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The Sixers’ Defense Looks Like Hot Junk

For a team with serious title aspirations, Philadelphia has been an absolute mess so far on defense. Is there a solution internally or will a move prove necessary?

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It’s easy to blame the Philadelphia 76ers’ offense for the dreadful 1-4 start that’s quickly positioned them as the league’s most disappointing team. There have been stretches when it’s been downright unwatchable. The ball sticks. Bodies don’t move. It’s an aesthetic migraine for anyone who wants to see fluid basketball played between James Harden, Joel Embiid, and the increasingly irrepressible Tyrese Maxey.

There’s some truth to this carping about the offense, but Philly has too much talent to dip anywhere below “fine” when it’s time to put the ball in the basket. The Sixers rank ninth in offensive rating and the only team that’s been more efficient in the half court is Boston. No two teammates have connected on more assisted baskets than Harden and Embiid.

Far more detrimental to the Sixers, so far, is the undeniable fact that their defense is hot junk. Only four teams are giving up more points per possession and it doesn’t take a long look under the hood to see why. The Sixers have yielded the highest opposing 3-point frequency so far, with a contest rate of 53.6 percent—third worst in the league, according to Second Spectrum—against all field goal attempts.

The Sixers are keeping offenses away from the basket, but every opponent so far has slashed them when they get there, shooting a collective 76.6 percent. This is happening whether Embiid is in the game or not, which will either prove to be a fluke or the portentous sign of a looming catastrophe. Want to blame Harden? Philly is allowing a whopping 138.9 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor without his notoriously lethargic costar.

Regardless of who’s playing, Philadelphia has been ineffective in the half court and—read this next part slowly because it’s important enough to ultimately decide how dramatic in-season changes should be in Philadelphia—own by far the worst transition defense in the NBA. When I say “by far,” I mean that the league average for points added per 100 transition plays is currently 3.4, and Philly allows 9.3. Off live rebounds, teams are scoring 1.7 points per transition play. Memphis is the second-worst team, at 1.43.

This is what those numbers look like when translated to a basketball court:

As is the case with every team’s transition defense, some of these results are connected to shot selection and floor balance. When the Sixers miss a 3, they’ve gotten obliterated moments later, allowing 1.26 points per possession. But what’s particularly disturbing here is they’re even worse after made baskets (1.31 points per possession).

Just a few games into a season with serious title aspirations, Doc Rivers is already tinkering with a zone defense that his players seem unprepared for and unable to enforce:

When they aren’t hustling back in transition, the Sixers can be found getting rolled on back-door cuts, screwing up pick-and-roll coverages, and declining to close out on capable outside shooters. Miscommunication is frequent. Effort appears to be optional.

Now comes the obligatory caveat attached to every article written just 10 days into an NBA season: It’s early! Embiid may eventually play himself into shape and proceed to liquidate the shot attempts opponents are unusually comfortable making when he’s protecting the rim. (They’re converting a laughable 75 percent of them so far.) Maybe a greater sense of urgency will be infused and everyone will start to grasp how important the first step back on defense is when you’re trying to win an NBA game.

But some parts of this can’t be corrected internally. Philly’s personnel is questionable, which is worrisome considering the active offseason Daryl Morey had trying to correct issues seen on last year’s roster. A lot of responsibility falls on Embiid to clean up mistakes made on the perimeter. But even he can’t single-handedly solve every problem. With Wednesday’s game against the Raptors on the line, Toronto put Maxey in a ball screen, catapulting Pascal Siakam downhill and forcing Embiid to step up off Scottie Barnes, who caught Siakam’s bounce pass for an easy game-sealing dunk.

Maxey is 6-foot-2. Harden is … Harden. Tobias Harris is stiff. The Sixers need P.J. Tucker to be a Doberman pinscher against the list of skilled forwards and wings up and down the Eastern Conference (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, etc.) but against the Raptors he started the game giving Siakam enough space to do a cartwheel. Siakam responded by hitting approximately 17 jumpers in a row.

The Sixers don’t have a Plan B if Tucker, who’s 37, can’t at least bother opponents in these matchups. Off the bench, Montrezl Harrell looks like the undersized third big man he is. Two-time reigning All-Defensive team member Matisse Thybulle has played a total of six minutes this season. His ability t0 create turnovers would help, but at the known cost of screwing up Philly’s spacing, which is a no-no when trying to accentuate Harden and Embiid.

De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. are theoretically better two-way options built for the playoffs, which is what this roster was ostensibly constructed to prepare for. But so far both look discombobulated. Georges Niang is a perpetual target. Philly’s second-most-played lineup—Embiid, Maxey, Melton, House, and Niang—is minus-16 with a 139.7 defensive rating and offenses haven’t even shot the 3 ball well against them.

Again, it’s early. The Sixers have a very talented roster and five games isn’t a sample size worth firing or trading anybody over. But if things snowball from this slow start, a change could be necessary. Right now, the Sixers’ defense hasn’t even looked capable of winning a playoff series, let alone contending for a championship.