There is plenty of good to take away from the first half of the 2013-14 season; the emphasis of the 3-point shot, Michael Carter-Williams’ development, and the fun, easy-to-watch pace.
The defensive effort, however, has been mostly cringe inducing. Gone is the defense from the Doug Collins era, and in its place is a unit that ranks dead last in points allowed (109.9 points) and 25th in defensive rating (106.0). That’s a major regression from last year’s 15th-ranked 103.0 defensive rating.
This year’s personnel is different, but not necessarily any less capable defensively. So why the decline?
In a recent interview with Zach Lowe of Grantland.com, Brett Brown was candid about the team’s core beliefs. One of the more interesting tidbits came when Lowe asked Brown about the team’s inability to defend the 3-point line (bold emphasis mine):
We came into this thing saying that if we’re gonna hang our hat on anything, we’re gonna go pace and paint. We’re gonna run as fast as we can, and then on the other end, we’re gonna guard the paint. We don’t have a shot-blocking front line, so let’s try as a group to guard the paint. And then Portland tees off from 3-point range, and the Warriors tee off. It has been a real challenge. It drives me crazy at night, when at times we don’t guard. I don’t sleep so well.
That philosophy pops out on tape, with Brown clearly directing his perimeter players to help more in the paint. Take for example this defensive possession from last season against the Charlotte Bobcats (below).
The team was reluctant to help off of shooters. Jrue Holiday, Damien Wilkins and Evan Turner remaining close to their assignments as Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist turns the corner on a pick-and-roll, leaving Spencer Hawes on an island.
Their defensive change stems from a belief that they must counteract the cement feet of Hawes and Lavoy Allen by throwing more help in their direction (Brown says it in a nicer way.) But Hawes’ inability to recover to shooters hasn’t changed, and that creates a world of problems for the Sixers.
On this play, the Toronto Raptors run a very basic pick-and-roll with Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez.
At first glance, Hawes appears to be in good position to defend the play, standing between Vasquez and the rim while also remaining close enough to Patterson to deal with the threat of a jumper. In fact, without knowing the results, you might suspect Evan Turner as the offending party. He goes over top of a screen in order to keep tabs on Vasquez, a career 42 percent shooter. (And one who isn’t much of a threat from deep to boot.) But as the play unfolds, the real culprit is exposed. Hawes continues to sink toward the rim, despite Turner managing to stay with Vasquez. Patterson ends up taking and making this jumper, but that’s not the important thing here. Watch the final moments before he releases his shot.
Even with his man about to attempt a shot, Hawes is barely now on his toes to think about contesting. At this point, it’s too late. Both James Anderson and Thaddeus Young converge on the shooter, leaving Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan wide open on the perimeter.
Against a team like the Raptors, particularly this lineup sans Terrence Ross, sending help off shooters to protect the painted area is at least a semi-defensible exercise. Having to cover for Hawes is a death sentence against the league’s better shooting teams, though, and that’s a big reason why you’ve seen teams like the Nets and Blazers destroy the Sixers behind a barrage of shots from downtown.
In another sequence against the Raptors, Hawes’ limitations show up in another area of defense – the post. This is the area that has been more of a problem for the Sixers center this season. He ranks 116th on defense in such situations, and it has long been the basis for Hawes critique.
Failure to get into solid starting position puts him at a disadvantage from the get-go. As Lowry dumps a pass into Jonas Valanciunas in the post, look at how much space he’s given while making the catch.
As a result of the soft defense, the Raptors young big man is able to catch Hawes in a vulnerable position and make a quick one-dribble move. To compensate for being out of position, Hawes has to flash hard and gamble for a block attempt, which Valanciunas quickly counters.
The second picture in this series is the most troubling. Three Sixers (MCW, James Anderson and Thad) are completely turning their backs on the perimeter and turning their focus to Spencer’s man. Though they don’t receive the ball on this play, two players shooting 40 percent or better from three (Ross and Lowry) are in position to let it fly. This is the power of a post threat in the NBA, where double teams can quickly turn into open looks on the perimeter. The Sixers have no solution for it.
From an eye-test standpoint, it looks like this defense needs to be rethought, but there’s a glimmer of hope. Despite using almost 9 more possessions per game this season, the Sixers are giving up just 1.6 more points in the paint than they did in Collins’ final season. Playing at a breakneck pace with the same limited defenders, they’re managing to keep paint buckets around the same level. The downside? They’re abysmal at preventing made threes, surrendering 9.6 per game, almost a full shot ahead of the next closest team.
Is there a savior in sight? Possibly. Although Nerlens Noel is a complete unknown professionally, we have at least gotten a look at what the implementation of an athletic big on the back line can do. The (now-departed) Dewayne Dedmon has proven that he can at least stop guys rolling to the hoop, allowing a solid 0.75 PPP in an admittedly small sample size.
Against the Bulls on Jan. 18, Dedmon showed what pick-and-roll defense can look like with an agile shot blocker on the back line. With the help of Tony Wroten, he corrals a driving D.J. Augustin:
After Augustin goes behind his back to Nazr Mohammed, Dedmon slides deftly over to his man and gets a hand in his face during the shot. Look how much of a difference it makes around the perimeter having Dedmon up in his man’s face, as opposed to the earlier stills of over-helping for Hawes.
In Dedmon, we’re talking about a player with limited basketball experience and nowhere near the pedigree of the flat-topped wonder lurking on the Sixers bench. I don’t own a crystal ball, but the 3-point barrage should slow considerably when athletic big men in this mold are getting more minutes.
As with a lot of inefficiencies in this Sixers season, the element worth caring about is the process, not the results. Until the guys who are viewed as long-term options are in place to show what they can do, it’s difficult to glean much from the team’s woeful defense.
It will be interesting to see how this unfolds over the coming weeks, with Hawes remaining a likely candidate to be traded to another team. The departure of their starting center would mean more minutes for players with wildly different skill sets. In the midst of a losing season, those field experiments are worth keeping an eye on.