Sixers Practice Notes: Josh and Ben Pick-and-Roll, Al Horford’s Fit, and Joel Embiid Owning the Paint

CAMDEN, NJ: The Philadelphia 76ers have lost four straight and seven of their last ten. The team has returned home for its second practice in the last 4 days in hopes of righting the ship. The loss in Houston seemed different than the previous losses in Indiana, Miami, and Orlando. But in the end, the team is reeling. The Sunday practice focused on getting ready for the stretch of games between now and the All Star break. “It feels like we aren’t getting better,” said Joel Embiid after Friday’s loss in Houston. That was among the most concerning comments in a week where Josh Richardson and Al Horford had both spoken out. Accountability, defense, and now lack of improvement are added to a list of internal commentary that are signs of a team struggling.

Trying Something New

The holes in the Sixers’ roster are becoming more apparent, and adapting around those deficiencies will be key until moves are made to fill those gaps. A recent addition to the offensive attack has been pick-and-roll with Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons, with the latter filling the role as screener. This action was used quite effectively on Friday and should be seen more in upcoming games. “J Rich has that wiggle and can play out of the pick-and-roll… I think it’s an interesting look,” said Brown when talking about the pairing of Simmons and Richardson. “I think Ben is a really good screen setter. He’s physical, he embraces that side of it. And he’s a dynamic roller. He’s a lob guy, he’s a catch/go guy, and he can facilitate picking off corners as a passer.” Those are all very attractive elements in an offense.

When asked about the pairing, Josh Richardson agreed. “I think it’s been good. We are starting to figure out ways to use [Simmons’] athleticism,” said Richardson. “He has a radius around the rim, so when he rolls hard, I can just throw it up there and he can go catch it.”

The Price of Change

The question about that two man action, however, is what to do with Al Horford and Joel Embiid when they run that play. “If you like Ben Simmons in a pick-and-roll, then what are you going to do with Joel? Where’s he go?” asked Brown rhetorically about the downside.

It’s not too hard to see a place for catch-and-shoot outlets for that pick-and-roll, but when you think about Horford and Embiid, having them space the floor takes them away from their essential value. It is a place opposing teams would very much like to see them, in fact. The Richardson/Simmons PnR so far seems to be initiating from the right side of the top of the key. When you look at Al Horford’s comfort zone in shooting, that space is essentially the area he has been most effective in his career (via http://www.austinclemens.com/).

The outlets on that play would most likely be on the left wing above the break or in the corners. Neither of those locations are comfort zones for Embiid or Horford.

“This is Joel’s paint, and everything else has to coexist around that, and that equals Al shooting threes”  – Brett Brown

So from one dimension, this is an effective weapon in the arsenal. However, it isn’t necessarily something that the team is built to construct an offensive identity around.

Pick-and-Rolled

Speaking of pick-and-rolls, the Houston Rockets essentially live in a world of step-back threes and pick-and-rolls with Harden and Capela. Harden and Westbrook were able to penetrate into the heart of the paint seemingly at will Friday. This put Embiid and to a lesser extent Horford in an un-winnable position. The big men had to essentially choose between stepping out to challenge the ball handler or hang back and body Capela. Too often they were caught in between. This led to easy lobs to Capela who had a career high 30 points, almost exclusively on lob dunks coming out of the pick-and-roll.

Al Horford Speaks

Many will credit Capela, but those opportunities were opened up by the craftiness and guile of James Harden, who had a 44/11/11 triple double. Unfortunately, the Sixers play perhaps the greatest pick-and-roll player of all time in Chris Paul on Monday at home versus Oklahoma City.

Brett Brown Stays Positive

Brett was mostly positive after Sunday’s practice. “It makes you feel like you are coaching, like you have a chance to coach.” He spoke about gaining recognition of roles. “How do you find, hunt corners and get more threes, at breakneck speed, and then here comes Joel,” said Brown.

Coexistence and character were big themes. Integration of the team’s talent is a real challenge. “To come in and think you are going to break 12 years of people’s habits is naive,” continued Brown, who seemed to be alluding to Al Horford. “The group is great, it’s not pulling teeth,” said Brown, who seems happy with his team’s personalities.

Josh Richardson

Koumadje Shines in Delaware

In Delaware, meanwhile, the Blue Coats stomped the Long Island Nets Saturday afternoon. They were led by a rare triple-double by Christ Koumadje, who had 12 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 blocks in 32 minutes. Koumadje has progressed throughout the season as a low usage rim protector and threat on the boards. He is a fantastic pairing for the Coats’ scorers like Marial Shayok and Xavier Munford. Shayok is leading the G League in scoring per game. Koumadje, who is 7’4″, suffered early in the season from foul trouble. However, he has improved his verticality and timing to become a real force.

The big man from Chad has surprising straight line speed as a rim runner, which was on display Saturday against an undersized Nets team. The fear when playing against a team playing small ball is that they will outrun your team’s bigs and force foul trouble. For Coats’ backup center Doral Moore, this resulted in him fouling out. His limited effectiveness only underscores how impressive it was to see Koumadje run the floor. Here is Koumadje speaking after the game about his development, toughness, and focus on improvement.