It is clear to anyone who has watched the Philadelphia 76ers this year that they are not quite clicking on all cylinders. They hold a record of 4-5 on the year with Joel Embiid missing three games already and not looking like his true self when he has been there. To make matters worse, James Harden was recently shut down for a month with an injury. However, it has not been the concerns with the stars that Doc Rivers has pointed to early on this season. Rather it has been the defense as a whole with communication being the latest buzzword for the team.
This has been a theme throughout the start of the season for Rivers and the Sixers. Just a week ago (October 26th) following the loss to the Raptors, the head coach laid this out to the media. As he stated, “Communication. We gotta get on the same page. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to get on the same page, but as long as we keep talking to each other—you gotta step in the same direction. Talk to each other, know what we’re doing, know when we’re switching, when we’re not switching. It’s gonna come with trust and trusting each other and just communication as it keeps building throughout the season.”
Sixers Change in Defensive Scheme
This issue was further elaborated on this following last night’s loss to the Wizards. He discussed the growing pains of changing to a more switch-heavy defensive scheme as they are attempting to do this season. The missed games from Joel Embiid have also complicated this development.
Tyrese Maxey spoke openly about this during his time with the media following the previous loss to the Wizards. As the star guard put it, “Switching, you got cross-matches. Everybody in the league is doing it now. So, when we switch sometimes, we gotta remember who we’re guarding. Sometimes guys are crashers, sometimes you can help off guys. I think that’s one of our biggest things right now,” Maxey said. “When we switch, we gotta be able to communicate better with each other and then know who we’re guarding after we switch…I think that’s one of our biggest things that we need to improve on right now,” per Sam DiGivionni of ClutchPoints.
Maxey continued by echoing Rivers’ message of communication being their biggest point of weakness. As he put it to the media, “The biggest thing is we gotta keep communicating. When we go into the gym tomorrow, after we see all the film and see what we’re doing wrong, then we go out there and execute it on the practice court and then bring it to the game.”
The new addition of guys like P.J. tucker and De’Anthony Melton has helped make this stylistic change possible. In past seasons the Sixers have played much more drop coverage in pick-and-roll largely due to Embiid. The small-ball lineup has made this easier, but things have yet to fully click.
What Do The Numbers Say?
As should be expected based on these comments, the early results of the Sixers’ defense have not been promising. They currently rank 23rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency. There has been some improvement t in the team’s transition defense in recent games. After ranking worst in the NBA to start the season, they have climbed up to 22nd in the league. Philadelphia is also ranking 23rd in opponents shooting percentage.
There clearly is still a great deal of work to be done from the Sixers on the defensive side of the ball. This has been a point of emphasis coming into the season with Embiid claiming the team wanted to rank as the top defensive team in the NBA this year. Hope should not fully be given up on this as the Boston Celtics turned around their defense and overall season midway through last year which sparked a run to the NBA Finals.
The first step in this will be for Embiid to return to health and make a better impact on the defensive side of the ball. This will be especially important considering Harden’s month-long absence due to injury. The Sixers have some difficult waters to navigate and will need the communication and defensive focus to click now more than ever.