Sixers need to discard abysmal transition defense habits


Here we are again.

As the 2021 playoffs neared for the top-seeded Sixers, head coach Doc Rivers was asked about the team’s transition defense problem.

“There’s no tricks to transition,” he said. “It’s so much about habit and discipline, and we’ve had bad habits all year. We’ve gotten better as it’s gone on, but it’s such an individual-team thing, if that makes sense to you. We’ll have three guys that’ll do it and two guys that’ll break the habit, and then it kills the entire transition D."

So far, the 2022-23 Sixers have defended in transition like a team with the habit of waking up in the morning, strolling to the kitchen, and chucking a microwave out of the window.

Truly, hyperbole might be impossible in describing their performance. 

Small sample-size warnings certainly apply, but the Sixers are currently the NBA's worst transition defense team by a vast margin. Per Cleaning the Glass, their opponents have added 9.3 points per 100 possessions through transition play. 

The bottom transition defense team last season was the Rockets (4.5). The Sixers ranked 27th. 

On Wednesday night, against a Raptors team that loves to pounce on turnovers and plays with relentless speed and energy, the Sixers were outscored 29-17 in fast-break points. They fell to 1-4 with a 119-109 loss at Scotiabank Arena. 

The team is not oblivious to this issue. James Harden pointed to it right away after the Sixers’ opening-night defeat in Boston. 

“Transition,” he said. “We gave them way too many transition points; basically gave them 20-plus points in transition. And that’s the game right there. You give a team — especially a team that’s just gone to the Finals and been together a few years — easy buckets like that, it makes it more difficult on ourselves. So we can’t allow that to happen.”

After Monday’s victory over the Pacers, Joel Embiid identified “building some consistency” as the Sixers’ next step. 

“Doing it every night,” Embiid said. “It starts on defense. … I think it’s all about everybody being on the same page, knowing what we’re going to do with our game plan and just executing.”

Of course, effort and attentiveness won’t always get the job done by themselves, though the Sixers absolutely deserve criticism for regular lapses at the basics. Still, a botched switch or two is to be expected with four new players in the Sixers’ rotation. Unfortunate bounces also occur, and they presumably have contributed at least a little to the team being on a historically abysmal pace.

And, though it does not come close to excusing everything, the Sixers’ personnel isn’t conducive to impeccable evenings in transition. While the Sixers think De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. have made their bench more athletic, the team is still not stuffed with players who thrive in the open floor. 

“I thought there were probably 10 times we didn’t match up right in transition and they took advantage of it, so that’s going to be a point of emphasis,” Rivers said Monday. “Especially with Tobias (Harris), P.J. (Tucker) and Joel on the floor to start games, the speed at times can be a factor for us, so we have to watch that.”

The Sixers’ half-court offense sits second in the league with 103.5 points per 100 plays, the Raptors’ 24th (91.0). That didn’t feel like it mattered much Wednesday, since the Raptors controlled the game’s style as they built a 17-point lead in the second quarter. They had justified confidence that a turnover falling into their laps or a Sixer struggling to immediately process who was unguarded would result in points. 

The season before Rivers’ arrival, the Sixers began 5-0. Eventually, however, Brett Brown’s belief that his team was well-constructed for playoff success looked flimsy.

This summer, president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was glad to sign Tucker to a three-year, $33.2 million deal largely because of the 37-year-old’s playoff track record. It’s clearly premature for definitive judgements on Morey’s offseason, Tucker’s contract, and whether the Sixers can meet their own lofty expectations. 

But, if the Sixers can't make fundamental changes, it might start to feel late rather early. The Raptors are up again Friday, followed by road games against the Bulls (3-2) and Wizards (3-1). Obviously, it's important to avoid a 2-7 or 3-8 start, which would be deeply concerning and reflect poorly on everyone involved with the team.

The playoffs are a long ways away and the Sixers’ early-season transition defense habits need to be thrown out of the window. 

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