Seven Days of Sixers: Take Me Home, Country Road

It was a brutal week for the 76ers following a red-hot start. They responded to a 5-0 start to the season (and an average point differential of 9 per game over those five games) with a 3-game losing streak that featured an average point differential of 3.33. In four of their first eight contests, the Sixers have trailed by double digits, coming back in the second half to win three of those four. The team has shown a lot of guts in the early going, and their impressive streak to begin the season showcased a group of players that was never going to be “out” of the game.

But, there was undoubtedly a level of good fortune in the wins against the Hawks and the Blazers. This past week was proof that they did something to disturb their feng shui after the win in Portland last Saturday, as the jubilation oozing from their first two weeks was met with a level of cringeworthy pain this past week with which Sixers fans have become all too familiar in the past two seasons.

Pour one out for the undefeated season

Brett Brown’s stubborn refusal to adjust his team’s defensive scheme from going under and over screens to double-teaming on the catch and hedging the ball screen allowed Devin Booker to get too comfortable. Booker poured in 40 points (on a blistering 79% shooting), and the Sixers lost a game in which they led throughout but never quite pulled away.

Then, Ben Simmons went down with a sprained AC joint in the early goings against the Jazz. Even without the star point guard, the Sixers battled throughout. They should have won, but their defensive communication became very lazy. Rudy Gobert was unaccounted for in the pick-and-roll and dominated the paint as a result. The culmination of this frustrating defensive effort came in the closing minute of the game and served as the nail in the Sixers’ coffin:

The need to drink didn’t stop there. There was still one more leg of the road trip before the team made the trek back to the Northeast: a date with the Nuggets in Denver. The Sixers were without Ben Simmons, on the last stop of an exhausting trip (the last stop of a West roadie is always the hardest), and playing in the thin-aired city of Denver against one of the West’s best teams. The Sixers had every excuse to lose this game, and yet they led by 21 points in the fourth quarter.

But, Brett Brown’s philosophy of liberal structure late in games backfired on him once again. Joel Embiid regressed to old habits of over-dribbling, committing sloppy turnovers, and failing to recognize the double team. The Nuggets came surging back to cover their 21-point deficit and win the game in the final five seconds of the affair. Did someone say bottoms up?

Question marks remain

The Sixers ended their losing streak on Sunday with a win against the Charlotte Hornets in Philly, finishing the week 1-3. Although, they won solely on talent; the defense continued to underperform and the question marks continued to grow.

The loss to the Nuggets highlighted a problem with the Sixers’ young stars that has become apparent to me over the past two seasons — Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid don’t progress as offensive players, they merely focus on perfecting what they are already good at instead of targeting a weakness and substantially improving on it in one summer. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan–players considered the face of basketball for their generations–became all-time greats by selecting a respective weakness and systematically turning it into a strength by the start of the next season. Simmons and Embiid haven’t shown anything to make me believe that they understand their weaknesses and how to improve upon them.

Lucky for the Sixers, the four-game slate for this week is their least imposing seven-day stretch thus far. If I’m being completely honest, the team should be 9-0 heading into the week; instead they’re 5-3. But, there is no reason to not be 10-3 this time next Sunday.

Cleveland Cavaliers

November 12, 7 PM, Wells Fargo Center (NBATV)

At 3-5 and in the second year of a rebuild, the Cavaliers are not good. But, their young talent can sneak up on you if you don’t take them seriously. John Beilein’s team utilizes its ball-handler in the pick-and-roll 25.5 possessions per game, and 75% of their pick-and-roll possessions end with a shot attempt from the ball-handler. In other words, the Cavs will pick-and-roll you to death, and they’ll rarely use the roll man to inflict damage. Not having Al Horford (planned rest) will make the Sixers’ defense more predictable, and, perhaps, more susceptible to exposure. Nonetheless, Elton Brand built this roster to be able to withstand a missing piece on any given night. If not having Horford costs the Sixers a game to the Cavaliers, they have bigger problems than we previously realized.

Collin Sexton

Averaging 17.3 points per game, starting point guard Collin Sexton is going to be the ball-handler when the Cavs’ bigs set screens. 70.4% of Sexton’s shot attempts are some combination of pull-up mid-range jumpers and anything close to the rim. Although he’s a capable three-point shooter if left open, his bread-and-butter is collapsing the defense with his speed and scoring however he sees fit out of the pick-and-roll. If there was ever a time to hedge the ball screen, this is the game to do it. Embiid will show a switch on the screen to thwart off Sexton from immediately turning the corner and attacking. Then, whoever is guarding Sexton (presumably Richardson) recovers and gets back to him in time to prevent the second-year guard from making his move.

In this clip, the Wizards’ Thomas Bryant shows a brief switch while Bradley Beal fights to get through the screen. With the big in his way, Sexton can’t drive. Because he makes his decision late, Beal is able to recover and contest the jumper, which Sexton misses short.

Kevin Love

The Cavaliers dedicate 21.5 of their possessions to spot-up jumpers. However, Cleveland is one of the NBA’s worst three-point shooting teams, converting just 33.6% of their long-range attempts. So, why would a team look for spot-ups if they aren’t a reliable jump-shooting team? The answer is one of their best players must be a very good shooter. Kevin Love attempts over six deep balls per game, the most on the team by a wide margin, and is converting 36.7% of them in the early phase of this season.

Communication will be vital to neutralizing Love’s outside game. The veteran forward is converting 38.5% of his three-point attempts when given 4-6 feet of space and 53.3% of his attempts when given 6-or-more feet of space. If Brett Brown’s defense allows Love to stray free, he will burn the Sixers.

In this clip, Grant and Robert Williams are defending the pick-and-roll. Grant Williams thinks he’s supposed to go over the screen, while Robert Williams thinks he’s supposed to switch or hedge. Both end up focusing on Clarkson. The lack of communication allows Love to fake a hand-off and step into an open three.

Let’s take a look at communicating on a spot-up.

Here Dwight Powell is guarding Love. Kristaps Porzingis thinks he’s supposed to drop and protect against the drive. Powell thinks he’s supposed to go under the screen. The miscommunication allows Tristan Thompson to feed Love an open spot-up jumper behind the screen, and Love cashes the check.

If the Sixers hedge Cleveland’s ball screens and get back to the basics of verbally guiding each other on the defensive end, they will neutralize the Cavaliers.

Prediction: Sixers 113, Cavaliers 101

Orlando Magic

November 13, 7 PM, Amway Center (NBCS Philly)

If the Sixers aren’t careful, this is a matchup that could trick them. The Magic are 3-7, but their 101.1 defensive rating is tied for fifth best in the NBA. Orlando has the size and athleticism to switch onto any Sixer, block shots, and force turnovers by way of deflections. This team has all of the physical tools needed to give the Sixers fits, but the Sixers have the advantage of talent. So, for the first time in the history of this column, I will introduce a key to winning associated with the offensive side of the basketball court.

Take Care of the Ball

The Magic rank top-10 in the NBA in steals per game, averaging 8.4 per game. If the Sixers are sloppy with the ball, which, at 18.8 turnovers per game (last in the NBA), they inevitably will be, they could turn themselves out of this game. Although easier said than done, taking care of the basketball is not as difficult as the Sixers make it seem.

By reducing the distance covered by passes, they can restrict Orlando’s ability to capitalize on deflection opportunities. Disciplined dribbling minimizes the number of wasted seconds–or, in other words, looking to score or pass the ball instead of dribbling aimlessly–and reduces turnovers. Keeping the ball high and out-of-reach of smaller defenders lowers the chances that defenders can strip Embiid in the low post. Lastly, not leaving the ground to make passes avoids trouble if a shooter isn’t open to receive the ball, and, therefore, doesn’t force the ball-handler to throw the ball away.

If the Sixers hone in on the subtle mistakes they make that create transition opportunities for their opponents, they will limit the amount of damage that the Magic can do. My guess would be that 12 or fewer turnovers wins this game comfortably.

Control the Defensive Glass

At 11.1 per game, the Magic are among the ten best offensive rebounding teams in the NBA. Their 7.4 put-back scores per game (fourth most in the NBA) indicate that the Magic rely on their size and brute force to pull down the rebound off of their own miss and capitalize on those second chance opportunities. If the Sixers simply account for a foe’s body when the shot goes up and box out, they will reduce the number of extra possessions the Magic get, reduce the amount of extra defense they have to play, and conserve energy for their next possession and future defensive stands.

Prediction: Sixers 117, Magic 109

Oklahoma City Thunder

November 15, 8 PM, Chesapeake Energy Arena (NBCS Philly)

Although they’re 4-6 in their first ten games of the season, the statistics behind the Oklahoma City Thunder are indicative of a team that is quite bad. They are in the bottom third of the NBA in assists (21.8 per game), as well as offensive rating (104.9). Usually, you’ll see an inverse relationship between those two figures–teams that pass the ball less are reliant upon one or multiple star-level scorers to carry the load for the team. So while the passing is below average, the offense operates at a high level. Teams that are less talented are going to have to pass the ball more–the players need to maximize the quality of the shots they’re taking in order to give themselves the best chance to score.

The Thunder are severely deficient in individual talent, and their offense is largely focused on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (21 points per game) and Danilo Gallinari (18.6 points per game). If the Sixers’ defense neutralizes those two, they will cut off the blood supply to the Thunder offense. From there, it should be smooth sailing. 

Trap Gilgeous-Alexander

At 9.8 possessions per game, the Thunder are near the top of the league in isolation usage. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander uses 3-6 dribbles on 39.3% of his field goal attempts, by far his highest frequency on scoring opportunities. The second-year guard out of Kentucky lives in iso ball, and, at 3.4 assists per game, he’s not looking to pass to anyone.

I would prescribe trapping Gilgeous-Alexander to get the ball away from the Thunder’s best scorer. With the Sixers claiming a defensive identity based largely upon their individual lengths, making a guard who doesn’t like to pass the ball do just that would bait him into mistakes. Such mistakes would result in transition opportunities for the Sixers, and Brett Brown’s hair will gain back some of its youthful color.

Defend the Paint

With the addition of Al Horford, and, really, the entire identity the Sixers have taken on this season, this matchup should play into their hands. The Thunder are amongst the league’s ten best teams in scoring on drives to the basket (26.9 points per game). They’re a capable three-point shooting team, and they don’t mind if you chase them off of the three-point line either. That bodes well for the Sixers, who are ninth best in the NBA at blocking shots (5.9 per game). If the likes of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and Ben Simmons keep their individual defensive assignments within reach, they’ll be able to stuff field goal attempts at the rim. The key is to then keep the Thunder off of the offensive glass. But, at just over 8 offensive rebounds per game, the Thunder are bottom five in the NBA in creating second chance points.

The Thunder offense doesn’t operate at a high level because they play in a way that is not conducive to a team that lacks talent to the extent that they do, and that bodes well for the Sixers. There is no reason for this game to be close.

Prediction: Sixers 119, Thunder 97

Cleveland Cavaliers

November 17, 3 PM, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse (NBCS Philly)

This marks the first time the Sixers have a rematch against any opponent this season. That’s interesting for a variety of reasons–how differently do they play the Cavaliers the second time around? If they lose the first time, do they rebound and crush them the second time? Will they learn from whatever mistakes they make in the first matchup?

As I prescribed in the first matchup earlier in this column, the Sixers would be smart to hedge the ball screen on Collin Sexton. They also must communicate when Kevin Love is moving on the perimeter. 

For the second matchup, let’s look at how the Sixers can play to their own strengths to pull out a win in their final contest of the week.

Make the Extra Pass

The Sixers are 3-0 when they record at least 29 assists in a game. That has a lot to do with Joel Embiid’s ability to recognize a double-team approaching and rifle a pass to an open teammate before the double engulfs him. At a macro level, when the entire team is moving the ball, they’re pulling the defense out of position and getting excellent looks. The statistics prove that to be the case–the Sixers’ three best shooting performances came in those three games of 29-or-more assists. Playing selflessly will open up the floor for the Sixers; and, when that happens, they are virtually unbeatable. The Cleveland defense, which carries a rating that sits in the bottom half of the NBA, will not be able to handle the Sixers’ assault if they move the ball well.

Second Chance Scoring

The Sixers are 4-0 when they come away with at least 12 offensive rebounds in a game. They tire out the opposing defense by out-fighting them on the offensive glass. Those extra possessions exhaust the opponent, which has to then buckle down for an additional possession before they have a chance to control the ball again. When your offense makes the defense work harder than normal, the opponent’s intensity declines and mistakes are made. As a result, the Sixers’ offense will find easier opportunities to score and will pull away if they capitalize on those additional possessions.

Prediction: Sixers 116, Cavaliers 100