his aversion to jumpers.

I don't think acting like Kobe Bryant is going to make a difference here. Could they step on the gas a little more in second halves when they have big leads? Sure. But that's true of basically every team when they get off to hot starts. So it goes.

We'll probably talk to Embiid about this again sometime before March 7th, but I think there's a decent chance he could end up missing the All-Star Game. He expressed some reservations about playing in the game due to the back tightness he has been dealing with, and he has missed more games since he gave that quote in early February, with Philadelphia's schedule not really letting up at any point. There's no better time to buy him some rest than the brief All-Star break.

I do not think it will be a widespread issue for the league, even with the strong quotes that have come from guys like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe you get a guy here or there who doesn't participate, but that feels it won't be acted on when push comes to shove.

Who's the starting center for the aliens? 

My estimation is this is probably a wash for the Sixers. They have suffered in some ways no doubt, primarily with the lack of practice time that has made it difficult to implement anything new and sharpen the concepts they have already introduced. There's also much less time that can be used for this team to come together away from the court, and though they've seemed like a harmonious group so far, we'll see what happens when true adversity hits this season.

On the other side of it, there are some silver linings to this season. It's a bit tougher for the rigors of the road to test you when you're not dealing with opposing fans and your travel plans are mostly limited to hanging around the hotel and laying low. They've been fortunate to be matched up with a few teams who had stars out due to COVID-related issues, helping to boost their record in the early days of the season, though their seven-man effort against the Nuggets was definitely not in their favor. I think it'll all be fairly neutral in the end.

Despite my own aversion to zone defense, I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest it can be a great tool when it is used appropriately. Miami has long been a proponent of zone defense as a way to put a wrench in the gears of their opponents, and other teams have succeeded using variations of zone to fluster teams in big moments. Toronto used a box-and-one to force the ball out of Steph Curry's hands in the 2019 NBA Finals, and the Mavericks rather infamously slowed down LeBron James and company in the 2011 Finals thanks in large part to their use of zone.

As Steve correctly points out, if you can stick Simmons and Thybulle at the top of a zone, I think you have a viable path to using it more often than is typical. The recovery speed of those two players makes it hard to punish Philly for collapsing to the paint against a driver, and their active hands make it difficult to navigate through traffic in the first place. It also has the effect of allowing Embiid to hover closer to the rim, which is obviously the area where he makes his money on the defensive end. Even the secondary pieces are well-suited for their roles there — Danny Green is and has historically been a good help defender, and Tobias Harris has shown improvement reading and timing help in the paint when he cheats off of the corner. 

There's always a chance teams will shoot you out of it, and that's okay. Rivers has been clear that they're not going to just sit in a zone and get pummeled if teams start burying them with threes, and that's the right mentality from my view. It's a situational style that they've used to change games with little practice time, and I think they can potentially get much better at it over time.

I don't think you can think about it this way. There are guys that probably have to be traded depending on what sort of player they want to get back in return, primarily Danny Green, whose $15 million salary is their path to matching salaries and getting a potential impact player. But I don't think Morey is going to move Green or anybody else just for the sake of making a move, and most of the guys who would be useful in trade discussions have valued roles on this team.

(That includes Green, who has been the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of the team this season, swinging back and forth from quarter to quarter, let alone game to game. He's still a guy I would trust in a big moment this spring/summer.)

That's why I look at somebody like Nemanja Bjelica as one of their most realistic targets — you can acquire him for almost nothing and swap out someone like Mike Scott. It may not end up moving the needle at all, but it's a move you can make without having to sacrifice current production or future upside. Maybe they go big-game hunting, but this feels like a seller's market to me.

I have gone back and forth on the idea of Oladipo maybe 15 times over the last few months. On the one hand, an ideal version of Oladipo can tie together some of your problem areas, giving them a boost as a creator, defensive toughness, and a more viable option in closing lineups that isn't actively taking something off of the floor. Given that he's on an expiring, your outlay would almost certainly be minimal compared to going after, for example, guys like Bradley Beal or Zach LaVine.

But those guys have also been considerably better than Oladipo, and I keep circling back to the fact that Oladipo has basically had one high-level season and a bunch of good, not great years otherwise. He looked closer to his old self during the early part of the year with Indiana, but his efficiency has fallen off of a cliff with the Rockets, with Oladipo shooting under 30 percent from three on seven attempts per game. 

Even at peak performance, I don't know that Oladipo is a clean fit with the guys they have on hand, and I think he adds question marks as he removes others. If you're getting him for a minimal return package it's probably worth the gamble on his talent, even if it's short term only. But there is something to be said for a team that has a natural pecking order behind / a clean fit around Embiid.

(It seems unlikely Houston is going to give Philly anybody at a discounted rate, mind you.)

For those of you who haven't been keeping track, Paul Reed has been absolutely killing it in the G-League bubble. He's averaging 24 points and 13 rebounds a game on great efficiency, and his combined steals/blocks numbers have continued to translate after he stacked them up in college. The major swing skill for Reed is going to be his jumper — he's got funky and somewhat inconsistent mechanics, but he isn't shy about getting shots up. 

If Reed can iron out some of the kinks in his game and accept a definitive role, I think there's definitely a chance he can turn into a role player down the road, but he's also super raw and needs a lot of seasoning (which thankfully they can get for him with the Blue Coats). The league is trending in a direction where guys with his build are more common as centers, focusing on rim-running, rim protection, and catch-and-shoot threes above all else. Toronto's Chris Boucher is having a great season this year, for example, though I would caution against thinking Reed can become a 40+ percent three-point shooter. Keeping my eye on BBall Paul..

Containing dribble penetration has been a big problem for everybody not named Ben Simmons, and even he has had some issues with high-level guards as of late. I attribute some of this to the changes in scheme. With Embiid higher up against pick-and-rolls and not constantly at the rim as he was in the past, beating the initial line of attack is more fruitful for opponents now. Sometimes that ends up with open layups, other times it leads to open threes when help defenders cheat too far toward the paint to try to cut off drivers or rollers bearing down on the rim.

While Rivers/Burke have gotten more out of players who historically have been below-average defenders, I would worry about how many targets they might have when it's playoff time. How real are gains made by Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz? How ugly will it get for Seth Curry when switches are forced? Will Danny Green's on-ball defense continue to be this bad against quicker players? Dwight Howard has not been good for a while, either, and I'm certainly not counting on a pair of rookies in Tyrese Maxey and Isaiah Joe to be playoff-caliber defenders in year one. They have very few rotation players you don't have to make trade-offs for in some way.

I do see some of the same issues you are with help rotation. I'm less concerned here than I am with the individual defense on the perimeter because I ultimately think time spent together will have them looking better and better. There have already been some positive signs in a variety of different looks — blitzing middle pick-and-rolls, ICE-ing side pick-and-rolls, 2-3 zone — so I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they can and will get it right.


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