There’s no way around it: the Sixers are getting absolutely blitzed from behind the three-point line. Currently, they’re on pace to surrender 861 threes this season, which would smash the current record of 716, set by last season’s Bobcats.
After the Sixers’ last two games, this futility has been brought even more into focus. They allowed the Portland Trailblazers and Brooklyn Nets to connect on an astounding 42 threes in back-to-back games, an NBA record.
That’s bad no matter how you slice it. Even after acknowledging a few legitimate reasons for their opponents’ combined outburst —Portland is an offensive juggernaut, and Joe Johnson was practically unconscious — the Sixers are still playing historically bad three-point defense.
Predictably, their overall defense is suffering. The Sixers are down to 29th in defensive efficiency, only ahead of the similarly hapless Utah Jazz. Today, we’ll take a look at a couple of reasons why they’ve struggled so much defending the three-point line.
Transition: The downside to Tony Wroten’s drives
For the season, the Sixers have allowed their opponents to shoot 45 of 114 (39 percent) on transition threes, per mySynergySports. In their last three games, they’ve surrendered ten such shots. Why the recent uptick? Part of the reason has to do with who is now playing point guard.
Last week, we talked about Tony Wroten. One of Wroten’s most admirable qualities is his “I’m getting to the rim no matter how you guard me” mentality. While the style of play’s long-term effectiveness is still in doubt, nobody is going to question its entertainment value.
One major downside to Wroten’s whirling dervish drives is a lack of floor balance. Look at where he ends up in the picture below, on the “s” in “76ers“ painted on the baseline. Notice that’s even after Lavoy Allen has missed the putback and the ball is rebounded by Mo Williams. Wroten routinely takes a pretty long time to get back into the play after one of his forays to the rim.
On most teams, guards are the players tasked with getting back on defense and stopping transition. If the point guard is the last player trailing behind the play, it places a lot of pressure on the other defenders. As Wroten has received more playing time with Michael Carter-Williams out of the lineup, this situation has happened more frequently.
As you can see in the second shot, the Blazers in essence have a five-on-three opportunity, and like hockey teams usually do with a two-man advantage, they cash in. James Anderson is forced to pick up Joel Freeland cutting down the left side toward the rim. That leaves Nicolas Batum open on the left wing for a three.
The Sixers’ floor imbalance isn’t exclusive to Wroten’s drives. When other guards like Evan Turner and Carter-Williams miss shots around the rim, the Sixers can have trouble matching up in transition. Some of these problems are due to tired legs (the product of a fast pace), and others have to do with poor communication.
Another obvious way to surrender transition threes is by committing turnovers. The Sixers are second-worst in the league at taking care of the ball, turning it over on 15.5 percent of their possessions This has been a stark contrast from the ball security that for better or worse came to characterize the Doug Collins teams.
Spot-ups: The product of bad pick-and-roll defense
One area where the Sixers are particularly getting torched is surrendering spot-up three-pointers in the half-court. Opponents are shooting 175 for 430 from distance in these situations, good for a blistering 40.7 percent. Ten teams haven’t given up that many threes overall.
Opposing shooters are getting open catch-and-shoot looks often as a product of breakdowns in pick-and-roll coverage. Frankly, the Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense and ensuing rotations have been a mess, very inconsistent from one play to the next.
Brown has clearly given players like Carter-Williams and Wroten the ability to freelance for steals, but this may be coming at the expense of the team’s general defensive concepts.
Too often, players seem to get caught in no-man’s-land when defending the weak side of the floor on pick-and-rolls. Take this play from the other night, for instance. Lorenzo Brown and Brandon Davies successfully run “Ice” on the side pick-and-roll, forcing Williams to the sideline.
A decent amount of the time, the Sixers miscommunicate and bungle the initial pick-and-roll coverage, but they execute this one fine. Ideally, a defense will surrender the jumper to the big man. LaMarcus Aldridge is an excellent player and a very good pick-and-pop shooter, but that jumper is still only worth two points.
When Elliot Williams aggressively slides over to help on Aldridge, he eliminates that shot at the expense of leaving James Anderson alone on the weak side with two three-point shooters. As Anderson is stuck in no-man’s-land, Dorell Wright can launch a wide-open three, which he hits.
Lorenzo Brown, James Anderson, Elliot Williams, and Brandon Davies are not exactly names you’d expect to see in the rotation of a top-tier NBA defense. For that reason, Brown shouldn’t be judged too harshly on the poor results. The rookie head coach is clearly experimenting.
Still, unless the Sixers find a way to execute much more consistently on defense, they’re going to set a record for the wrong reasons.
Rich Hofmann Jr. can be reached at @rich_hofmann.