Sixers' new defensive concepts: ‘Make them feel you,' the ‘corral blitz' and more


Under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, Ime Udoka was responsible for "eight or nine [opposing] teams," he said Monday night, strategizing on both ends of the floor. Now, the new Sixers assistant coach has a narrower focus and is "looking forward to a different challenge."

Udoka will be taking on the job of de facto defensive coordinator for the Sixers, a position held for much of last season by new Saint Joseph's head coach Billy Lange.

He discussed his defensive philosophy Monday at Brett Brown's fifth annual "Coach the Coaches" clinic in Camden, New Jersey, and previewed several changes. We looked at tweaks to expect offensively here.

Different pick-and-roll approaches 

Pick-and-roll defense was problematic for the Sixers throughout last season. Monday night, Udoka reviewed the team's middle pick-and-roll coverages for 2019-20.

In “big-small” pick-and-rolls, dropping the big man — having him essentially play “center field,” as Udoka said —  sounds like it will still be foundational. Below is an example of that coverage, which aims to encourage opponents to take long two-point shots.

As we noted last year, that strategy often failed against smaller, quicker guards who could exploit the open space created by Joel Embiid falling far back into the paint, or who could simply knock down those long twos at an efficient rate on a given night.

Udoka demonstrated the concept of “up to touch” coverage, in which the big man will come up until he can reach out and touch the back of the screener. The idea behind this approach is to initially close down that gaping space in the middle of the floor, then have the big retreat into center field. 

So, on a play like this one from March 25 in Orlando, Embiid would be a step or two higher, to the point that he could touch Nikola Vucevic’s back. That would theoretically give Evan Fournier less room to drive to the rim once he gets by JJ Redick.

Udoka also noted the addition of Josh Richardson should make the Sixers better equipped to defend smaller guards, though it sounds like, along with different personnel, we’ll see a conceptual shift. When a coach in the crowd asked Udoka the right time to “blitz” the pick-and-roll, Udoka joked that Kemba Walker scored 60 points against the Sixers last season, prompting Brown to get up from his seat to give Udoka a hug.

The Sixers did turn to the blitz on desperate occasions in 2018-19, like when D’Angelo Russell was in the midst of scoring 38 points against them on Nov. 25.

The play above is a successful execution of a full-on blitz, with Jimmy Butler and Mike Muscala forcing Russell to pass the ball, and excellent subsequent rotations.

Udoka on Monday introduced a “corral blitz,” which entails the two defenders leveling off the ball handler as opposed to jumping out at him in the kamikaze style of a full-on blitz. When the Sixers blitzed last year, they generally did so aggressively, so that seems like it will be a notable wrinkle.

It’s not the same thing, but the corral blitz is similar to the hedge and recover defense the Sixers used vs. the Raptors in the playoffs on pick-and-rolls involving Kawhi Leonard as the ball handler and Redick as a defender.

The main difference with the corral blitz is, in the play above, Ben Simmons would also adopt Redick’s approach of leveling off Leonard instead of guarding him straight up.

New points of emphasis 

Philosophically, one of Udoka’s first remarks was that he wants the Sixers’ defense to “make them feel you,” to “jam the ball handler.” The Sixers forced 12.7 turnovers per game in 2018-19, 27th in the NBA, and he envisions that number increasing.

“That’s something we talk about, creating turnovers,” he said. “We want to up our physicality on the ball. That should help there. And there are multiple things we can do out of timeouts to trap guys and make them more uncomfortable.”

Another conceptual priority for Udoka is making the most of the Sixers’ versatility. He thinks highly of Embiid and Al Horford, and will perhaps be more willing than Lange was to let his big men switch, blitz and extend themselves beyond “center field” defensively. 

“[Embiid and Horford are] two of the best bigs at defending the pick-and-roll and protecting the paint, and guarding smalls on the perimeter,” Udoka said. “I think our versatility and flexibility there is almost endless. Coming off the bench, as well — with James [Ennis] and some of the young guys we have, we can do multiple things there.”

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