Early-season film shows key changes for Embiid and Simmons

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This offseason was seemingly about all change for the Sixers, even for the stars who stayed in Philadelphia.

Outside of new teammates, though, what’s been different this season for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid? We tried to answer a small sliver of that question in the video above, which looks at a few early-season plays, and we’ll also expand on it a bit here. 

For Simmons, his transition talents and skill kicking out to three-point shooters have never been a mystery. He’s faring well on both those fronts in his first season with head coach Doc Rivers.

Rivers was determined to increase the Sixers’ pace and he’s done it thus far, helping the Sixers move from 20th last season in that category to sixth. Simmons in particular has played more often and more effectively in transition than ever before. With Simmons on the floor, 18.8 percent of the Sixers’ possessions have been in transition, per Cleaning the Glass, and the team is scoring 129.4 points per 100 of those transition plays. Both marks would be career-highs for Simmons.

Off of Simmons’ passes, the Sixers have shot a collective 85 of 206 from three-point range (41.3 percent).

Simmons hasn’t had an especially efficient or high-scoring start to the season in half-court offense, although he’s done well of late. Over his last six games, Simmons has averaged 15.8 points on 60.3 percent shooting, 7.7 assists and 1.8 turnovers. Rivers’ aim in the half court is for Simmons to play with a “head of steam,” which the head coach looked to create Sunday night by calling double drag actions against the Pacers’ aggressive pick-and-roll defense. 

As we touch on in the above video, there have sometimes been opportunities for Simmons to drive downhill from the weak side after an action in the Sixers’ mix that begins with Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry or another guard running an Iverson cut and then a side pick-and-roll. 

Snug pick-and-rolls with Simmons and Embiid are more challenging to guard when there’s off-ball action around them, and Danny Green has shown himself to be a smart, improvisational mover on a few occasions. It’s all obviously a work in progress, but it’s clear Rivers and the Sixers’ new coaching staff have a vision for how they want Simmons to play. 

Rivers and Embiid had a light-hearted exchange before the Sixers’ Jan. 25 game against the Pistons after Rivers was asked about the 26-year-old’s pick-and-roll defense.

“Joel, what do you think?” Rivers asked.

Apparently a short distance away from Rivers’ Zoom camera, Embiid said, “I’ve been doing an OK job. I can always get better.”

“Joel just said he should be doing a lot better. And I agree with that so far, but he will do better,” Rivers said with a playful tone. “No, he’s been great, actually. We’ve asked him to come up, because with his size and his IQ, just the appearance of him up … I think these guards, when everyone did the drop two or three years ago, the guards are always ahead of the game, with the snaking, and they’ve kind of figured that coverage out. We do have him up a lot more than he used to be, but I think it’s been great for our defense. And he’s handled it great.”

The Sixers hoped to funnel opponents into contested, long two-point shots in recent seasons, and to maximize Embiid’s abilities as a rim protector by using drop coverage. As Rivers noted, however, quick NBA guards are skilled at snaking the screen or finding other ways to exploit that coverage’s vulnerabilities, especially when the perimeter defenders are being asked to “force the ball off the screen,” like the Sixers’ were, and are therefore often falling out of the play.

The Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense was not abysmal last year, and it’s not suddenly flawless or fully refined under Rivers and defensive coordinator Dan Burke. It’s been better, though, and the below figures from NBA.com/Stats illustrate that. 

Pick-and-roll ball handlers against Sixers' defense 

  • 2019-20: 25.7 possessions per game, 0.88 points allowed per possession 
  • 2019-21: 21.9 possessions per game, 0.85 points allowed per possession

Pick-and-roll roll men against Sixers' defense 

  • 2019-20: 7.1 possessions per game, 1.09 points per possession
  • 2020-21: 6.1 possessions per game, 0.96 points per possession 

The above video highlights a few ways in which bringing Embiid higher up in pick-and-roll defense can create problems for the Sixers. The team is not completely immune from guards snaking the screen and isolating Embiid on a switch, and there’s pressure on the entire defense to rotate and scramble well. Embiid himself said during training camp that he thought the coverage put him in a “bad spot” and it was necessary to “mix it up.”

In a playoff setting, one would think the Sixers’ in-season experience varying their pick-and-roll coverages could be beneficial. At a minimum, incorporating changes within the early portion of the season is far preferable to doing so when the games have higher stakes. 

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