The Sixers’ Defensive Struggles and the Loss of an Identity

The Sixers have not been able to compete defensively since returning from the All-Star break. What has gone wrong?

Sixers head coach Brett Brown yells at his team during their 130-116 loss to the Orlando Magic | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers head coach Brett Brown yells at his team during their 130-116 loss to the Orlando Magic | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As the first quarter came to a close last night in Orlando, the Sixers were down, and down big.

The Magic had just put a 40-spot up on Brett Brown‘s team, shooting 15-24 from the field and committing just one turnover in the process.

It’s something that’s becoming an all-too-common occurrence, as the Sixers have given up an average of 119.7 points per game in the six games since returning to action following the All-Star break. There’s no team in the NBA allowing more points per game over that span.

The defensive side of the court has been a rollercoaster for Brown and his team so far this season, which is a disappointment considering they finished last season with the 13th ranked defense in the league, which seemed to give Brown’s rebuilding squad at least a little bit of an identity. The Sixers started off the season allowing a05.4 points per 100 possessions during their first 31 games of the season, the third-worst defensive rating in the NBA over that span.

But the December 24th addition of Ish Smith brought with it less turnovers, and, with that, a defense that had the chance to get set in the half-court and compete. Between the Smith acquisition and the All-Star break the Sixers gave up just 103.6 points per 100 possessions, the 13th-best rating in the NBA. That identity the Sixers built last season seemed to be returning.

That’s fallen off of a cliff in the six games since returning from the All-Star break.

Time PeriodDefensive RatingNBA Rank
Pre-Ish Smith Trade105.428th
Dec 24th -> Feb 10th103.613th
Since Feb 19th117.729th
(The Sixers' defense has been struggling since returning from the All-Star break. Data as of Feb 29th, 2016 and courtesy of nba.com/stats)

What’s even more troubling than just the raw numbers is that it’s not even coming against particularly good offensive teams. The New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Mavericks are borderline top-10 teams, coming in at 10th and 8th in offensive rating, respectively, but the Orlando Magic (22nd), Detroit Pistons (19th), and Washington Wizards (18th) are decidedly mediocre in that regard.

20160229-since-asb-2

What has been the cause? Average defensive teams don’t usually turn into train wrecks overnight. As is usually the case, there are many reasons for the Sixers’ precipitous drop off.

Defending the three-point line

The most glaring problem over the last six games has been the Sixers’ inability to defend the three-point line, as opponents are shooting an astounding 41.7 percent against the Sixers since returning from the All-Star break.

Between the acquisition of Ish Smith (December 24th) and the All-Star break, the Sixers had been allowing opponents to shoot just 33.6 percent from three-point range, which was good for the 8th-best three-point defense in the league over that span. What had been a legitimate strength has turned into a very big weakness.

It may be easy to dismiss this as just bad luck, as opponents are shooting nearly 6 percent better from three-point range over the last six games than their yearly averages. There may be some truth to that, as opponents are shooting 52.1 percent from the field on “contested” field goal attempts over the last six games, an exceptionally high number.

Still, of the 132 three-point attempts the Sixers have conceded over the last six games, 66 — exactly half — have come when the closest Philadelphia defender has been at least six feet away from the shooter. That’s significantly higher than the league average, where just 39.1 percent of three-point attempts come with 6+ feet of space.

That 41.7 percent opponents are shooting from three-point range looks a lot more sustainable when those shots are that wide open.

It would be virtually impossible to pick a single reason for the Sixers’ struggles in defending the three. Something doesn’t get *this* bad because of any one reason. Reasons include, but are certainly not limited to: bad pick and roll defense, overly aggressive help from perimeter defenders, poor defensive rebounding which leads to open perimeter shots, poor communication to help navigate screens, poor transition defense, and, perhaps most importantly, a collection of bad perimeter defenders plain old getting beat on the perimeter.

Defensive rebounding

The Sixers’ defensive rebounding has been sneakily bad all season. In fact, the Sixers’ defensive rebounding has been pretty bad during Brett Brown’s entire tenure with the Sixers.

On the season the Sixers collect just 74.6 percent of their available defensive rebounds, which ranks 26th in the league. They ranked just 27th in the league in each of Brett Brown’s first two seasons, a consistently poor performance in that regard.

Those struggles on the glass have only become more pronounced since the All-Star break, with the Sixers collecting just 71.8 percent of the defensive rebounds available to them. Only the Dallas Mavericks, at 69.1 percent, have done worse.

The problem with offensive rebounds, outside of the fact that it gives the opponent extra possessions, is that defenders are frequently out of position, either because they themselves were crashing the defensive glass or because they were leaking out in transition. The result when the other team grabs that extra possessions is frequently a quick, wide-open field goal attempt.

On the season, Sixers opponents have an effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the additional value of a three-point attempt) of 62.8 percent on three-pointers following an offensive rebound, per nbawowy. The Sixers’ propensity for giving opponents extra possessions over the last six games can be backbreaking.

It’s obvious to point a finger at Jahlil Okafor in this instance, as Okafor is averaging just 2.8 defensive rebounds in 26.7 minutes per game over his last six contests. It would also be easy to blame this on his shift to defending the power forward spot when Nerlens Noel and Okafor share the court together, but over the last six games Okafor actually collects more rebounds when he’s been on the court with Noel (13.8 percent of available defensive rebounds) than when he’s been playing with Noel on the bench (9.7 percent).

The team stats don’t paint any brighter of a picture, as opponents grab 32.3 percent of available offensive rebounds when Okafor is in the game without Noel.

But Noel shares some culpability in this as well. In fact, the Sixers’ defensive rebounding percentage is actually lower — opponents grab 32.7 percent of their offensive rebounding chances — over the last six games with just Noel on the court than it is with just Okafor. A big part of that was the Washington game, where the Wizards grabbed seventeen (17!) offensive rebounds on just 54 missed shots, an incredible amount for a team that is the second-worst offensive rebounding team in the league. Okafor, Noel, Richaun Holmes, it didn’t matter. Marcin Gortat absolutely had his way with whoever was on the court for the Sixers.

Pick and roll defense

When confined to the half-court, one of the biggest problems the Sixers have is defending the pick and roll, something which John Wall, Jrue Holiday, Reggie Jackson, et al have exploited heavily in the past two weeks.

This is one area of the game where Jahlil Okafor, while once again not the only contributing factor, is a major piece of the Sixers’ struggles.

The Sixers have largely adopted a philosophy in defending the pick and roll which has gained acceptance among the statistics-heavy front offices, which is to allow the two primary defenders — the player defending the ball handler, and the big man defending the screen setter — to defend the pick and roll, but not to get caught in the traps, or other hard-showing techniques, which require help defenders to rotate over and slow down movement.

The theory is that by allowing the big man to sag off and essentially “zone up” a pick and roll, you’re encouraging the ball handler to settle for a long jump shot rather than force your defense into rotations that, if executed properly by the offensive players, could give up efficient corner three-point shots. There are some general tradeoffs to this philosophy — an increase in open shots and a decrease in forcing turnovers, to name a few — but it certainly has its merits as a viable strategy.

The problem is it puts an incredible amount of pressure on those two aforementioned primary defenders. It puts a lot of pressure on the smaller defender to navigate through the pick and still be able to contest the shot, and it puts a lot of pressure on the big man to act as a free safety of sort, with the mobility to either jump up and contest the ball handler’s jump shot if he takes it, jump out on the big man popping out to take the jump shot, all while still having the mobility to slow either the ball handler or the roller down should they pursue a path to the basket.

In a certain sense, it’s a philosophy that can mask Jahlil Okafor’s defensive shortcomings, if you’re willing to live with a wide open jump shot, and against the right opponents. And that last part is key.

There are certain opponents where, no matter what kind of defensive rotations they might put you in, you want to force the ball out of their hand as frequently as possible, and zoning up the pick and roll isn’t likely to do that. There are also some point guards who are just so quick and so proficient shooting off the dribble, and from three-point range, that it has a very real chance of getting you burned, and some point guards who are so good at attacking the basket with a full head of steam (a la John Wall), that giving them that kind of space when turning the corner is a death sentence.

It’s the kind of system that really relies on a player with the mobility of Nerlens Noel. Forget the two blocked shots that Noel records on Aron Baynes later in the play below, although that showcases how quick off his feet and how strong of a second jump Noel has, both incredible traits to build a defense around.

What’s key in this play is how Noel has the ability to take a step towards the ball handler, who was wide open because Baynes’ pick smothered Isaiah Canaan (note: Baynes is a very large human being), deter the shot enough to force the ball out of Darrun Hilliard‘s hands, and still recover to remain between Baynes and the basket.

If you stop the video at the point where Noel has his hands extended out to contest the shot, there is an absolutely wide open lane for Baynes to dive to the basket. Kendall Marshall, Jerami Grant, and Hollis Thompson remain on their shooters until they know for sure that the ball won’t get kicked out. Taking shots away is the entire reasoning behind “zoning” a pick and roll. If Noel doesn’t have the quickness to get back, he either has to sag off the pick an incredible amount and allow Hilliard a wide open jumper, or he gives up a dunk to the diving Baynes. Noel is athletic enough to give up neither outcome.

Compare that with the pick and roll below. Okafor is never able to take a step forward, and instead backpeddles until he’s all the way into the restricted area. Ish Smith was eaten up by the pick 27 feet from the basket and Elfrid Payton has a clear path to an uncontested floater.

The somewhat scary part is that Okafor played that correctly. He simply doesn’t have the foot speed to slow Payton down enough so Ish Smith can recover *and* get back to the rolling Nikola Vucevic. As easy of a shot as Payton’s was, Vucevic’s would have been easier.

It’s frequently said that the midrange jump shot is one of, if not the, worst shots in basketball. And when taken as a whole, it is. But there are some teams — the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, namely — who are among the league leaders in offensive rating despite also being among the teams that utilize that “worst shot in basketball” the most. The reason is that, despite the shot as a whole being inefficient, those teams execute their offense so well, and get those shots off with so much space, in such perfect rhythm, and have such excellent shooters, that they can make that inefficient shot work.

Putting Jahlil Okafor in a pick and roll essentially makes everybody the San Antonio Spurs.

That’s not all on Okafor, of course. The Sixers, outside of Robert Covington and, at times, Jerami Grant (although he’s usually not defending the ball handler), are not very good at fighting over screens. This is a huge part of the Sixers’ problem, and why Boston, with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder, could have been an interesting landing spot to cover up Okafor’s deficiencies on the defensive side of the court.

But Okafor limits what the Sixers can do in terms of pick and roll defense. Not just his (in)ability to challenge shots or force the ball out of the possession of dangerous ball handlers, but also in terms of switching, something which Noel and Grant do with some frequency, and effectiveness, when they’re the big defending the pick and roll, and something which is the other main way to defend the pick and roll without involving weakside help rotations.

As NBA defenses evolve to more and more switches, and “positionless” defenders, Jahlil Okafor limits the options available to the Sixers, regardless of which position he’s playing.

Turnovers

The Sixers have never really been good at taking care of the basketball. Even after the acquisition of Ish Smith — and Smith, with averages of 6.5 assists to only 2.2 turnovers per game, is excellent in this regard — the Sixers were still among the worst teams in the league at taking care of the ball.

But where the Sixers were in a league of their own before the addition of Smith, they were at least competitive during his first two months with the team.

2016-0229-turnovers-2

The Sixers are turning the ball over slightly more than they were during that brief oasis between the December 24th acquisition of Smith and the trade deadline, but not all that much. The Sixers turned the ball over on 18.8 percent of their offensive possessions prior to Smith’s arrival, which fell to 16.3 percent during the “good” period. It’s back up to 17.0 percent, which doesn’t explain the change in differential completely.

Which brings us to…

Transition defense

The Sixers’ transition defense has been downright brutal of late, a bad combination of a lack of hustle, inexperience, and a lack of communication.

Brett Brown constantly emphasizes the first few steps in transition defense, as being slow out of the gate is tough to recover from. The second most important part of transition defense is communication.

Below is an example of how poor communication caused the Wizards to have three easy baskets.

In the first clip Noel, who is stationed baseline on the offensive miss, is clearly not going to be able to get back to stop Marcin Gortat. Okafor, who started the game defending Jared Dudley on the perimeter, is so locked into his assignment that he doesn’t notice Noel calling for the switch.

The second clip actually came off of a made basket by T.J. McConnell, who immediately started motioning for somebody to pick up John Wall, who is about as fast as any player in the league. None of Noel, Hollis Thompson, or Robert Covington take notice in time to do anything about it.

The final clip has Okafor beat down the court by Gortat, with Jerami Grant clearly picking up Okafor’s man, although whether or not Grant called it out is unclear. Okafor, either not realizing Grant was picking up his man or thinking he had time to switch defensive assignments back to what they would be if the defense were set, leaves Otto Porter, who would have been Grant’s man, wide open, although in the end he did miss the shot.

This is likely impacted by switching Noel and Okafor’s defensive assignments. We’ve heard Brown talk, at length, about how Noel and Okafor have had to unlearn the instincts to just sprint back to the basket defensively in transition. Because of that, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, this focus to go against their natural instincts may have played a part in some of these communication issues. They’re also a natural byproduct of youth and inexperience.

But when you combine their youth and inexperience, a lack of communication, their struggles to take care of the basketball of late, and some questionable effort to get back in transition, it creates a differential that’s difficult to overcome.

Defending the post

I’m not going to belabor this point too much, mostly because we’re already way too far into this post. But the Sixers do a very poor job of defending the post. In fact, according to nba.com/stats, the 0.93 points per possession* they allow is the third-worst in the NBA.

Part of the Sixers’ struggles defending the Magic and the Pistons, despite the fact that they’re not very good offensive teams, is that they’re able to take advantage of this weakness of the Sixers, as both Andre Drummond and, especially, Nikola Vucevic, can score down low.

The Sixers, as a whole, do a very poor job of denying post position early, and Vucevic is more than capable of taking advantage of that. The Magic and Pistons both do a good job of having their big men establish deep position early in the shot block, and the Magic are very good at setting screens to get Vucevic closer to the basket on post-ups before initial contact is made, something I wish the Sixers would incorporate more of in their own offense.

This is one aspect of defense that Nerlens Noel just isn’t equipped to handle all that well at this stage of his career, and with Brett Brown now of the mindset to have Okafor defend the perimeter player in order to evaluate his future ability to do so, match-up be darned, it probably caused an already-existing problem to be further exploited.

*Note: “Play type” uses a different definition for possessions, which creates a different points per possession baseline than the rest of the statistics used in this article.

** All data using nba.com/stats unless otherwise mentioned.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.