Sometimes, an architect leaves and the infrastructure in place is enough to support the institution. Other times, it perishes to rubble.
For the Philadelphia 76ers, their architect was former assistant coach Lloyd Pierce, his defense the edifice. Last year, Pierce established a top-three unit on that side of the ball (103.8 defensive rating), leaning on the All-Defensive-caliber talents of Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, and Ben Simmons.
When the Atlanta Hawks hired away Pierce as their new head coach, Philadelphia appointed Billy Lange to steer the defense, hoping the greatness of the aforementioned trio would produce similar numbers. Through over a quarter of the season, that hasn’t been the case. The Sixers currently sit 12th in defensive rating (107.3), and were 16th (108.8) before blowout wins over the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards this week.
I’ve already identified a primary culprit of the struggles — defending guards in the pick-and-roll — but in recent games, we’ve witnessed a tweak to the standard drop formula. In the second half against the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia began trapping the ball handler to force someone other than D’Angelo Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie to burn them. Against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, Embiid rooted himself farther away from the rim to make pull-up jumpers less appetizing and eliminate some of the shooter’s airspace — a tactic Brett Brown touched on prior to the game.
Theoretically, aggressive schematic shifts like those, bringing some of the charge to the offense, should bolster the pick-and-roll defense. As previously articulated, it’s not so much that guys are shooting a gaudy percentage out of the pick-and-roll, but that drop coverage is a conservative approach that rarely forces turnovers.
But even if the retooled approach proves fruitful, it won’t immediately spark a return to the elite ranks of the league. Rather, the Sixers are constrained by a dearth of versatile defenders beyond Embiid, Simmons, and Butler, the last of whom has replaced Covington as the team’s premier wing stopper, but isn’t as capable of mopping up leaks off the ball. In a scheme that emphasizes switching on- and off-ball screens, it’s challenging to consistently lock down when Philadelphia’s rotation is stocked with one- or two-position defenders.
While switching was a prominent feature of the defense last season, Lange and Co. have heightened its prominence this year. There have been growing pains among teammates, with instincts sometimes kicking in and leading to breakdowns, generating open looks for opponents:
Naturally, those gaffes have become less frequent in recent weeks as the club adjusts to the new tendencies. Yet, additional issues remain, which continue to suggest selective switching is a better strategy for the roster.
Not only are rotational cogs like JJ Redick, Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, and T.J. McConnell largely incapable of providing defensive value beyond their time zone, they often struggle within their own stratosphere — though, that’s largely beside the point.
Liberty Ballers boss man Kevin F. Love already dove into great detail about Shamet’s defensive struggles and touched on a key point as it pertains to his fit within a switch-heavy context: ball screens are the rookie’s biggest nemesis. Teams know this and look to exploit that flaw. As a byproduct, the Sixers usually switch those picks to avoid any lapses or openings to the rim. So, the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Shamet is left to spar with brawnier players.
Inversely, Chandler, sometimes the big swapping assignments with Shamet, is moderately effective against 4s, but no longer has the bounce and juice to hang with twitchy wings or guards, both on and off the ball.
That is not necessarily to isolate Shamet and Chandler. Redick and McConnell exacerbate the challenges as well, lacking the defensive malleability so coveted today:
Generally, the league’s title contenders are well-equipped to employ switching; the Houston Rockets rode it last year all the way to the precipice of the NBA Finals. Philadelphia is not one of those teams. Switching works when the trade-off between creating mismatches and eliminating any small defensive crevices is worthwhile. So far, the bargain hasn’t proven profitable because the Sixers aren’t stocked with lengthy wings or plus defenders who can rotate across positions. When they switch to avoid defensive breakdowns, opponents simply collect their wits and pinpoint the weakness.
There is clearly a place for switching within Philadelphia’s defense. Simmons and Butler can guard four or five positions; ball handlers don’t feast against Embiid on switches. For the majority of the roster, though, switching compromises their defensive ability. Adjusting the policy to ensure that only Simmons, Butler, and Embiid consistently bounce among designations could be the route to maximizing the team’s versatility. When other guys — those who are already neutral/negative defenders — guard to defend up or down a position, the holes reveal themselves.
The Sixers have three elite or near-elite defenders in their starting lineup. They should be able to field a formidable stopping unit. All it requires is some newfound flexibility and tinkering with the switch-heavy philosophy.