76ers’ defense mixes potential, questions
Matchups could be difficult, particularly in transition
Much has been made of the 76ers’ length and potential to be an elite NBA defensive team.
Projected starters Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid possess an average wingspan in excess of 7 feet, which should really help when closing out on shooters, as well as playing the passing lanes and being disruptive in the basket area. Defensive and offensive rebounding should be among their strengths.
Defense is extremely important to Brett Brown, who has repeatedly said players won’t get on the court if they don’t defend.
Richardson is a significant upgrade over JJ Redick as a wing defender. Richardson is clearly more athletic than Redick, a 3-point specialist, and better able to stay in front of his man.
But there are some question marks with the new-look Sixers at the defensive end, too.
First of all, Tobias Harris is going to have to begin games on opposing small forwards. Harris has been a decent defender against power forwards, but now will be forced to deal with quicker, more dangerous 3s much of the time.
At this juncture, you can’t say is Harris a better defender on 3s than last year’s small forward, Jimmy Butler, who signed a four-year, $141 million deal with the Heat.
I initially thought Harris could remain on the 4-man and Simmons could slide over to handle the 3, but then who would the 33-year-old Horford guard? Horford has primarily been a center during the past three seasons, so expecting him to consistently defend small forwards would probably be asking too much, despite how well he fared on Simmons during stretches in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Brown doesn’t want Embiid chasing stretch 4s at the 3-point line because that’d negate his game-changing interior defensive abilities — though Horford tends to have a significant impact in the paint — so Horford is probably going to have to stick with power forwards.
Simmons and Richardson would earn the guard assignments. I could see the 6-foot-10 Simmons drawing the point guard on some or most nights, but Richardson’s skill set would give Brown the option to put him on the primary ball-handler if the coach thinks that’s a more favorable matchup.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Sixers’ starters respond to teams with a lot of speed.
For example, the Celtics could end up starting Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum at the forward spots. Tatum would be an especially tough cover for Harris or ex-Boston teammate Horford. The Sixers open the 2019-20 regular season Oct. 23 against Boston.
The Bucks, who are widely perceived as the only conference team with better odds than the Sixers to reach the NBA Finals, could be a challenge.
Eric Bledsoe is one of the league’s fastest point guards. Let’s say Richardson is handed that assignment. Wings Wesley Matthews and Khris Middleton would be defended by Simmons and Harris, with Horford and a rotating cast of Sixers trying to prevent defending MVP Giannis ‘Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo from dominating. Embiid should be able to give Brook Lopez fits in the middle.
If Brown’s first substitution midway through the first quarter is to bring in James Ennis and give Embiid a rest, Harris could slide over to power forward and Horford to center. But unless Embiid is taking the night off, Brown could have some intriguing choices to make.
Another area in which the Sixers could be susceptible is transition defense.
Once Richardson or Simmons stop the ball, the other four guys must get back to avoid giving up easy baskets. Horford and Embiid don’t always immediately turn and run down the court, which at least one of them is going to have to do when they’re playing together.
Actually, all five guys need to hustle to find their man in an effort to prevent 3-on-2 and other disadvantageous situations.
These concerns don’t mean the Sixers aren’t capable of being a highlevel defensive team in 2019-20. It’s just that there are a few areas requiring some adjustments between now and when the conference finals roll around in late May and early June.
Tom Moore is a columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times: He can be reached at: [email protected]ertimes.com; @TomMoorePhilly.