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After a tumultuous offseason that saw the departure of head coach Brett Brown, the much-ballyhooed arrival of Daryl Morey and a litany of trade rumors, centered first on the idea that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were fundamentally incompatible and then on the hypothetical pursuit of James Harden, the Philadelphia 76ers have been … pretty, pretty good.
After last night’s 118-101, they have the best record in the NBA with a point differential (plus-8.8 points per 100 possessions) that trails only the 5-2 Los Angeles Lakers and the 4-3 Milwaukee Bucks.
Philadelphia exerted a significant amount of offseason energy into adding shooting and revamping their offense, flipping Al Horford and Josh Richardson for Danny Green and Seth Curry, while adding electric guard Tyrese Maxey in the draft. But through seven games, their offensive efficiency (108.2 points per 100 possessions) ranks 14th in the league and is roughly two and a half points per 100 possessions worse than the mark they managed last year. Leaguewide offensive efficiency tends to increase as the season goes on and, with two new starters and a rookie playing significant minutes off the bench, it stands to reason the 76ers will get better at that end. But they also have found an identity as a defensive juggernaut, which may turn out to be a more viable path to contention.
In 2017-18 — Simmons’ rookie season and the first in which Embiid mostly shed minute restrictions — the 76ers finished third in defensive efficiency, allowing an average of 103.9 points per 100 possessions. The past two seasons they’ve stayed in the top half of the league but dropped towards league average, allowing 109.0 and 108.4. Through seven games this season, they’re allowing just 99.4 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league by a wide margin. Admittedly, the teams they’ve beaten don’t sound that intimidating — Wizards, Knicks, Raptors, Magic, Hornets (2). But still, the 76ers’ defense has looked as cohesive as it ever has and there aren’t many obvious indicators that they are benefiting from a run of bad luck for their opponents. For example, opponents aren’t shooting unusually poorly against them on wide-open 3-pointers or from the free-throw line, the kinds of things the defense has very little control over and we would expect to progress towards the mean as the season goes on.
Why has the Philadelphia 76ers’ defense been so good?
What the 76ers have done is excel in a variety of ways. They rank in the top 10 in every defensive category in the Four Factors and their shot defense has been their defining attribute. They have allowed the second-lowest field goal percentage on shots at the rim and the lowest on short mid-range shots (outside the restricted area but inside of four feet).
Before the season, the 76ers talked about playing a more aggressive style of pick-and-roll defense, eschewing the drop coverage they had used with Embiid the past few years. For his part, Embiid seemed to welcome change but talked with reporters before the season about the discomfort of adjusting to a more mobile defensive role:
“That’s been an emphasis. I feel like you got to mix it up and being 7-feet, you can also have limitations as far as the way you move and the way you react. The times that we have been running it in practice at times is a little bit hard because he puts me in a bad spot so I think it’s about just getting comfortable every single day. Of course, I’ve always done what the coaches asked me to do. Hopefully, it does work, but if it doesn’t, we also as a team, we got to make adjustments.”
As pointed out in that Sixers Wire story, the flashpoint may have been the playoff loss against the Celtics when Boston’s ball-handlers repeatedly dribbled into open jumpers out of the pick-and-roll as Embiid retreated to the paint. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum combined for an effective field goal percentage of 53.5 on pull-up jumpers in that series. Danny Green, speaking with reporters this weekend, made clear that the 76ers are still working out the kinks in this strategy:
“Right now, we’re still feeling each other out. Getting Joel coming out and guarding guards and coming out on a pick-and-roll be a little higher sometimes because he’s capable, I just don’t think he’s as comfortable. Everybody’s comfortable talking and moving around him, make the game easy for him and him making the game easier for us.”
Whatever upside is still to be developed in this strategy, the results have been great. The 76ers are in the top-7 in the league in defensive points per possession on plays finished by either the ball-handler or screener in the pick-and-roll. Discomfort aside, the 76ers are doing a better job of closing out open space in the middle of the floor and they’re rotating cohesively enough to still build barriers at the rim or chase shooters off the line.
The 76ers may not finish the season as the best defense in the league. Injuries may eventually take their toll, as will playing a tougher level of competition (they’ve yet to play any of the league’s top-10 offenses). But they will also get more comfortable with their system and with each other and they’re leaning on two cornerstones with Defensive Player of the Year potential and a supporting cast with more versatility and aggressiveness to exert on the wings. The 76ers still have a lot of work to do on the offensive end but it seems more and more likely that a hypothetical deep playoff run would be fueled an elite defense.
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