Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons showed why they can be a dominant and dynamic duo in their final game before the All Star break against the Los Angeles Clippers. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

It is finally starting to sink in that Glenn Rivers is the next head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. They may have fallen ass-backwards into one of the game’s most respected coaches, but he was confirmed into office on Monday afternoon as he answered a barrage of media questions in the team’s Camden practice facility during his introductory press conference. From a basketball standpoint, two things stood out from Rivers’ availability:

  • The Sixers will be playing with pace
  • They will run on a heavy diet of pick-and-rolls

Rivers’ shortcomings were on display during his time with the Clippers, blowing 3-1 playoff series leads twice during his tenure. While those shortcomings are undoubtedly and rightfully a concern for the Sixers, history indicates that he will provide an offensive structure that previous head coach Brett Brown never did. While Brown’s Laissez Faire philosophies on the offensive end of the court might work for established, well-rounded, well-built teams, they spelled his death in Philadelphia.

So, with Doc Rivers’ emphasis on pace and pick-and-rolls, let’s take a look at how Rivers’ offensive systems could look in Philadelphia.

Pace Concepts

There is a stigma associated with implementing a fast-paced offense with a roster featuring Joel Embiid. However, the first thought that often comes to mind is run-and-gun, full-court, sprint-running play. That’s not necessarily what fast-paced basketball has to be. Here are some concepts that Rivers should look to install.

Early 5

‘Early 5’ is something that Brett Brown often used with Embiid on the floor. Sometimes, there may be an additional pass to someone farther up the floor (in this case, maybe Redick, who is spacing to the corner). The entry pass is either coming from the primary ball-handler as he pushes up court, or he kicks it ahead to a teammate with a better vantage point to the entry pass. But, the point is that the leading big seals off his matchup before the rest of the defense is back, and an easy score ensues.

This play doesn’t have to be exclusive to Embiid. The name, ‘Early 5’, singles out the low-post advantage on the floor, and feeds it. During his time in Los Angeles (and possibly before then), Rivers never defined players by specific positions. So, while Blake Griffin, to the viewer, isn’t the center, he has the low-post mismatch, and the Clippers feed it. This concept can be used flexibly.

Early Wing Pick-and-Roll

It would make sense for Rivers to engage Shake Milton and Tobias Harris in these wing pick-and-rolls early in the shot clock. Part of the beauty in these plays is that they are structured enough to have names (Early Wing Pick-and-Roll is as much a name as it is a description) but liberal enough to empower the players to read and react to what the defense is giving them. Seeing as Milton and Harris are the best off-the-dribble jump-shooters currently rostered, these quick hitters in transition would be sensible for engaging Philly’s shot-creators.

Early Horns

While the first two plays I displayed were more two-man-oriented, ‘Horns’ has much more involvement. You can tell that it is a ‘Horns’ set by looking at the formation on the court. The two bigs are lined up high to sandwich the on-ball defender, with two shooters stretching the defense to the corners. With the size the Sixers possess, they can run ‘Horns’ sets with various player combinations because the traditional size needed will typically be in their lineups. Either Milton or Simmons could be the initiating ball-handler. Any of Harris, Horford, Embiid, and Simmons can be the screening bigs. Given the skill sets and tendencies Embiid and Simmons are known for, they would best serve as the diving big out of the Horns formation, with Harris or Horford popping out if the defense’s attention focuses on the diver or the ball-handler. 

As this particular play shows, the first look may not be the best look. If such is the case, and the ball-handler pitches back to the popping big, the new angle for the entry pass could lend itself to an effective high-low play.

Pick-and-Roll Variations

Sometimes, the game will have to slow down, especially when the Sixers are looking to build or maintain leads in the fourth quarters of games. When the time comes to slow the pace, I expect a heavy dosage of pick-and-roll play. That can take many different forms.

Horns Into Pick-and-Roll

You may have heard of a concept called “screen the screener”, and this play is an appropriate application of that concept. The early formation on this set follows the hint I provided earlier–Harris and Marjanovic sandwich Beverley’s primary defender, with two Clippers spacing out on the weak side of the floor to stretch the defense. On this Horns set, Beverley goes to the side of his play-maker, and shuffles the ball back to Harris out of the screen. Then, Marjanovic sets a high screen to get Harris into a pick-and-roll action–an action that Harris saw significant success with under Rivers in LA. This set allows Harris to get to a spot of comfort before scoring.

This set would make the most sense for Harris, as he’s the most appropriate for scoring in the pick-and-roll out of a screen-the-screener action. It would make sense to use Milton and someone else (maybe Richardson or Thybulle, but not ideal; preferably a free agent, trade acquisition (‘eyes’ emoji), or a rookie) to provide the spacing on the weak side. So, that leaves Simmons as the ball-handler and one of Embiid and Horford as the second screener. In smaller lineups, Thybulle or Simmons could serve as the second screener, with Milton or Richardson acting as the ball-handler.

Double Drag

The subtle brilliance of this ‘Drag’ play is that, after the ball screen, DeAndre Jordan pushes Griffin’s defender into the low-post to defend the rim, thus luring him away from Griffin. The purpose of the “Double Drag” is to create chaos for the defense as they try to get back in transition quickly. The “double” formation affords the screeners different actions. In this case, Jordan can set the screen in the pick-and-roll and then dive. All Paul has to do is sell the hesitation out of the pick-and-roll before firing back to Griffin. All Griffin has to do is pivot and spot-up out of the screen.

This play makes a lot of sense with Simmons as the drag screener and Horford or Embiid as the ‘double’. In the event that the ball-handler (presumably Milton) doesn’t have the shot, himself, he can kick back to the open screener or hit the big if he has the look down low. If he kicks back to the open shooter (Embiid or Horford), that open big can shoot, or run a dribble hand-off into a pick-and-roll for a teammate on the weak side.

If that sounds overwhelming, that’s the point. The structure is on the “Double Drag”. The rest of the play is reading what the defense gives you.

Punch (Thru STS)

Ideally, the Sixers would have great shooters to make this play work to a tee. But, they may have to settle for Tobias Harris and Shake Milton. In this iteration of “Punch”, a shooter is setting a cross screen for a big to open up in the low- or mid-post area on the strong side. If the opposition is going big, Embiid would be the target on this play. If it’s a more athletic or versatile big, Simmons might be the recipient of the cross screen to post up on the strong side. Regardless, Rivers could implement this set to isolate a big in the post.

I would be surprised if there aren’t some personnel changes this off-season. If my suspicions come to fruition, then these sets could look different. But, whether there are changes or not, Doc Rivers has shown he has sets in his playbook but that will work for the Sixers.