The 76ers have been absolutely torched by guards this season, and there are a lot of reasons it's happening.
It would be nice if there was just one problem the team could pinpoint to resolve the defensive problems it's having, but that's not the case. There are individual weaknesses that opposing teams are exploiting, and as a team, there have been pitfalls in the Sixers' defensive execution.
Once a player or multiple players have found a crack in the defense, they have continued to chip away, and by the time the Sixers make an adjustment and try to stop the bleeding, it's already the second half or fourth quarter of a game and the opposing backcourts have already feasted for 30, 40, 50, or more points.
In 12 of the Sixers' 22 games this season, opposing guards have scored 30 or more points against them, and that doesn't take into account games in which non-guards have gone off, such as Kawhi Leonard when he scored 31, or Blake Griffin when he finished with 50.
Part of the problem has to do with personnel, and there are nights that you can live with it. For example, you expect Charlotte star Kemba Walker to go off; that's what he does, Pacers guard Victor Oladipo is going to get his, and many other starting guards are going to be the high scorers on their respective teams.
But, even in Walker's 60-point game against the Sixers on Nov. 17, the Hornets' other starting guard, Jeremy Lamb, had 20 points. The Pelicans' E'Twaun Moore and Jrue Holiday combined for 60 points against the Sixers, and on Sunday in Brooklyn, D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie put up 38 and 31, respectively.
On the team level, and in general, the Sixers' pick-and-roll defense has not been great this season, and that's putting it mildly. This has often come at the expense of Joel Embiid falling too far off the play and not being able to recover before giving up an easy bucket.
"We have a tendency to make sure the other team doesn't take a lot of threes and especially in pick-and-roll situations it puts me and whoever is in the pick-and-roll in a tough position as far as, if I come up they're going to get a dunk, and if I stay back they're going to get the pull-up," Embiid said after the Sixers' 127-125 win in Brooklyn. "That's something we have to work on to be able to adjust."
Having Embiid hang around the rim and do what he does best as a post defender works at a high level only if the perimeter defenders can effectively handle their man. Otherwise, Embiid ends up in the paint or at the free-throw line watching as guards hit mid-range shots.
This is not to say that Embiid is a bad defender; he's far from it. By design, he is getting lost on the middle pick-and-roll because he's forced to choose between allowing a long shot or letting someone get by with a higher-percentage shot at the basket.
The Sixers have, for the most part, employed a switch-heavy, four-out style defense intended to limit the number of three-pointers taken, as Embiid noted. That comes with many risks (and rewards), but the one we'll focus on here is that opposing teams are using the switches to find the best mismatch and exploit it.
Skilled ball-handlers who can easily create space, drive, or step back are being given a golden opportunity when they face the Sixers. So when guys such as JJ Redick, or Landry Shamet, or Mike Muscala switch onto the opposing team's best player, they really don't stand a chance.
Mismatches like that are consistently hunted by the other team. Cleveland went directly at the Sixers' worst defenders and obvious mismatches in their 121-112 win over the Sixers when Collin Sexton and Rodney Hood combined for 48 points.
The mismatches don't just affect guys such as Redick, who is not a particularly skilled defender. Embiid also loses out when the more skilled shooters and ball-handlers take him on, as they did in Brooklyn on Sunday. Jimmy Butler's last-second heroics were absolutely necessary for the Sixers to pull out the win after Russell and Dinwiddie spent the night lighting up the Barclays Center.
"It's always a challenge when you have to have Joel, at 7-2, to come flying out and be that extended and that aggressive that far away from the basket," coach Brett Brown said Sunday. "All the time isn't fair — it's not going to be a constant thing I think you can live in, in relation to pick-and-roll defense."
In the fourth quarter Sunday, the Sixers decided to blitz the pick-and-roll, which is basically a double-team on the ball-handler. It worked and the Sixers were able to come from behind for another one of Butler's heroic game-winning shots, but as Brown said, it's not something that can be sustained throughout a game.
"Perhaps we can do more with the blitz going forward from time to time," he said. "It cannot be a steady diet of that."
There are some things to take into consideration, such as new players on the Sixers learning the defensive schemes and terminology. The Sixers are still recovering from the loss of Robert Covington, who was a veteran in Brown's schemes and phrasing, not to mention an incredible defender and good on a switch.
As Butler, Muscala, and Wilson Chandler continue learning, there are going to be some hurdles, and Butler conceded Tuesday that he has a lot of catching up to do.
It's also important to remember the fact that it is still early in the season, the Sixers have added and are still adding new wrinkles to their defensive operation, and the schedule the Sixers have been on since their trip to China has not been kind.
There are no easy solutions here. Brown and his staff are going to need to find a way for Embiid to be more of a threat in pick-and-roll scenarios and there will most likely need to be earlier adjustments made in games with not only defensive approach but also positional expectations.
The Sixers will no doubt be looking at settling into their defense between now and the All-Star break, and hoping that they can limit the nights when guards see them on the schedule and can plan for a 30-point outing.