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November 28, 2018

What's behind early defensive issues for Sixers this season?

Sixers NBA

The guiding philosophy of Philadelphia's pick-and-roll defense was not formed recently, nor did it spring to the mind of their coach from watching any of his own teams play during the rebuilding years. To hear the head coach tell it, it starts in New Orleans, long before the days of Anthony Davis, where Chris Paul was still the ruler of the roost.

Those late 2000's Hornets (now Pelicans) were one of the early teams to really tap into the power of spreading the floor around pick-and-rolls, and for good reason — Paul was (and is) a master at it, and with a young Tyson Chandler providing a lob target, it was a tall task for teams to stop that two-man game.

Brett Brown, still an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs back in those days, was assigned the Hornets as one of his teams to scout. And while the Paul-Chandler action was devastating enough on its own, it was the personnel around them that provided a blueprint of how the league would start to shift in the years since.

"They had Peja [Stojakovic], Mo Peterson, Rasul Butler...David West," Brown told PhillyVoice after practice Tuesday, "and Chris would just get Tyson on dunks. But you get sucked in, and there's Peja and Mo Pete, and even David West was hitting long two's. And at that point for me, it's when we decided we're just going to just bring Timmy [Duncan] back. We'll let Tony [Parker] chase over, and fuck it. If they get a bunch of long two's, we'll just go with that."

Conceding the long two (or at least two-point jumpers) is not exactly a novel concept in today's NBA. But in a league going smaller and smaller, finding a perfect solution is not so cut and dry for a team built around a rim-protecting big. How do you preserve the integrity of Joel Embiid's defensive strengths without conceding too much space to an opponent?

So far, the Sixers have done a poor job of answering that question. Against recent opponents such as the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Brooklyn Nets — none of them good, it's worth noting — the Sixers let guards get going early, with their early success against soft coverage helping to spark bigger nights.

In these examples, the principles are all the same. Jimmy Butler goes over, Embiid drops and doesn't really pretend to care about contesting, the opposing guard makes them pay.

That soft spot from about 15-19 feet is one of the only areas in which Sixers opponents are shooting markedly better than league average. Philadelphia is sixth-best at the rim, and around the middle of the pack in the rest of the trackable areas (5-9 feet, 10-14 feet, 20-24 feet, 25-29 feet) in the NBA's stats database. But 15-19 feet is a sore spot, with opponents shooting 44.7 percent, good for sixth-worst in the league. If you expand that to the general "mid-range" zone, the Sixers remain in the bottom 10.

If there's an area of the court you'd choose to get beat from, it's that one. You're not getting the benefit of the extra point from downtown or the better odds of drawing fouls around the basket. As Brown put it, "What sword are you going to fall on?"

What's harder to quantify is how it reshapes the game and an opponent's confidence if they can get it going early. Seeing the ball go in is powerful, and emboldens players as the clock rolls on. The Sixers have also fallen victim to the flipside of this phenomenon — when guards like Devin Booker are able to just probe away and force Philly's bigs into defending for long periods of time, they can find openings for easy assists.

As the coach himself admits in very matter-of-fact fashion, stopping this is a tall task no matter who the opponent is.

"And so as Kemba [Walker] comes off the screen, or [Colin Sexton] comes off, it's fuckin' hard," Brown told Philly Voice. He compared defending five-out lineups to solving a Rubik's cube, but the difference here is that the cube can throw counterpunches at you, complicating the decisionmaking process.

Depending on the night (or the opponent), the Sixers have proven willing to throw different solutions at the problem. Late in the game against the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia threw the kitchen sink at Russell, blitzing him in an effort to get the ball in the hands of other players. 

The success of this strategy is only feasible in short bursts, and it's a tricky one to rely on anyway. You need all five guys to be switchable, committed defenders who can keep the chain in one piece once Embiid (or another screen setter's man) flashes hard at the ballhandler. Even when that's the case, you're often going to have to hope role players miss open shots, and that's a dicier proposition as more teams load their lineups with shooters. The Sixers came out on the winning end in Brooklyn, but they don't call the NBA a make-or-miss league without reason.

The Sixers toyed with sending their lead defenders under screens against the Pelicans, in part because of the stress Anthony Davis causes for a defense. But that's not going to be the foundation of their defense, because the success of this group relies on winning two-on-two battles. The best way to do that is to stay home on the shooters and funnel traffic toward Embiid in the paint.

Philadelphia is in a tricky spot right now. Their defense has taken a dive following the trade for Butler, 24th in the league since he joined the lineup against Orlando on November 14th. His defensive role with the Sixers is a different one than he has been asked to play for most of his career. Butler has always been a competitor on defense, but he has tended to play with guards — from Derrick Rose to Kirk Hinrich to Jeff Teague — who just take the natural 1 vs. 1 matchup.

The loss of Robert Covington looms here. In a perfect world, Brown says, Butler would be the guy he has always been on the wing, a weapon Brown calls a "street fighter" who can disrupt and attack, focusing less on the relentless churn of the pick-and-roll. Brown cites Markelle Fultz's disappearance here too, and the coach has a point — despite all the long-term questions about the offensive side of the ball, Fultz has progressed defensively since the season began. 

The new guy acknowledges his need to get acclimated, but he believes this will ultimately begin to come together.

"The lingo is very different, but that comes with time," Butler said Tuesday. "I'm picking it up, studying the film, writing all the different terminologies down so they're stuck in my head."

Wins are masking the problem for now. Do these problems hold as Butler settles in, the team develops chemistry, and more pieces are likely added through trades or the buyout market as the season winds on? That's the million-dollar question.

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