Sixers Small Ball is Fun to Watch, But is it Defensively Viable?
The Sixers didn’t lose three of four games on the west coast road trip because of offensive struggles.
Brett Brown’s team put up point totals of 130, 107, 125, and 114 en route to just one California win, shooting 43.5% from three point range, which made them the NBA’s second-best team from beyond the arc during that stretch. They mustered a #2 overall 122.2 offensive rating while playing small, spreading the floor, moving the basketball, and lighting it up from distance.
The problem is that they simultaneously posted a league-worst 123.6 defensive rating during that stretch, leading to a negative net rating overall. The absences of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons absolutely crushed them on the defensive side of the ball.
Embiid is listed as questionable for tonight’s game against Detroit, and if he doesn’t go, you’re probably looking at more of the same small ball, with Mike Scott playing faux-center behind Al Horford while Norvel Pelle and Kyle O’Quinn remain on the bench.
Surely those two might help on the interior, right? Perhaps, though Brett Brown had to this to say on Tuesday about giving his backup bigs more playing time:
You get influenced by success and we had success doing what we were doing with Mike Scott at the five. Is it the way you want to go forward? Probably not. But the way we played offense – and we really played offense – during that period, my analytics people tell me that in a seven game stretch we were, by a mile, the most efficient offensive team in the league. So our offense was fun to watch; we shot threes, we moved the ball, but defensively it’s not even close to being ideal.
No, it’s not, but to the first point, you saw a lot of fun possessions like this one, where they play five-out with a slipped screen, then you’re collapsing a stretched defense:
More Brett, this time on the defense:
The rules change so dramatically when you don’t have Joel. You’re so used to chasing people into 7’2″ (in the paint), and then all of a sudden you don’t have that. You have to make, in your head, some adjustments of what is now the game plan. I think with Norvel and Kyle, what that means going forward, I don’t know, but I feel like both of them have shown, when called upon, that they have the ability to come in and help us.
Brett is mostly alluding to pick and roll and dribble-drive defense here.
Typically you’ll see the Sixers go over screens, push shooters off the three point line, and then funnel them towards Embiid, who is one of the NBA’s top-three rim protectors. That means opponents are either pulling up for lower-efficiency midrange shots or trying to attack a massive human being in the paint, which is difficult to do.
Against Golden State, the Warriors got too many buckets like these:
On that first basket, Alec Burks and Furkan Korkmaz end up unsuccessfully defending a pick and roll while Al Horford is on the perimeter.
On the second basket, Korkmaz just can’t keep his guy in front while Horford is glued to Dragan Bender in the near corner.
On the third basket, Furkan correctly goes over that screen and funnels Damion Lee into the paint, where Mike Scott is the only resistance.
That’s a big difference inside, and those possessions are highly likely to turn out differently if you’re pushing shooters into Joel Embiid instead of Scott or somebody else.
Said Shake Milton on continuing to play small ball:
I think it’s a little bit of an adjustment, especially defensively. Not having 7’2″ (Joel Embiid) back there is kind of different. But I think if we make the right adjustments and stick to it, knowing that 7’2″ isn’t back there, I think we can definitely make an impact on that end and make it our thing.
Whether it be how you defend a pick and roll, knowing you have that same type of help, or how you’re playing guys off ball when they use pin down screens and wide screens and stuff like that. Just making those adjustments to where you’re keeping everybody in front and making them shoot over the top.
To Shake’s point about keeping “everybody in front,” the Sixers actually did a decent job of that on the third play in that Youtube clip. You’ll take this shot from Lee any day of the week:
Sometimes you give credit where it’s due, but there were just way too many instances of guys getting to the rim with ease and finding in the holes in those small ball lineups on Saturday night.
Embiid’s return fixes this, but then you’re not playing small ball when he’s on the floor. You’re playing more of that four-out/one-in post up game and letting things flow through Joel on the blocks.
Either way, they should be able to handle Detroit at home with or without Embiid. The Pistons have lost 11 of 12 and Christian Wood’s emergence is the only thing they have going right now.
Stay safe everybody. Let’s wash our hands and practice good social distancing.