Recent history says that NBA champions must finish in the top 10 on defense. The Sixers have done that three times in the Joel Embiid era. As powerful as the current team figures to be on offense, concerns about the defensive side of the ball are more than justifiable. The Sixers have an assortment of net-positive defenders. But, do they have enough elite defenders to lift their overall product on that side of the ball comfortably within the top 10? Do they have the personnel to get successive stops against elite offensive players in the highest-leverage games?
Ben Simmons was an irreplaceable luxury on defense. At times he was a free safety capable of floating around the court and sealing off any cracks in the armor. On other nights, he could take the lead assignment on an opposing team’s best offensive player and completely marginalize their impact on the game. While free-agent contractor PJ Tucker fancies himself a chameleon — and is in his own right — he doesn’t have the physical gifts that Simmons has.
Argue whether the defensive backbone of those teams was Embiid or Simmons if you’d like. But, that’s a fool’s errand. The more important truth is that the modern NBA is driven by perimeter play, and, therefore, you cannot minimize Simmons’ value on that end of the floor.
With Simmons gone, Embiid is the team’s unquestioned anchor on both sides of the ball.
34.5 percent of the opposition’s field goal attempts came in the midrange when Embiid was on the court last season, according to Cleaning The Glass. The next most frequent shot selection was three-pointers, at 33.5 percent. That means the least frequent distribution in opponent shot profile was rim attempts.
Nearly 80 percent of opponents’ possessions came in the halfcourt when Embiid was on the floor.
In other words, offenses were tasked with scoring against a set defense in approximately 4 out of every 5 possessions when Embiid was on the court. That is context that shapes a fairly evident conclusion:
Embiid’s defensive prowess disturbs opposing offenses so much that they’re taking inefficient shots more often than not when he’s on the floor.
The game-changing quality behind Embiid’s defense is his ability to move his feet without compromising his strength in maintaining position against interior threats:
Bam Adebayo is 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds with positive wingspan. Embiid has him beat in all three categories. But, his strength and quick feet actively push Adebayo away from the rim the more he dribbles. What looked like a post-up on the left block or a shot at the rim devolved into a free-throw line jumper.
Even if the opposing offense is able to run actions to set up its best options, Embiid is able to adjust on the fly:
When engaged, Embiid has the intuition to be in the right spot as the play unfolds. His ability to pivot on the fly, change directions, and apply pressure as the ball moves junks up even the most basic actions.
Embiid has the IQ to read offenses seconds ahead of time from the other side of the floor. That intelligence manifests in highlight-reel plays that capture timely rotations from the weak side to the rim. And on some nights, it can spell the difference between victory and defeat:
All of those qualities allow for Embiid to adapt to various defensive schemes. And in an era so heavily marked by shot-creators with size, Embiid’s ability to switch onto the perimeter and hold his own is critical.
At the end of the day, Embiid’s willingness to be a defensive anchor and his physical conditioning dictate the Sixers’ ceiling on that end of the floor. With more dynamic offensive threats on his team than ever before, Embiid doesn’t have to worry about reserving energy for that end of the floor. He can afford to coast a bit on offense for the sake of dedicating himself more on the defensive side of the court.
Embiid has made known his desire to be crowned the Defensive Player of the Year in the past. He reiterated how critical his role is to the team’s defensive product on media day a few Mondays ago. “Our focus is on defense. We aim to be the best defensive team in the league. That’s going to take all of us,” Embiid said. “I’ve got to get back to not waiting until the fourth to be ‘that guy’, and then doing it all game.”
Actions speak louder than words. The offensive load he carried was a reasonable excuse for not defending to the standard he set for himself in the past. Now going to battle with teammates he can trust to make things a bit more even on offense, Embiid is set up to have a more thorough impact on defense in 2022-23 than ever before.
Barring injury or something unforeseeable elsewhere on the roster, it’s entirely up to Embiid to be the defensive player he claims he wants to be.
The ball hawk
While Embiid has set a high standard for himself, he has a better support system around him than he had last year on the defensive end of the court.
That support system begins with Tucker.
Synergy has this to say about Tucker’s defensive impact last season for the Heat:
|Play Types||Number of Possessions||Points per possession percentile rank||Effective field goal percentage|
|PnR roll man||36||18th||64.1|
The average effective field goal percentage in the NBA was 53.2 last season. Tucker didn’t dominate opposing offenses in every context. But, they had to work for baskets every time he was involved in the action — whether it was as an on-ball defender or a help defender. And Tucker’s pestering, relentless style manifested in less efficient shots.
He has sharp footwork for a late-30s forward who has seen his fair share of deep playoff runs in recent years. That motor, footwork, and conditioning help him dig into the floor and stay in a stance. Having a lower center of gravity than most players at your position comes with the territory of being undersized. That advantage enables Tucker to stick with wings and disrupt them enough to force settling on the perimeter:
The sharp footwork and low center of gravity also afford Tucker the luxury of making occasional mistakes gambling on home run defensive plays because he can still recover back to the play instead of surrendering open shots or leaving his helpers out to dry.
Tucker’s rugged style and chiseled physique compliment his ability to stay in front of offensive players. He’s more than comfortable switching on screens, on-ball or off-ball. That bodes well for a team rostering James Harden, who prefers switching on screens to conserve energy for offense.
Tucker also has strong hands on defense. That, combined with the agility I’ve already discussed, makes him a threat to junk up offenses with hustle plays. He’s a threat to poke the ball free, put himself in the right spots for deflections, get on the floor for loose balls, and create live-ball turnovers. He generates transition offense by himself:
I didn’t really feel like Tucker did a great job of fighting through screens as the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals went on. So, I can’t say I’m sure he’s going to bring that quality to the Sixers. But, the other end of that point is the possibility that the Heat schemed away from fighting through screens. In that case, it was more game plan than individual shortcoming.
Regardless, Tucker’s hounding style and discipline in playing up on offensive players will allow the Sixers to experiment with different schemes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sixers deploy a bunch of Ice coverage. Ice will deny the ball-handler the middle of the floor, containing the action to one side. It forces attacks on the baseline side, restricting the ball-handler’s range of movement. The goal is to funnel the ball-handler into a rim-protector. With the pesky ball defender taking away the pull-up three out of the pick-and-roll and a rim-protector taking away the basket, the underlying strategy is to force the ball-handler into those damned analytically-inefficient midrange jumpers.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sixers go to a zone defense, especially if they go small, more often. Tucker is obviously active and can disrupt passing lanes. He also just came from a Miami system that loves using zone. There are going to be nights when Embiid gets into foul trouble or tires early. When that happens, Philadelphia can move away from more individual-centric schemes and feel comfortable with Tucker both roaming around his area of the floor and directing his teammates.
The free safety
My preseason ultra-bold pick for Sixth Man of the Year looks quite rocky coming out of the preseason. But, defense doesn’t win the league’s prestigious bench honor, and De’Anthony Melton’s capabilities on that end of the floor have presented as expected. He’s 6-foot-2 with a plus-7 wingspan, and he defends like it, too.
Melton ranked in the 96th percentile of combo guards in steal percentage and in the 97th percentile in block percentage with Memphis last season, according to Cleaning The Glass.
That success above the average is attributable to Melton’s vertical and lateral athleticism, low center of gravity, and positive wingspan.
His reach is a weapon that keeps Melton involved in plays just by quietly lurking around ball-handlers who aren’t immediately aware of him, á la teammate Matisse Thybulle:
Melton’s verticality and agility inflict damage in passing lanes. He can apply pressure, adapt as teammates or foes enter the picture, and pivot or change directions just quickly enough to get in the way should someone dare try to maneuver a pass around him, á la former Sixer Ben Simmons:
It’s not always about containing the primary assignment. Melton can shade to help teammates pressure opposing stars and still recover back to his man if he senses danger.
Opposing offenses can’t scheme him out of the picture because Melton can defend multiple positions in pick-and-rolls and isolations. It doesn’t matter whether he’s on a one, two, three, or some fours. Melton’s low center of gravity allows him to get underneath them and crowd their space. He can extend his legs to deny positioning at certain angles on the perimeter, forcing the ball in a direction with which its handler is less comfortable. From there, Melton exerts pressure and keeps his hands active to irritate the opposing artillery.
Melton is not going to win every battle. He’s not going to shut down and solve players for extended stretches. But, he’s going to be a pest. He should win enough battles to make the Sixers comfortable assigning him large tasks.
Melton’s mix of physical traits make him an asset when you want to fight through screens. He’s nearly an ideal guard for a switching scheme, which is what the Sixers are going to deploy this season. They might even feel inclined to use him on the ball in Ice coverage. Although, I’m not sure he’s strong enough to deny an entire side of the floor in space. I’d be particularly interested to see how he fares on the front line of a 2-3 zone. That wingspan is going to challenge entry passes going towards the free throw line. If Rivers puts him at the front of the zone next to a rangy teammate like House or Thybulle, it could be borderline impossible to get the ball inside from the top of the arc.
Well, that’s not exactly an inspiring description, is it?
But, it’s been a long journey for Tobias Harris to get to that point.
He’s never going to rack up the deflections as a helper — he averaged a little over 1 per game last season. He doesn’t have the combination of length and agility needed to be that type of interceptive defender. But, Harris has done two things quite well to aid his on-ball defensive prowess as his career has progressed. First, he’s added muscle mass. Second, he’s gotten lighter on his feet.
Harris can use his body to contain guards and forwards while also beating them to spots on a reliable basis so that he’s not constantly battling foul trouble.
He’s being misused if deployed as a stopper against the opposition’s best player every night. Harris is neither quick enough nor athletic enough to play up on and contain the league’s elite guards and wings. Although, he’ll have his victories against those types from time to time. Harris’ job is to take the third or fourth best offensive player on the opposing team and neutralize them on a consistent basis.
Harris’ liability against the most fluid and agile guards and forwards is problematic in a switching scheme. It begs the question of whether the Sixers lean into a switch-everything philosophy or limit it in some capacity, at least in the starting group. Harris can switch onto some ones and twos, and he can defend most fours. But, switching onto threes or fives would pose concerns. The Sixers might feel inclined to switch one through three in some matchups to avoid the risk of Harris isolated against a three or James Harden and Tyrese Maxey stuck on fours or fives. If the Sixers lean all the way into the switch, they might test the waters with Harris trying to limit threes and fives. But, the best strategy may involve switching one through three and the five, leaving Harris assigned to the opposition’s four.
Concerns about Harris in a zone should be somewhat limited. He typically knows where to be on the floor and lingers around the right spots. But for the sake of deploying a zone most effectively, the Sixers should keep him on the back line of a 2-3 on either side of the rim-protector. It makes little sense to have a guy who isn’t a boon to deflections on the front line of your zone.
There’s a reason anyone is available at the price of the Bi-Annual exception. Danuel House Jr. is a fine wing who actually checks off both boxes of the 3-and-D archetype. That’s something of a rarity in nuanced basketball dialogue. But, he’s not changing Philadelphia’s calculus on defense. Rather, he’s reinforcing what’s already in place.
House is an intuitive switcher, seamlessly exchanging defensive assignments with teammates as the opposing offense develops. Given his history next to Harden, I wonder how much House’s ability to come in and immediately advance the understanding of what the Sixers want to do in a switch-heavy scheme influenced their signing him.
House’s immediately obvious value is defending away from the ball. At his best, House’s awareness is excellent. He keeps his head on a swivel and makes sure he can see both his man and the ball at all times. As such, he’s a relatively unlikely candidate to fall victim to back-cutting. Even when his man moves — whether it be to space out, cut, or receive a screen — House stays attached:
That ability to chase through screens is critical. It isn’t just about using brute force to fight through them. House is adept at putting his body in positions to deny tight paths to the screener, making it difficult for his man to separate himself peeling off the pick. Even if he doesn’t find a way to deny that path, House’s awareness to find the quickest path to his assignment can sometimes work to deny the pass to that offensive player. Looking for House to be a shutdown stopper on the ball is misunderstanding his game. His job is to navigate screens, track offensive players as they move off the ball, and make respectable contests when his man does get the space to shoot. His best qualities are why I’d be less inclined to play him in a zone. But, if the Sixers go that route, he has the length to play on the front line.
He’s important to what the Sixers want to do. But, there can come a point at which House is over-exposed. If the Sixers are going to make a trade of any magnitude this season, the goal should be to acquire a player who makes House a little less vital to their operation.
If they’re in the rotation…
It’s difficult to project how important Matisse Thybulle and Paul Reed are to the Sixers’ defense. At this point, it’s anyone’s best guess as to whether either player will be in the rotation when the season starts.
Thybulle’s shooting showed signs of progress in the preseason, albeit in an extremely small sample size. If it’s real, he’s an immeasurably valuable asset to their defense. But judging by the opportunities Thybulle had in the preseason, it might be a safe bet to say it’s not real. And the additions of Melton, Tucker, and House gave the Sixers insurance against Thybulle’s shortcomings.
If he’s in the game, Thybulle is an all-world free safety. The deflection expert isn’t typically an elite on-ball defender. In fact, he’s prone to fouls. But, whether it’s making long close-outs, blocking shots before he even gets over screens, poking the ball away from unaware ball-handlers, or sneaking up on the passing lanes, Thybulle is a lurking terror for the opposing offense, in both man and zone coverages.
Paul Reed presents a fascinating case for the Sixers. After spending some time covering the team in South Carolina a few weeks ago, I thought there was a sneaky possibility that Reed would replace Georges Niang in the rotation. Looking at the way Niang was used in the preseason, I’d probably walk that back a bit. But, I still think Reed has a role this season.
With the Sixers ostensibly embracing the switch more this season, Reed has the length in his arms and quickness on his feet to step out to the perimeter as a big and hold his own against like-sized or smaller creators. That makes him an asset. Reed is also improving as a rim defender. He’s learning discipline, trusting his length and holding his position rather than jumping as a panic mechanism when interior offensive players get deep below the basket. If there was an easier fit for him in the offense, his spot in the rotation would be much easier to define. But without that, it’s hard to estimate Reed’s importance on the defensive end.
There are four central concerns heading into the regular season. Niang and Shake Milton figure to be in the rotation in some capacity. But, neither is a trustworthy defender. Niang cannot move laterally. That means he cannot dance with shifty, quick offensive players. In fact, the shortcomings on defense are so painful that they might outweigh Niang’s prowess as a shooter. That could take him out of the rotation, entirely, some nights. Milton is a problem in a different way. He’s shifty and long, capable of defending across three positions. But, he’s never proven strong or aggressive enough as a defender to actually win individual battles. So, that’s two weak links in the rotation.
Then, you have the starting backcourt of Harden and Maxey. There’s still hope that Maxey can become a serviceable or net-positive defender. For better or for worse, he’s starting to recognize opportunities to cheat rotations. There were plays in preseason in which Maxey zoomed into passing lanes to intercept errant decisions for run-outs. Harden, on the other hand, is an undeniable problem on defense. He might get his hands on the ball for the occasional strip or poke-away. Harden may even pick off a cross-court pass to get the Sixers out and running. But, squared up with almost any offensive player, there’s a limit to how far Harden is going to go to record a stop. He might have the strength to give some resistance. But, he’s not burning energy that he could be saving to help run the Sixers’ offense.
So, that means the Sixers have two significant defensive liabilities playing huge roles in their offense. Rivers can’t just take them out of the game in crunch time. To make matters worse, they’re liabilities at positions that rule the modern NBA. It’s important to have a potent offensive backcourt. It’s perhaps equally problematic to have a deficient defensive backcourt.
I’m also bearish on the defensive depth the Sixers have at the forward positions. To be clear, that isn’t to say I don’t trust that Harris, Tucker, House, Thybulle, and even Reed can’t be very good at the things they do well. But, I don’t see an abundance of athleticism. Those four are characterized mostly by length and strength. But, there’s a finite degree of quickness and agility in those personnel. You might want more of the latter two traits than the former two out of your forward depth to best contain elite wings.
Finally, there’s the Montrezl Harrell dilemma. As awesome as Harrell can be on offense, he’s something of a disaster on defense. Because he’s not quick enough to guard in space, the defense is mostly limited to drop coverage when he’s on the floor:
The drop leaves the defense vulnerable to pull-up threes and long twos. Elite guards and wings will exploit that in the playoffs. They’ll dial up pick-and-rolls with Harrell on the floor in an effort to create open jumpers for themselves. Ultimately, Harrell is who he is at this point in his career. It’s on Rivers to learn from his mistakes of the past and not marry himself to Harrell as the backup big if it’s clear he doesn’t belong on the court in certain playoff matchups.
Following the time of James Harden’s Sixers debut, to the end of the regular season, the Sixers were 10th in defense. While I’m bullish they can meet that level of defense this season, I don’t think they can do much better than that. The burden of a Harden-Maxey backcourt on the team’s overall defense threatens to limit their ceiling to that height.