“A competitive league like the N.B.A. necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag.” Sam Hinkie 2016
The Philadelphia 76ers were a good, not great defensive team in 2018/19. The team was ranked in the top 10 in opponent FG% but did not generate nearly enough turnovers. With major changes to the roster, Elton Brand intends to change that this year. So far in the preseason, the results are striking.
As the NBA endured the competing pillars of the LeBron James and Golden State Warriors era, the 76ers were building a different way. The NBA, most said, was entering the small ball era where shooting and ball movement overcame height and size. To be sure, Steph Curry and the three point shot changed the very geometry of the game. To illustrate this, you need only compare the shot charts of 2010 Kobe Bryant to 2019 James Harden.
These two players are both considered dominant offensive forces in their eras. Bryant scored 27 points per game in this particular season. Harden scored 36 points per game last season, despite, in theory, being much more predictable as far as where he needed to be defended.
Harden represents the extreme of the modern game of basketball. Shots at the rim, free throws, and three point shots have the highest expected value in the game. Harden represents the now; Bryant represents the past. But what is the future?
The Big Zig
Everyone else seems to be looking to emulate the Golden State Warriors success. The spacing of the floor allowed for open lanes that the Warriors could exploit for passing and drives to the basket. The Warriors’ dominance was predicated on their ability to defend and move the ball. These pillars, just as much as the three point accuracy of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, caused a shockwave in the league.
But as the Warriors era began, the 76ers were entering into a complete rethinking of basketball. The Process years began in 2013, just as Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh ended their two year run as champions. The Sixers had spent the better part of a decade being mid-sized and living in the mid-range. The results had been mediocre at best.
In Sam Hinkie’s first draft in 2013, he selected 6’11” Nerlens Noel and 6’7″ Michael Carter Williams. The overhaul of the 76ers roster shifted the team to be bigger than everyone else at a time when the league was getting smaller. In 2014, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric were the selections, both players who again eschewed the small ball mentality. 2015 saw a third year in a row of the Sixers selecting a center in Jahlil Okafor.
The team was banking on developing bigs during a time of “market inefficiency.” Big men notoriously take longer to develop the essential skills of rim protection and disciplined help defense. The Sixers were in no hurry to compete, so they did not jump at players who might make a more immediate impact. They famously ignored the point guard position for years in order to ensure the team remained in good draft position.
But at the core of it all was a belief that, ultimately, the big man would return to prominence.
When Ben Simmons was selected in 2016, it was almost immediate that Brett Brown started to refer to him as a point guard. Simmons, at 6’10”, was a capable ball handler and good passer in his lone season at LSU, but he had not played the role of classic point guard. By anointing and developing Simmons into that role, Brown and the organization was doubling down on the philosophy of “Bully Ball Offense and Smash Mouth Defense.”
Simmons, along with Joel Embiid, became massive counterpoints on a team that has attempted to integrate smaller players to mixed results. JJ Redick was an important part of the Sixers’ offense for the past two seasons and represented a nod to the spacing of the modern NBA. However, his limitations on defense were very problematic at times. So as the team entered the summer of 2019, the team got bigger, not smaller.
Elton Brand Doubles Down
As JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler left the team, Brand replaced them with larger players with longer arms. Brand has famously referred to himself and his ideal player as someone with a “short neck and long arms.” This serves as a way to illustrate that height isn’t the prime factor, but size is. Redick and Butler actually have negative wingspans. This means their wingspan is shorter than their height. Why does this matter? Well for a non-center, how wide a space you can defend is much more important than how tall you are.
If the Warriors dominated by creating open driving/passing lanes and spacing the floor, then Brand and the Sixers are attempting to eliminate that space with long defenders. This disruption has shown up in matchups against Houston and Golden State in the past five years. Even in the depths of the Process era, the Sixers had fairly good games against these teams.
Styles Make Fights
So the gamble has been that as the league trends to copy the Warriors, the 76ers should build for the style that gives those teams the most problems. As the Sixers bring on players like Josh Richardson (6’10” wingspan), Al Horford (7’1″ wingspan), and Matisse Thybulle (7’0″ wingspan), they move on from players like JJ Redick (6’3″ wingspan) and Jimmy Butler (6’7″ wingspan).
This season’s roster is essentially shrinking the floor for opponents. Windows become smaller, lanes become tighter, and shots become more contested. The difference between shooting over 6’10” (JRich) versus 6’3″ (Redick) is massive. Just consider, for a moment, how many shots Kawhi Leonard got off just over the outstretched arms of Jimmy Butler in the second round of the playoffs. Leonard is an extreme outlier, but with all of the focus on the final shot of the series, it’s easy to forget how many contested shots he was able to make.
The series prior, however, the Sixers were able to force De’Angelo Russell into contested mid-range shots. As the 76ers approach the new season, they want to create turnovers and low efficiency shot attempts. They were not successful in creating turnovers last season because of those open lanes. The team invited drives by defending the three point line.
Dominance on the Boards
The other effect of building a massive team is creating a rebounding advantage. The Sixers were among the league leaders in rebounding percentage last season, and they have doubled down on this strength. In 2018/19, the Sixers ranked 4th in the league in overall rebounding percentage at 51.7%.The Portland Trailblazers led the league at 52.6%. Furthermore, the Blazers led the league in offensive rebounding percentage.
So far in the preseason, the Sixers have dominated on the glass at a remarkable 55.6% rate. This has led them to an 8.3 point differential in second chance points. The Sixers are scoring 18.8 second chance points off of offensive rebounds, which leads the NBA. Meanwhile, they are giving up just 10.5 second chance points, which ranks 7th.
Rookie Matisse Thybulle is bringing the term STOCKS (Steals+Blocks) into the conversation. He illustrates the easiest metrics for quantifying defense. Defense has always been more difficult to measure when it comes to NBA metrics. Steals and blocks are the most common metrics and are usually associated with the primary responsibility of the guard (steals) and big men (blocks). When attempting to predict a team’s overall defensive potential, this can be misleading but worth considering.
So far in the NBA preseason, the 76ers lead the NBA in STOCKS at 21.3. They rank 3rd in steals, a metric they ranked 19th in last season. This is encouraging because it was a major issue with the Sixers’ defense last year. They ranked 27th in the league in opponents’ turnovers. Turnovers will be crucial to creating fast break opportunities for Ben Simmons. The virtuous cycle between defense and offense can be a significant area of growth for this team. “We’re huge, and I do think this is something you should be looking at this year,” said Brown.