“I will say this: if in fact [Noel and Embiid] do play together, which is what we anticipate, we’re going to be a menace at the rim, an absolute menace.” – Sam Hinkie
Opposing teams did more than just torch the Sixers from downtown last year. They doused the arc in kerosene and held ceremonial fire-dancing parties, breaking record after record and finished with 739 threes on the season1.
This wasn’t an accident. Not entirely, at least. It happened because the Sixers were running a defensive scheme that focused on limiting shots inside the paint. Simple in theory, though near impossible to execute without personnel that’s both qualified and familiar with the system.
Zach Lowe explained this in a Grantland column from March:
But playing this way requires precision atop athleticism in two specific ways:
1. Players have to know when they should help inside and when they should stay closer to home.
2. Everyone else has to slide around and rotate in concert to cut off obvious passing lanes and be in position to close out on shooters in a timely fashion.
The Sixers didn’t have shot blockers last season, and they didn’t have strong perimeter defenders. On top of that, they were brand new to this particular scheme. (With an average roster age of 23.9, most of them were brand new to any NBA scheme.) Some of the newer, younger players were accustomed to the traditional zone defenses of college ball. And the few players who had been around were used to the Collins-Curry defense, which in many ways ran counter to the 2014 scheme: emphasizing perimeter pressure, disrupting passing lanes and getting out on fast breaks.
Things should get better defensively this season, and that’s not just because things can’t get worse (seriously, a 1.29 opponent PPS is as bad as it gets.). With Nerlens Noel, and just as importantly, the addition of athletic wing players — KJ McDaniels (6-6 guard, 6-11.25 wingspan2), Jordan McRae (6-5, 7-0.5 wingspan), Jerami Grant (6-8, 7-3 wingspan) — the Sixers will have the length to compensate for at least some of their inevitable defensive lapses. They’ll have a rim protector down low protecting the paint, and terrifyingly long humans patrolling the passing lanes and closing out on shooters. The Sixers didn’t have this luxury a year ago, with Charmin Ultra Soft representative Spencer Hawes in the middle, and James Anderson and Evan Turner on the wings.
The pack-the-paint system does have its downsides. For one, it’s hard to maintain and execute. As Lowe noted in his piece, it requires lots of communication, and can be foiled by even one player gambling in a passing lane. Plus, since it’s so personnel-driven, one injury can turn a well-oiled machine into a Hummer. Take, for example, the Thunder, who had a top-10 defense with world-class athletes at nearly every position. Even they struggled to execute with consistency, and when they weren’t full strength, things got ugly. Don’t believe me? Then rewatch the Spurs torch the Serge Ibaka-less Thunder in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Fear of injury shouldn’t ruin the appeal of this scheme, but it’s a risk to consider, especially given the Sixers fragile frontcourt foundation.
Still, the Sixers have a roster that, on paper, has infinite defensive potential. Two vicious rim-protectors, a 6-6 point guard, and an excess supply of long, athletic wings? Yes, please. Don’t expect an overnight transformation, but it’ll be better. Nothing can be worse than the bloodbath that was the 2013-14 season.
1. Unofficially, this is the second-most threes surrendered. The 2014 Cavs (765) have the no. 1 spot.
2. Fourth-highest block rate in the ACC last season.