Philadelphia 76ers: Why recent changes might elevate the defense

Al Horford | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Al Horford | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers’ defense should take a step forward next season.

Believe it or not, there are 82 NBA games played by each team between the months of October and April.  This most commonly is referred to as the regular season. The term “regular” feels very apt at this moment, considering the emotional highs and lows that came with the 2019 playoffs, and the twitter-infused whirlwind that swept up the entire NBA universe during the first week of July.  Despite the relative calm of those 82 games, there is important data that we can pull from them to help predict and hypothesize what we might see from the Philadelphia 76ers on the court next season, specifically on the defensive end.

Last regular season, the Sixer’s defense performed rather disappointingly. After a stellar 2017-2018 campaign in which the team ranked third in defensive rating, the Sixers, led by new defensive coach Billy Lange, fell to 14th, per   A scheme change, personnel changes, and inconsistent effort are all areas where journalists and fans have pointed blame. In truth, it was likely a combination of all three. While the inconsistent effort will happen throughout any NBA season, the first two have two have been particularly important for the Sixers as of late.

We will get to the obvious personnel changes, but I want to start by looking at the scheme. From here on, I am going to use data compiled from Cleaning The Glass.  The site uses a percentile system to determine how well the team performed in a certain area.  The higher the percentile, the better they performed, with 100 being the highest. We can use these statistics to see how the defense changed over the last two seasons.

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After Lloyd Pierce left to coach the Atlanta Hawks, Brett Brown promoted Billy Lange to lead the defense.  It is unclear who on the coaching staff spearheaded the defensive shift, but there was a clear difference in the way the team defended last year compared to 2017-18.  Two seasons ago, the Sixers third-ranked defense excelled at preventing opponents from taking shots at the rim. They only allowed teams to take 31.3 percent of their total shots near the basket, which was in the 85th percentile of the league. During that season, the team was solid at preventing the corner three (70th percentile), but was only middle of the pack at preventing three pointers from all areas (58th percentile).

The following season saw these numbers change drastically.  The team gave up far too many looks at the basket, as the opponents shot percentage number went from 31.3 percent, up to 37.2 percent.  This dropped them to the 39th percentile of the league. Their three-point defense saw marked improvement however, as they jumped up to the 92nd percentile on preventing corner threes, and the 86th percentile on all three-point attempts.

These numbers tell me that the coaches decided to put more emphasis on defending the three-point line in the 2018-19 season.  That’s not to say the coaches were happy with the shots given up at the rim. Ideally, a team would only allow their opponent to shoot long two-pointers.  This is almost impossible, so trade-offs are a necessity. Perhaps the coaching staff felt that the trade-off would not be so drastic, or Joel Embiid could carry the interior defense by himself and the increase in attempts at the rim was something they could withstand. Whatever the reasoning, the scheme certainly played a part in the defensive regression.

Now, with Billy Lange off to Hawk Hill to lead the St. Joseph’s Men’s Basketball Team, the Sixers hired former Spurs Assistant Ime Udoka to take over the defense.  Looking at the Spurs defense from last year shows us that they were 20th in defensive rating, unusually low for a Spurs team under Coach Popovich. If we dig a little deeper however, we see that the Spurs were in the 89th percentile when it comes to allowing opponents’ shots at the rim.  This could signal a return to the emphasis on rim protection from two seasons ago.

If the Sixers want to emulate a top defense from last season, they could watch some film of the Milwaukee Bucks.  Last season, Milwaukee ranked first in overall defensive rating, and was in the 96th percentile of allowing shots at the rim. Milwaukee placed almost all of their attention on not allowing shots at the basket, and were willing to give up threes in bunches as a trade-off.  Their opponents took 36.3 percent of their shots behind the three-point line, one of the highest marks in the league. The Bucks pulled this off so well due to their roster of high defensive I.Q. and long-limbed players, led by the league’s MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now, the Sixers’ have a jumbo-sized roster, and a coach who has experience with a similar defense.  I expect that the Sixers have already studied some Bucks film and we could be seeing more emphasis on rim-protection at the Wells Fargo Center this season.

Now that we understand what scheme changes the team might undergo this season, let’s look at how the new additions could help turn this defense into a top outfit.  The most impactful player on this list will likely be Al Horford. In a recent interview, Celtics GM Danny Ainge mentioned that he believes Al Horford joined the Sixers due to his affinity for playing the four, rather than the five.  Al will be starting at the four next to Joel Embiid with this roster, so I took a look at how Boston’s defense fared with him in this position last season.

The results were jarring.  With Al Horford playing the four, almost exclusively next to Aron Baynes at the 5, the Celtics had a Defensive Rating of 99.2.  This is 5.7 points better than Milwaukee’s league-leading 104.9 mark, which is the same as the difference between Milwaukee and 20th ranked San Antonio. Going one step further, we see that the Celtics walled off the paint with Al at power forward. They were in the 96th percentile of all lineups in terms of opponent attempts at the rim, and allowed one of the highest three-point attempt rates.

It makes sense that Al at the four could lead to a dominant defense.  Playing next to a true center alleviates his two biggest defensive concerns; defensive rebounding and defending against a bouncy pick-and-roll diver.  Elton Brand and Brett Brown likely had their eyes on Horford as the perfect player to help solidify the defense. Sliding Horford next to Joel Embiid, with Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson manning the perimeter, could be a devastating defensive lineup.

The Sixers have had issues on defense in the past with Joel going to the bench.  Last season with Embiid on the court, the Sixers had a 106.2 defensive rating. When he sat, the number ballooned to 113.9.  That’s equivalent to a top-five defense while he’s on the court, and the 28th ranked defense while he’s on the bench. This is also where Horford could come in.  With Horford at center, the Celtics had a 108.2 defensive rating, which would’ve ranked 11th in the league. With Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, and feisty young players Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle, Horford should be surrounded by a better defensive unit while at center than he was in Boston.

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A stout defense while Joel rests is something the Sixers have never had the luxury of, and could be a huge boost to their overall defensive standing.  Veteran pickup Kyle O’Quinn will also see some minutes at the five this season, and even he should provide a little bit more resistance than what we saw from Boban Marjanovic, Jonah Bolden, and creaky Amir Johnson.

Horford was not the only important acquisition for the defense, as Josh Richardson will bring his own brand of manic perimeter defense to the roster.  Richardson has shown ability to blow up dribble hand-offs and off-ball screen plays, and will surely bring the proverbial clamps to opposing guards when called upon.

Looking deeper into Richardson’s lineup data, you can see he excelled defensively while playing the one or the two.  With him at these two positions, the Heat had a 105.2 and a 104.7 defensive rating, respectively. When Richardson lined up at the three, their defensive rating increased to 112.  That equivocates to going from a top-three unit to a bottom-10 one. There is some sample size noise there, and it’s possible that Richardson was still guarding ones or twos while technically lined up at the three.  But we can take away that playing a larger lineup with Richardson at guard has yielded strong results.

The Sixers have a constructed a lineup where we will rarely see less than three players under 6-foot-8 on the court together. Richardson should be exclusively matching up with opposing team’s guards, free to disrupt plays around the arc knowing the wall that lurks behind him.

All of this put together and this Sixers team could be looking at an elite defense next year.  Before I dug through the statistics for this piece, I had top-five defense in my head as a prediction for the next season.  Now, I think this team will be a top-three defense in the association, and even compete for the top spot. The hiring of Udoka gives me a sense that Brett Brown and staff are committed to returning to their 2017-18 form.  Al Horford at the four seems to be a recipe for a stingy defensive unit, and his impact will be fun to watch.

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Of course, this is all contingent on health.  Horford is 34, and it is always wise to use caution with Joel Embiid.  Both of them will have their fair share of managed loads, and we could see more Kyle O’Quinn then initially anticipated. It is also a little premature to forecast the defensive ability of Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle.  That said, the defensive potential of this team is through the roof, and it will be thrilling to watch develop. If the team is healthy and able to gel quickly, the team, to quote the Great Marc Zumoff, could be locking windows and doors all season long.