Breaking Down Sixers' Defensive Woes and ATOs

Without Joel Embiid, nobody expected life would be easy for the Sixers after the All-Star break.

In this film review, we'll examine the defensive issues exacerbated by Embiid's absence as well as the Sixers' smart, efficient after-timeout actions, one reason why the team has managed a 2-1 mark since Embiid has been sidelined by left knee soreness.

Defensive woes

Pick-and-roll defense has been a season-long concern for the Sixers. 

Brett Brown has either needed to expose the not-exactly-agile Boban Marjanovic or use smaller lineups without Embiid, which has left the Sixers vulnerable whenever their initial pick-and-roll coverage fails. On the play below, JJ Redick falls a step behind Rodney Hood. That leaves Mike Scott, at the center spot in this lineup, to pick up the Blazers wing. Scott's help leads to an easy dunk for Enes Kanter. 

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Redick gets crushed by Bam Adebayo's screen on this next play vs. Miami, which puts Jonah Bolden in the spot Scott was on the play above - forced to cover for Redick and pick up the ball handler, Rodney MacGruder. As Adebayo rolls to the rim, Redick makes the belated decision to keep trying to defend MacGruder instead of take Adebayo. With Jonathon Simmons late on his weakside rotation, Adebayo has plenty of free space at the rim. 

Both a delayed rotation and the lack of a legitimate rim protector again hurt the Sixers late in New Orleans. Jonathon Simmons and Jimmy Butler blitz Jrue Holiday on the pick-and-roll, a high-risk late-game strategy. Tobias Harris helps late off Frank Jackson in the corner, which is actually a reasonable approach here given that the Sixers are up three and don't want New Orleans to have a shot to tie the game. But, as a result, Julius Randle scores inside. 

Notice again that the Sixers had no true big man on the floor. 

The Sixers' defensive issues haven't come exclusively on pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. Communication in general has been problematic, an understandable concern for a unit with very little experience playing together. Still, some of the defensive mistakes the Sixers are making - even with the valid excuse of no Embiid - are worrisome. 

After a timeout, Harris and Redick appear caught off guard by a quick down screen in the corner by Derrick Jones Jr. for Josh Richardson. If you look at the Sixers' bench, you can see assistant coach Billy Lange, who's in charge of the team's defense, throwing up his hands following Richardson's dunk.

The next trip down, the Heat run the same action. Harris and Redick overreact to Richardson's dunk, with both players sprinting to cover him curling up to the wing. Jones slips to the rim unattended as Harris realizes his mistake too late. 

ATO success

On a more positive note, Brown, assistant coach Monty Williams and company have been very successful at creating good looks for the Sixers through ATOs.

Butler has often been the beneficiary. On this play vs. Portland, the Sixers run "Thumb point," a regular part of the offense. Redick camps out under the baseline next to another wing, then decides which down screen to curl around. Here, as is often the case, the off-ball movement clears out the lane, and Butler drives by Damian Lillard for the dunk. 

Butler backdoor cuts have grown into an after-timeout feature. The play below starts out as if it's going to be the Sixers' common "Ear tug" lob, with Jonah Bolden screening for Butler at the nail. After Bolden receives the ball from Simmons, Butler moves up like he's going to take a handoff from Bolden before capitalizing on Holiday denying him the ball.

Jahlil Okafor was the man who paid for overplaying Butler on the action below. JJ Redick sprints up to get the ball at the top of the key, then gives it to Marjanovic at the left elbow. Redick acts as if he's going to set a down screen for Butler at the right elbow, a clever misdirection that fools Okafor.

Late in games, the Sixers' primary goal on sideline out of bounds plays is often just to get the ball inbounds. That wasn't the case on this sharp action vs. New Orleans, which began with Redick setting a cross screen for Butler. Once Marjanovic found Butler, Redick set a back screen for Simmons at the elbow. Though Butler missed an open Simmons under the rim, the Sixers kept the ball moving. And again, Butler got himself a bucket after a timeout. 

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