76ers’ de­fense mixes po­ten­tial, ques­tions

Matchups could be dif­fi­cult, par­tic­u­larly in tran­si­tion

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Tom Moore

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.

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