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September 30, 2023

How will Nick Nurse approach defense with the Sixers?

Nick Nurse's Toronto teams were always aggressive defenders and that style might carry over well to the current Sixers.

During Nick Nurse’s five years as head coach of the Toronto Raptors, a hallmark of his teams, which ranged from great to good to middling, was a consistent place among the league’s top 10 in defensive turnover rate. According to Cleaning The Glass, they led the league in that category the past three seasons, were second in 2019-20 and ninth in 2018-19. Contrastingly, the Philadelphia 76ers have only finished top 10 once since 2017-18 – third in 2020-21 – and generally adhered to conservative defensive schemes under former head coaches, Doc Rivers and Brett Brown.

Recently, the Raptors’ brash style was partly borne out of necessity. They often lacked a true rim protector, so forcing turnovers was the path to successful possessions that kept the ball out of the paint. Their half-court offense was sticky, so generating fast-break opportunities helped avoid that stickiness. Philadelphia, however, has its anchor in Joel Embiid and should be a pretty good offense with or without James Harden.

Personnel helps dictate schemes and this is a completely different roster composition than those Toronto squads. Even so, these Sixers seem well-equipped to continue some of the aggression Nurse gravitated toward up North.

De’Anthony Melton, Patrick Beverley, Tobias Harris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Paul Reed are all dexterous defenders touting gaudy playmaking rates who should be empowered to hunt takeaways. Melton and Beverley excel in pressuring at the point-of-attack to render opponents uncomfortable and ideally produce mistakes. Harris and Oubre love the sneaky swipe as their man transitions into a shot or pass. Paul Reed has magnets for hands and is tremendously good trapping ball-screens in pick-and-roll coverage.

All of them placed in the 61st percentile or better at their positions in steal percentage in 2022-23. Reed and Melton were above the 90th percentile in both steal and block percentages. Melton’s boom-or-bust approach sometimes rattled possessions when it failed because of the team’s typically conservative game plan. Entering the year with an aggressive ethos could make it easier for everyone to adapt when Melton’s pursuits fall flat.

Given Embiid’s enormous offensive responsibilities and possession-by-possession inconsistencies defensively, tabbing him as the safety blanket of a high-flying unit may be putting too much on his plate. He’s a very good defender, but someone whose peak on that end has declined from the early days of his career, which manifests with some unpredictability in his commitment to rim protection.

If Tyrese Maxey proves ready to assume a larger workload offensively, Harris sees an uptick in usage, particularly as a creator, and Oubre is garnering notable volume, it’s not inconceivable Embiid could be more of a 27- or 28-point scorer rather than a 33-point one and is ready to dial up the defensive intensity. I expect he’ll be tasked with more facilitating duties in lieu of Harden’s presumed absence and that may counteract any scoring decline, but there’s a world in which he rediscovers his All-World mojo defensively. And if Nurse has his way, that will certainly be the case.

“I’m going to really expect a lot more rim protection from him. I would say that would be where I’m going to start at,” Nurse said during an appearance on “The Pat Bev Pod” earlier this month. “We’re going to probably let our aggressive guards be really aggressive and funnel a lot of things to him. I am expecting that, I always say like, he’s gonna take more swings at blocked shots.”

Under Rivers, Philadelphia was pretty tepid in providing help at the nail and one pass away on drives. Between the Raptors’ habits and his words above, that likely changes under Nurse, who also said Reed will “for sure” play alongside Embiid. Through three seasons, they’ve only shared the floor for 25 possessions, so it’ll require an adjustment period. The offense will stall at times, with Reed’s long-range shooting a question mark. He’s a much better cutter and finisher than P.J. Tucker -- who defenses generally ignored next to Embiid last season -- so the big fella’s gravity and passing prowess may help navigate the Sixers through some of those lulls.

Defensively, though, the possibilities are pretty intriguing. Assigning Embiid to poor or non-shooters and letting him park near the rim, while Reed causes havoc in pick-and-rolls, could spur quite the dilemma for opposing offenses. The projected rotation (Maxey, Melton, Harris, Tucker, Embiid, Beverley, Oubre, Reed) is more defensively slanted than last season. Those upgrades specifically align with Nurse’s schematic preferences and it could help the Sixers establish a defensive identity that generally escaped them for the majority of last season.

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