Boy oh boy, the Sixers are home-sick. After their 5-0 start, the team has dropped five of eight to decline to 8-5. As the days go by, Brett Brown’s seat becomes warmer and warmer. Right now, as Martin Lawrence said in Bad Boys 2, Brown “can smell his ass burnin'”.
I’ve supported Brown throughout his time in Philadelphia–probably to a fault. I appreciate him for leading the most successful season in my time following the Sixers. The 2017-18 academic year, my junior year at Villanova, was the happiest of my life; and the Sixers sponsored that happiness. But, as these games come and go, it becomes more blatant and clear–Brett Brown is so steadfast in his philosophies that he won’t get out of his own way when it comes to in-game strategy. If things don’t change for the better soon, Brown’s stubbornness is going to cost him his job.
It Starts With Defense
While there should be more patience for the offense, there is no excuse for the defensive letdowns that have marred the Sixers in the early-goings of this season. For example, in last week’s column, I prescribed that the Sixers should trap Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the perimeter when the ball is passed his way. Gilgeous-Alexander is the Thunder’s leading scorer. He averages less than five assists per game. Clearly, he sees the basket better than his own teammates, so a trap would theoretically force him into errant passes for the Sixers to capitalize on in the open court. In the Sixers’ 127-119 overtime loss to the Thunder on Friday, they trapped Gilgeous-Alexander just once. They successfully got the ball out of his hands. Every other coverage in the pick-and-roll was Brown’s signature drop strategy:
Embiid drops to defend the basket when Adams sets the screen. Richardson falls behind Gilgeous-Alexander getting around the screen. The drop coverage allows Alexander to get as close to the rim as he wants and get off a shot that is bread-and-butter for most guards.
Adapt Or Die
The drop coverage has allowed guards around the NBA to torch the Sixers for years. The predictive nature of the Sixer defense has allowed teams to recover from significant deficits and beat the Sixers time and time again; I would guess that, over the last three seasons, the Sixers have lost close to thirty games that they should’ve won in large part due to coach Brown’s dedication to his philosophies. If he doesn’t make an effort to bend his philosophies soon, Brown’s tenure will not reach eight seasons. Luckily, he has seventy games to save his job, not including the playoffs. But, this is a tough week to get away from what he’s spent seven seasons indoctrinating.
New York Knicks
November 20, 7 PM, Wells Fargo Center (NBCS Philly)
The Knicks are marred in another season of diabolical off-the-court drama. James Dolan continues to run the team into the ground, it’s hard to tell whether Scott Perry and the front office are just tied by Dolan’s incompetence or don’t know what they’re doing either, and David Fizdale is likely going to fall victim to their fiasco and suffer another unwarranted blemish on his coaching resume as a result. On the court, the Knicks are trying to grow through dysfunction and sneak themselves into victories when the opportunities arise.
With the mix of veterans that the Knicks have, the Sixers won’t be able to sleep through the game and win; however, they will be victorious if they simply lock in and treat the Knicks with respect. Of course, the Sixers love to play down to opponents. Even if the game should be a blowout, who knows, at this point? They’ve given you little to no reason to believe that they are capable of playing a full game and blowing the doors off of the opposition from start to finish.
The one thing I will say definitively is that the Sixers will have no problem creating offense in transition.
Force Live-Ball Turnovers
The one thing the Sixers and Knicks have in common on the basketball court is that they adore turning the ball over. The Knicks have turned the ball over at least 11 times in every game they’ve played this season. They are 0-4 when they turn the rock over at least 18 times. If the Sixers are engaged on the defensive end, communicate on screens, maintain active hands, and stay aware of the passing lanes, they will be able to turn the Knicks over in the open court. That’s when the Sixers engage the missile that is Ben Simmons and watch as chaos ensues. The Knicks lack the defensive discipline to get back and defend effectively in transition. So, if the Sixers pressure them into mistakes, the buckets will be pervasive and unremitting.
If the Sixers remain aggressive in transition, they might even be able to get themselves to the free throw line, which by the way…
The Free Throw Line Is Your Friend
Freebies have become increasingly difficult for the Sixers to come by recently. They’ve attempted just 48 free throws over their last 3 games. It’s not as if they aren’t getting into the paint or are avoiding physicality–nearly 45% of Joel Embiid’s touches come within ten feet of the basket; nearly 46% of the Sixers’ total shot attempts come within that same distance, as well. The Sixers, as a team, are not shying away from contact in their scoring endeavors. In other words, I’m saying they are being victimized by swallowed whistles when it is clear that they are being fouled:
I’ll let you be the judge, but my ophthalmologist told me my eyes were fine the last time I paid him a visit.
Getting to the Line
Regardless of questionable silent whistles, the Sixers have to make it a point to take advantage of the young and undersized nature the Knicks’ bigs. The Sixers are 4-1 when they attempt at least 25 free throws, and that number is easily attainable by baiting the Knicks into contact. Hell, Embiid could see 25 free throw attempts just by using his favorite face-up moves:
Here, Embiid gets Bismack Biyombo in what I like to call the dead zone–he’s committing a shooting foul, giving up a bucket, or both. This time, Embiid gets him in the air with a fake off of the reverse pivot and then uses shear strength to finish the shot through the contact.
Alternatively, Jo could go with one that, although not quite as sexy, he has perfected:
Embiid posts up Damian Jones and lulls him to sleep with a slow pivot into a face-up. Jones lowers his hands to try to protect against both a drive and a jump shot. Embiid senses Jones reaching and quickly swipes through on his way up into a jumper. Jones commits a foul, and Embiid uses his strength and touch to convert an easy opportunity at a three-point play.
The Sixers will move to 9-5 if they force the Knicks into mistakes and convert aggressive offense into opportunities at the charity stripe.
Prediction: Sixers 112, Knicks 91
San Antonio Spurs
November 22, 8 PM, Wells Fargo Center (ESPN)
These are not your father’s Spurs. Gregg Popovich has gotten noticeably older this season, the Spurs are four games below the equator, and the team’s pulse grows fainter by the game. But, Pop is still a mastermind, and he has a pair of veteran stars with outdated skillsets leading his team, in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. The players haven’t experienced a championship formula, but the generals on the bench know what makes players tick and what wins championships. This team, as bad as they are right now, is extremely dangerous.
Credit Where It’s Due
While Brett Brown has given us close to zero reason to believe that he will bend his philosophies to cater to an opponent, he showed signs that he was desperate to win with the adjustments he made on the defensive end of the court in Sunday’s blowout win in Cleveland. He moved away from the drop coverage on the pick-and-roll and opted to have his big pick up the ball-handler once he got around the screen. He’ll need to continue to bend his “long two” philosophy to cope with DeMar DeRozan.
Threes or Tough Scores at the Rim
Over his eleven-year career, DeRozan has averaged 18 points per game against the Sixers. According to NBA.com’s Shot Tracking statistics, at least 68% of DeRozan’s field goal attempts have come from within the three-point arc when he’s matched up with the Sixers–in other words, he is a shooting guard that is allergic to three-point shooting. Shooters who don’t space the floor in a long-range bomber era of basketball are going to need to pick-and-roll opponents to death in order to get themselves open looks. That will spell trouble for the Sixers if they opt to give him real estate in the mid-range areas after the screen.
Switch On Screens
I would deploy a switch on the ball-screen. That may create a size mismatch favoring San Antonio from time-to-time, but the purpose of this Sixers roster is to minimize mismatches by deploying players that are huge. Switching might also leave the Sixers susceptible to a blow-by if DeRozan finds himself isolating against a slower defender. You’ll live with the occasional mismatches as long as DeRozan isn’t able to get the mid-range looks that have made him a multi-time all-star in the NBA.
Watch as the Timberwolves effectively implement a switch to perturb the USC product:
Aldridge screens DeRozan so that he can get to his spot and go to work. However, the shot isn’t there because Karl Anthony-Towns steps up immediately once DeRozan gets past the screen, while Jarrett Culver locks onto LaMarcus Aldridge. DeRozan is already invested in the look he’s getting and takes a contested mid-range jumper. That shot is usually a quick deposit in the bank for him, but the hand in his face makes it much more difficult. He’s a bit heavy with it, and it pops off the back rim.
The Spurs allow opponents to shoot 54.3% from downtown in the second frames of games in which they are the away team–highest in the league by a large margin. Opponents are simply moving the ball well against the Texas dynasty. The ball movement is pulling the Spur defense out of position, and Gregg Popovich is looking on while his troops are giving up open shots in the second period. The Spurs travel at 3.91 miles per hour on the defensive side of the court, while their foes travel at an average pace of 4.56 miles per second quarter on offense. Simply put, the Spurs are getting blown off the court before halftime, and that desperation to maintain pace with their opponents is exhausting the aging Texan squad.
In order to create those open looks to warrant the extra pass, the Sixers will have to exploit size mismatches in the post to collapse the Spur defense. Embiid is an obvious candidate because of his physical dominance, but he may not be the one you want making passes when the defense converges. I would opt to shift Ben Simmons into the post against a guard such as Bryn Forbes. If the look is there, great–easy bucket. If not, and the defense collapses on him, Ben has the vision to do this:
In this clip, Tobias Harris sees Ben Simmons has a clear size advantage against the smaller Brandon Knight and immediately feeds Ben in the low post. Cedi Osman collapses to help Knight, leaving Thybulle naked in the corner. Ben makes the easy extra pass to the rookie, who promptly buries the triple.
The Sixers should win this game. But, if there’s one thing we know about the Sixers, it’s that we don’t know the Sixers. This game will be close down the stretch, and Gregg Popovich will outsmart his student in crunch time. But, Pop can’t play the game for his players, who will crumble and beat themselves like they have so often in the early-goings of this season.
Prediction: Sixers 118, Spurs 110
November 23, 7:30 PM, Wells Fargo Center (NBCS Philly)
Shakespeare never composed a drama quite like this one. Jimmy Butler is back in town for the first time since his sign-and-trade to Miami this summer. It will be an emotional night for the Philly faithful, but the Sixers cannot get too bogged down in the past. While emotions will run high, the task at hand isn’t to show up Jimmy Butler; rather, the mission is to win the game. Let the margin of victory do the talking.
Butler has revitalized the dynamic playmaking that he had not shown in Minnesota or Philadelphia over the past two seasons. Notching around 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists on a nightly basis, he is doing everything. At 9-3, the Heat are certainly grateful for Butler’s efforts.
Even with Butler’s great play to begin this season, the Heat have weaknesses, and the paint is one of them.
Establish Deep Post Positioning
This city has been begging Joel Embiid to keep one foot planted in the paint since his rookie year. The reality is that, with a point guard who won’t even consider shooting from outside the paint, it’s usually impossible for Embiid to clog the lane on offense and still maintain spacing on most nights. Add Horford into the mix, and the Sixers are playing 5-out or 4-out-1-in (with Simmons as the post player) offense almost every possession.
Embiid and Horford
However, there is major incentive to adjust the rotation to maximize Embiid and Horford on the block. Opposing centers score 15.9 points per game in the paint against the Heat when they’re the visiting team–only the Cavaliers give up more such points. The Sixers must look to exploit Miami’s soft spot down low to create easy opportunities–taking advantage of those opportunities will force the Heat defense to converge, and will open up the offense for the Sixers once they begin to swing the ball. As long as Embiid doesn’t get too physical when creating separation, he will be able to get these looks:
Embiid creates separation from Darius Garland using his right arm as soon as Tobias Harris lobs in the entry pass. Tristan Thompson, although big and imposing, is not a good enough defensive player to override Joel Embiid, especially when Embiid is in a position of high advantage. Easy finish made possible by separation and a good entry pass into the post.
Let’s see how Horford does it:
Horford utilizes a righty jab step to back Skal Labissiere up a bit, thus creating some space to operate. Al then attacks right so as to physically overwhelm Labissiere whilst protecting the ball and maintaining his dribble with his dominant (right) hand. He uses his massive shoulders to bulldoze the Portland big man until he gets to within a shoe-length of the paint, and then converts an easy layup.
If the Sixers target Meyers Leonard, Bam Adebayo, and Kelly Olynyk in the paint and use their physicality to overwhelm the Miami bigs, they will rack up points in the paint and, in turn, pressure the Heat defense to collapse to help the bigs. When that happens, the Sixers can blitz them by simply finding the open man.
Jumpers For Jimmy
As good as Jimmy Butler has been for the Heat in the first month of this season, he hasn’t exactly written a book on the art of scoring the basketball. He is converting 58% of his attempts from inside ten feet of the basket, but under 30% everywhere else on the court. Furthermore, when Butler has to take at least three dribbles to get off his shot, his field goal percentage maxes out at 32% and dips to 27.8% when he takes seven or more dribbles.
The Sixers will have to take away the lane when Butler gets around the screen, but that is automatic with the drop coverage defensive philosophy. Still, it isn’t as easy as “keep doing what you do”. We saw last season that Jimmy can get hot when he’s in his rhythm. He loves the pick-and-roll, and will look to rise up for mid-range jumpers once he clears the pick. Switching on the screen might be the best strategy here, seeing as Leonard, Adebayo, and Olynyk aren’t going to light the world on fire with unbelievable finishes at the rim.
You’ll live with a smaller defender mismatched against one of them, especially if your help defense is quick enough to come over to support and bolt back if the pass to a shooter is made. What you won’t live with is Butler scoring 37 points in his return to Philadelphia. None of us will live with that.
Prediction: Sixers 116, Heat 111