By Jesus Gomez
After years of putting off winning in the hopes of maximizing draft position, the Philadelphia 76ers came into this season with the need to show growth. Up until late December, however, things were looking awfully familiar, as the team boasted the worst record in the league at 7-24.
Everything has changed since then. The 76ers have won eight of their last 11 games. More importantly, they have done so behind a defensive identify that should provide a solid foundation in which to build going forward.
Philadelphia is a top 10 defense for the season and the best in the league in January. For such a young team, that’s absurdly good. It’s not a fluke, either, but the result of a smart game plan centered on a game-changing defender.
The 76ers rank first in the league in point per possession allowed in the pick and roll, including passes, according to Synergy Sports. Their scheme is a big reason why. Typically the primary defender tries to send the ball handler away from the screen and into the sides, to prevent middle penetration. Sometimes he allows his man to go middle but fights through the screen to recover. The center drops back to protect the rim and buy the primary defender time to return to his assignment.
That conservative brand of defense concedes the least efficient shots in the game — pull-up mid-range jumpers — while allowing Philadelphia to prevent good looks from beyond the arc, as the players not involved in the pick and roll can remain attached to their men. In January, opponents have taken the third fewest three-point attempts against the Sixers and are connecting on just 34 percent of them.
Outside shooting is one of the deadliest weapons in the league nowadays and the 76ers do a good job of containing it. The perimeter players deserve credit for fighting through screens and being disciplined when defending off the ball, only rotating when needed. Robert Covington has taken on the toughest assignments and done well and T.J. McConnell is one of the most relentless point guard defenders in the league.
Yet without having Joel Embiid patrolling the paint, their effort would go to waste.
The rookie center is allowing opponents a field goal under 40 percent in the shots he contests at the bucket, the best mark in the league among rotation big men. Yet he also does a great job of contesting shots a little further out, which separates him from other centers who are just rim protectors. Opponents shoot just 32 in the paint, excluding the restricted area, when Embiid is around, one of the lowest numbers in the league.
That means he not only deters and contest layups and dunks but he also smothers the floaters ball handlers try to use to counter his presence. He can even switch and shut down elite offensive players on his own.
Having Embiid as the back line defender has proved to be the game-changer for the Sixers. Nerlens Noel, a great rim protector and good defender in his own right, doesn’t come close to replicating the effect Embiid has on the game. Jahlil Okafor remains a huge liability on that end due his slow feet. That’s why Philadelphia’s defense is elite when The Process is on the court and below average when he sits.
Being so reliant on one player is obviously not ideal, but if Embiid remains healthy and they either retain Noel to back him up or find a solid defensive back up center, the 76ers will have a recipe for defensive excellence. All that’s needed to become truly elite on that end is to clean up some minor issues.
The power forwards need to do a better job on the perimeter to allow for more defensive flexibility. Both Ersan Ilyasova and Dario Saric are asked to switch on occasion after screens. Unfortunately, they have been among the worst players in the league when it comes to containing guards on switches, according to Synergy Sports. They either give ball handlers too much room to operate or make the occasional mistake.
A healthy Ben Simmons should help there, as he clearly has the foot speed to stay with guards. Saric should also get better with more experience. Switching from the power forward position is a weakness now, but it could become a strength eventually.
The same should happen to the 76ers’ dreadful transition defense. Considering how disciplined the half-court defense looks at times, it’s actually surprising to see how poor the fundamentals are on the break. Part of the issues come from turning over the ball too much, but the lack of communication is often staggering.
To be fair, the Sixers have been markedly better on that front lately, which shows that they can improve with more effort and focus. In all likelihood, they will figure things out soon in that department and become even tougher to beat.
Now, as great as it’s been to see their recent improvement, the 76ers are still a mediocre team at best right now. There are still little things to improve on defense and the offense remains atrocious, by far the worse in the league. It’s hard to imagine a fix on that end without a huge talent upgrade at the guard spots. Finding better scorers and playmakers who also buy in as much as the obviously limited but committed guards and wings currently on the roster might not be easy. They still have a long way to go.
Yet it’s hard not to be excited about their potential as long as Embiid is healthy. After the news about Ben Simmons’ injury and that slow start, it seemed like 76ers fans were going to have to wait another year before enjoying the results of a long and painful rebuilding process.
Luckily for them – and the league – the hard part seems over. The 76ers have found their identity as a gritty defensive squad who can beat anyone on any given night. If they find the right pieces to bolster their offense next summer, they could make some serious noise as soon as next season.