The Philadelphia 76ers’ performances over the past couple of weeks have suffered in Joel Embiid’s absence, but switching on defense too often has hurt, too.
When a team doesn’t have its best player, its performances will suffer. The Philadelphia 76ers have felt the impact of Joel Embiid‘s absence from the All-Star break, going 4-4 before his return on Sunday. A particularly painful loss to the lowly Chicago Bulls sticks out among the four losses, particularly the game’s final play, where Jimmy Butler and Mike Scott botched a simple switch, leaving Zach Lavine a wide open lane to drive into with three seconds left in the game.
That play, and the game as a whole, highlight a long-standing theme with the 76ers under Brett Brown. LaVine dropped 39 points, with a lot of those buckets coming on mismatches thanks to the team’s insistence on switching players on every pick-and-roll the defense faces.
Two of the first three of LaVine’s points as the primary ball handler in the halfcourt offense came with him finishing the play against Amir Johnson after a screen, and the 23-year-old scored the other on Mike Scott.
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After Lavine scored the game-winner, Butler started complaining on the bench, most likely in regards to coach Brett Brown’s insistence on the defense switching whenever two opponents cross over each other.
Butler should have just stayed on Lavine regardless of the screen set for him because he is the best perimeter defender on the Sixers, although plenty of guards have torched Philly in the past resulting from setting up these mismatches.
In an average game for James Harden, he dropped 31 in a win for Houston in the contest after the Sixers’ loss to Chicago. Plenty of perimeter players have excelled against Philly this season, even when Embiid plays: Gordon Hayward had 26 the last time they played the Boston Celtics, Kyle Kuzma dropped 39 points for the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Sacramento Kings’ Buddy Hield scored 34 against the Sixers, and all of these performances happened between Feb. 1 and March 9.
This pattern of above-average scoring outbursts from players sort of seems innocuous because the players scoring a lot against the Sixers are good, but Philly has strong perimeter defenders in Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler who guard their opponents’ best players. The constant switching sits at the root of the problem because while players like Hayward or LaVine might start a possession with Jimmy Butler guarding them, it becomes irrelevant once a teammate sets a screen and the ball handler can finish the play against Mike Scott or Amir Johnson.
New acquisitions Scott, James Ennis, and Jonathon Simmons allow the highest field goal percentage for opponents shooting within five feet from the basket, giving up 63.5 percent, 63.8 percent, and 71.8 percent respectively. Although the three play with some athleticism on the surface, Brown needs to take care to minimize the number of isolations they face against their opponents’ top offensive threats because those three will get exposed on defense.
Philly desperately misses their first three centers in the depth chart: Embiid, Boban Marjanovic, and Jonah Bolden all allow less than 59 percent of shots within five feet to go in. So naturally, without those three backing up the perimeter defenders, the team will concede more points in their absences. But there is no excuse for consistently allowing these types of outbursts at this frequency, regardless of who provides the help defense. Weak on-ball defense will always lead to scores, and Brown needs to take measures to make sure other teams’ top scorers always face a challenge when attacking the basket.
Especially when Embiid is off the court, the Sixers need to stop switching on soft screens and overlaps so they can let their best defenders guard the other team’s best players for full possessions. Robert Covington loved to strip the ball from his man whenever someone tried to take him on the drive, and Butler and Simmons the reflexes and athleticism to annoy the other team’s stars in similar ways.
Brett Brown has always stayed loyal to the concepts of fluidity and positionless basketball, but he needs to adapt to the roster he has at his disposal. Having Butler and Scott switch on a screen is not in the same ballpark as, for instance, the Milwaukee Bucks having Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton switch.
Of course, the Sixers should still switch when necessary, mainly on strong picks and whenever an opponent blows past a defender. Aside from those scenarios, coach Brown needs to have his defenders stick to their men to prevent mismatches.