Since trading for Harden last year, the biggest question mark surrounding the Sixers was if their defense could ever be in line with their championship aspirations. 29 games into the 2022-2023 season, only two teams have defended better than them. Let’s see how this group embodied a defensive philosophy that nullifies most of the roster weakness by building on the personnel strengths and Embiid’s presence. What are its remaining weakness and how can it still get better?
To cope with some players inability to keep the ball in front of them, the Sixers focused on constantly filing the driving lanes and the gaps with length and bodies. Philly’s paint is now a real fortress –only Miami allows less shot attempts at the rim this season.
Tucker pushes Anunoby left, Harden/Embiid sees it and now their priority is to block the path to the rim because the heap of Raptors players on the weak-side is not a huge threat. VanVleet recognizes that and switches sides but Melton comes back quick enough to contest the difficult three. Good example of how well the team is in sync.
The willingness the Sixers have to help off one pass away can eventually lead to easy kick-outs for open threes, but the squad has minimized that threat by primarily sagging off mediocre shooters or making vigorous closeouts. This strategy has been a success so far as opponents only convert 32.7% of their 3-points attempts when playing against us. Embiid is usually the one leaving his man so he can play a free-safety-like role he’s incredible at.
The Sixers are amongst the very best when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll, the most basic yet crucial action in the sport. It’s not only due to the fact that Embiid has mastered the art of dropping, but also because of the way they stunt at the ball and devote multiple players to neutralize the power-play.
Georges Niang leaves his man to be an additional defender on the rolling Antetokounmpo here.
That “floating” defensive approach fits well with the personnel: it unlocks P.J. Tucker’s aggressiveness at the point-of-attack, their openness to switch when needed fares well with Tobias’ underrated mobility and it allows De’Anthony Melton to roam off his man and use his impressive length and instincts to generate turnovers.
Joel Embiid’s engagement-level defensively and communication have been wonderful recently. Anchoring our defense from the paint, the ticker of our team is commanding everything to his teammates on the perimeter, he deters a huge amount of shots at the rim and the Cameroonian is the fourth-best isolation defender in the entire association.
The whole foundations of the Sixers defense rely on him, and when he’s off the floor, the Sixers go from best defense in the league to a well below-average one. (When you tell your friend to tell a friend that Tobi is a sharpshooter, don’t forget to add that Embiid is a Defensive Player Of the Year candidate.)
The mix of capacity, length and intelligence within the team has created a truly versatile and active defense that reaps tons of turnovers. Over-helping can be a plague, but in general the team has found a great balance between trusting our best defenders to contain their assignment and being in help early when a slower player is on the ball.
The team from Pennsylvania has struggled against shifty guards, but they struggle even more limiting ball-handlers who can pinpoint passes to exploit us loading up the strong side, leading to defensive breakdowns.
The Cavs also literally out-ran the Sixers every opportunity they got during that game, which is a huge problem the squad has yet to fix. Pascal Siakam’s 38 points on Monday should also remind the front office that P.J. Tucker’s overflowing energy does not always make him taller than he really is. Adding a long and athletic wing should be the priority for the upcoming trade season.
The Sixers are on a five game winning-streak and their stiffened defense along with Embiid’s domination should help the team win more and more games. If the famous saying is true, then the team is just a slightly more reliable offense away from seriously competing. GO SIXERS.
photo : Matt Slocum, AP