If Sam Hinkie was a stand-up comedian, he would have been ushered out the venue with the stench of tomatoes emanating from his body. The general consensus was that the infamous creator of “The Process” was deservingly axed. These nay-sayers did boast a rather compelling argument: Golden State is 6 wins away this season from matching Philadelphia’s victory total from the last 3 seasons COMBINED. However, 2017 seems to be the magic potion that allowed this much-maligned concoction to work its wonders. In January, the 76ers are 9-5, good for a tie of the 7th best mark in this time frame, with wins over the likes of CHA, TOR, POR, LAC, and MIL twice. So what has been the recipe for this seemingly miraculous turnaround?
“The D”, as Dwight Howard would say. After the turn of the calendar year, Philadelphia possesses the 2nd best defense. The insertion of un-drafted TJ McConnell into the starting lineup on December 30 was integral in spearheading this defensive emergence. The new starting 5 of McConnell-Stauskas-Covington-Ilyasova-Embiid relinquishes a gaudy 90.1 pts per 100 possessions, which would easily be the best mark in the NBA. McConnell’s an astounding individual defender. His lateral quickness and strong core allow him to stay in front of his speedy counterparts, while his comprehension of angles permit him to successfully fight over screens. In January, opponents are shooting 3% worse on 2-pointers and 1.1% worse on 3 points while directly guarded by McConnell.
McConnell stays in front of Lillard and forces him into a bad shot.
McConnell sticks with Walker and then fights over Zeller’s screen to contest his shot.
The former UofA guard isn’t the sole factor, however. Brett Brown has ensured that his troops thoroughly understand the defensive fundamentals and has implemented a progressive scheme. His defensive approach to the pick and roll screams unpredictability, as he throws the kitchen sink at opponents. They ICE (have the big man sag back), trap, switch etc. What does not change, however, is the precise coverage around the 2 defenders involved in the pick and roll, especially with regards to the former 2 strategies.
The remaining 3 move as if they’re connected by a string. When the ball handler moves further away from the roll man, the weak side defenders move closer to the latter. When the opposite occurs, they move closer to their man. This all takes place while the off-ball defenders maintain a straight line angle to their assignment, which allows for the easiest possible close out. When the close out does happen, Philadelphia has competent enough perimeter defenders such as the aforementioned McConnell and Covington to take away the space without allowing the man to blow past him. This helped the 76ers give up a 6th best 32.8 FGA that were tightly covered this past month.
Covington move towards his man, as the ball starts to come to his side. Luwawu-Cabarrot, on the other hand, begin to move towards the ball, as it goes away from him. This all occurs without any defender not being in position to close out.
When the ball handler traverses around the screen, the off-ball defenders have the luxury of staying closer to their man than usual. That’s due to the mobility of Philadelphia’s big men, such as Noel, Saric, etc. When sagged back, they have the ability to rapidly transition from covering the ball handler to covering the roll man if the former makes the pocket pass. This agility is the primary element that allows Brown to call on various, versatile defensive strategies, such as switching big men onto perimeter players.
Noel covers Ariza off the curl and then moves to guard Capela.
Philadelphia’s switches don’t break even in the most challenging situations. Although defensive malleability is vital, so is high IQ. Brown has instilled that in his guys. They switch a ton of off-ball action to perfection, which is a lot more difficult than switching on-ball stuff. With regards to the latter, it’s a lot more cut and dry as to when the switch should occur. They also switch action that involves 2 screens, another mentally demanding task.
Crawford uses 2 screens, but the 3 defensive players involved switch it perfectly.
With all this said, however, it really only takes 2 words to explain why Philadelphia’s defense has only been surpassed by Golden State this past month: Joel Embiid.
To me, Embiid is a lock to win multiple defensive player of the year awards. There is not a single offensive situation that one should feel uncomfortable letting Embiid face. With him on the floor, the 76ers have a defensive efficiency of 99.1, which would be the best mark by over a point. With him off it, Philly plummets to 108.1, which would rank a miserable 24th. Embiid’s already the best rim protector this season, relinquishing an incredible 41% success rate at the rim. This month, that already-impressive number drops all the way to 34.8%!! Embiid’s stifling rim protection doesn’t merely just entail having to travel from one side of the paint to the basket. He’ll shift from guarding on to the perimeter to immediately swatting a shot at the rim. His timing is just uncanny.
Embiid eliminates Batum’s airspace and then recovers to meet Zeller at the rim.
Embiid rotates over to block Parker.
Astonishingly, that number doesn’t even capture the immense impact Embiid’s paint presence has. If Embiid is allowed to stay near the rim, the 76ers’ defense becomes nearly un-penetrable. As mentioned above, Philly has a tremendously sound defense as is. But the few times there are chinks in the armor, Embiid is there to patch up the mess. Whether it be a perimeter defender giving the angle on a drive or losing his man off ball, Embiid will obstruct the offensive player’s path to the rim. This provides said defender with sufficient amount of time to recover.
This unbelievable mobility translates to several other defensive facets, as well. The ability to play a multitude of pick and roll coverages really begins with Embiid, as he’s agile enough to trap and switch onto guards. His size makes it difficult to get around him, while his lateral quickness makes it arduous for a guard to shake him with his handle. If the offensive player does get a step on him, Embiid utilizes his massive frame and length to continue to be a nuisance. He is hands down the best Philly big at moving from defending the ball handler to the roll man. Lastly, all of these assets allow Embiid to be an impressive rebounder as well. With him on the floor, the 76ers have a 51.5% rebounding rate, which would be 5th best in the league. The trend continues here as well, as without him, that number plummets to 47.7% (would be 27th).
Embiid’s able to move his feet and stick with DeRozan.
Embiid glides from guarding Brogdon, the ball handler, to defending Henson, the roll man.
The most optimal strategy to counter what’s going on with Golden State is to have a big man who can stay on the floor against the Warriors’ small lineup, while you have the opportunity to exploit their lack of size. Philadelphia has that with Embiid. When you pair that with their apt team defense and wide array of assets coming in, it wouldn’t be a surprise if after Cleveland, the next biggest challenger to the Warriors throne hails from the city of brotherly love.