Nets/Sixers tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN or NBC Sports Philadelphia, if you prefer the local broadcast crew to the national option.
I think the Sixers win this series 4-2 on the strength of their top-end talent, postseason experience, and home court advantage. If they crash out of the playoffs in round one, it will be because Brooklyn’s guards shoot consistently well from deep while Philly struggles to defend the perimeter and the pick and roll.
So let’s talk a bit about the latter, with help from Synergy, via NBA stats.
The Nets logged 23.7 pick and roll/ball handler possessions (5th most in the NBA) and 7.5 pick and roll/roll man possessions per game (8th most).
Brooklyn ball handlers logged the following pick and roll stats:
- points per possession: 0.89 (10th best)
- points per game: 21.9 (4th best)
- field goal percentage: 42.3 (18th)
- free throw frequency: 10.5% (8th)
- percentile: 69th (10th)
When you parse those numbers, you see a team that runs the 5th most ball handler pick and rolls per game, but only scores the 10th most points per possession. Portland, for comparison, runs 21.5 of these looks per game but scores 0.98 points per possession, which is second best in the league. Brooklyn will give you more pick and roll volume but they aren’t as efficient as some of the elite teams in the NBA.
Here’s how roll men fared on those 7.5 possessions per game, after the jump:
- points per possession: 1.05 (23rd)
- points per game: 7.9 (11th)
- field goal percentage: 54.3 (10th)
- free throw percentage: 15.9% (4th)
- percentile: 24.1 (23rd)
Those numbers are lower than I thought they would be. Individually, starting center Jarrett Allen is in the 66th percentile of NBA roll men, scoring 1.17 points per possession and hitting at 62.5%. He gets to the foul line on about 18% of these plays.
D’Angelo Russell finds himself in 11.4 pick and rolls per game, scoring 0.89 points per possession on 44% shooting. He only gets to the line about 5% of the time, which is very low. He lands in the 67th percentile.
Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert are actually more efficient pick and roll players, logging these stats:
- Dinwiddie: 6.2 possessions per game, 0.99 points per possession, 47% from the floor, 20.4% free throw frequency, 85th percentile
- LeVert: 5.7 possessions per game, 0.93 points per possession, 43% from the floor, 10.9% free throw frequency, 76th percentile
Shabazz Napier is the only other guy who gets a few pick and rolls per game, and his PPP number of 0.84 isn’t great.
So yeah, I think Dinwiddie and LeVert are the more dangerous players here, especially Dinwiddie, since he comes off the bench and gets favorable defensive matchups against the opposing team’s backups. That’s gonna be an issue in this series, depending on how Brett Brown sets his rotation. D’Angelo Russell will see a lot of Ben Simmons, while Dinwiddie gets a smattering of different guys defending him. That’s how it’s played out in past Philly/Brooklyn matchups.
Defensively, we’re all familiar with the Sixers’ macro-level philosophy. Elton Brand is on record saying this as recently as Wednesday night:
It’s a different way to define success. We were focused on protecting the rim and when Joel (Embiid) and Boban (Marjanovic) and actually Mike Scott, when they’re at the five, we’re the top defensive team overall. And limiting three point shots – that’s our goal. We feel that’s playoff basketball, that’s how you win in the playoffs – (defending) shots at the rim and limiting three pointers. We’ve done that. We’ve given up contested twos and some other things, but we’re willing to give those up.
They’ve been willing to give up mid-range shots all season long, and that’s just an analytically-driven approach in the modern day NBA.
What does that look like for the purposes of this article?
Well this is pretty typical Sixers pick and roll defense, starting with the perimeter switch while Embiid sits at the elbow to “zone” the play:
In that case, you’ve got Shake Milton going over the top of the screen, where the Sixers will try to push the ball handler off the three-point line into mid-range territory, which funnels towards Embiid. The ball-handler can shoot that 16-22 footer, hit the roll man instead, drive on Embiid, kick the ball out, or try a contested three, which Russell did in that play above. In that case, Shake did a nice job of pushing Ed Davis back into Russell, which is why Russell felt like he was fouled on the play.
Here’s the setup:
If it feels like there’s stress on those two defenders whenever the Sixers see a pick and roll, there is. Collapsing one of those other three players down leaves open the kick out for a three-pointer, which is what the Sixers don’t want. They’re willing to live with those mid-range jump shots, and if the opponent is hitting, so be it, but at least you aren’t giving up wide-open threes or easy stuff at the rim.
Here’s how the Sixers do in PNR ball handler defense according to the Synergy stats:
- 0.88 points per possession (12th most)
- 19.4 points per game (7th most)
- 41.1 field goal percentage (6th best)
- 8.5% free throw rate (8th best)
- 40.6 scoring percentage (13th)
- 37.9 percentile (19th)
And PNR roll man defense:
- 1.05 points per possession (23rd most)
- 7 points per game (22nd most)
- 49.8 field goal percentage (9th best)
- 11.9% free throw rate (17th)
- 50 scoring percentage (9th best)
- 75.9percentile (8th)
That’s Joel Embiid’s rim protector influence, that second batch of numbers. The Sixers do a much better job defending the roll man, but even those ball handler numbers are not horrible. 0.88 points per possession from pick and roll ball handlers is outside of the top ten, so you can live with that if those points are coming from long twos and 8-foot floaters and whatnot.
The Sixers actually do a slightly worse job defending isolation (0.91 PPP) vs. the pick and roll (0.88 PPP), so I’d be more concerned with Russell and Dinwiddie getting mismatches, then firing up three-pointers or driving the lane. Brooklyn has shot creators, and they are the fourth best points-per-possession isolation team in the NBA, behind Houston, Golden State, and Milwaukee. To me, defending the pick and roll is important, but equally important is solid 1v1 defense and whether the Sixers’ switching scheme can hold up.
If Philly shows well in both departments, beginning tomorrow, they’ll really help themselves navigate one of the trickier wrinkles in this matchup.