Well, first off I'd like to say that it's great to have another season of hoops ahead of us, even an abbreviated/crazy/jam-packed one. Even if it's still only the preseason, it's good to see actual basketball come back and not have to talk about BRI and revenue sharing.
The Sixers got off to a very good start away from the Wells Fargo Center Friday night with a 103-78 dismantling of the Washington Wizards. Truly, the game was only made as close as it was by the Wizards backups having a very strong 4th quarter against the Sixers' bench. When the Sixers' main guys were on the floor, they played like they were still mad about the two gut-wrenching losses they suffered last year in this very same building.
As for the game, I don't think we can be anything but generally pleased. The Sixers played the way they did during much of last season, which is a good thing. On offense, Jrue Holiday basically dominated his matchup with John Wall even though Wall threw down a very impressive dunk when the Wizards were down 40 (Yes, he cut the lead to 38 points, literally) and then proceeded to pound his chest and yell. Jrue got into the lane at will, Elton Brand looked very fresh, Lou Williams was scoring effortlessly as he had been on the Summer Circuit, and even Evan Turner showed some signs of life. Now obviously this was a preseason game and the Wizards are a young team that may start slow, but it was a good showing. The one thing that caught my eye though, was the Sixers' defense, especially against the pick and roll.
Despite all of the defensive improvements made by Doug Collins last year, it was plain to see that the team was doing it in unorthodox ways. Namely, he was putting an incredible defensive onus on his young point guard. After looking back at all of the times Jrue was forced to defend the ball handler on the pick and roll on Synergy, the video spelled out that he was completely on his own. By design, Collins made his bigs play off the screen to try and compensate for their lack of athleticism down low. My guess is that the thinking was: "I'd rather have Jrue play one on two at the top of the key, than have Spencer Hawes have to make a key rotation under the basket with no other bigs to help." As a result, Jrue, who already had some trouble getting hung up on screens, yielded some big scoring games to the opposition's point guard. As a pick and roll defender, Jrue gave up .84 PPP, which ranked him 19th in the league out of the 30 starting point guards. Obviously, we all hope Jrue and whoever he's playing with in the future do a better job on this. It's a big part of the game.
Against the Wizards, the Sixers showed something they really didn't show at all last season: aggressive pick and roll defense by the big on a pick-and-roll. In basketball parlance, that is often called "hedging" or "showing" on a screen. There's no right way to play defense, but generally the very good defensive teams are aggressive in disrupting ball screens (Kevin Garnett has been the best at this in recent history). In this way, they aren't conceding the pick and roll to the point guard, because they are confident in their help defense and rotations. Let's take a look at a few examples of how this worked for the Sixers.
The first example involves the Sixers second unit. As you see in the first picture, Wall has the basketball on the right side and is being guarded by the guy who got picked right after him last year, Turner. Jan Vesely is coming down to set the screen for Wall and is being guarded by Thaddeus Young.
The second shot shows the initial screen, and Thad is aggressively showing on it. Again, his goal here is to make Wall have to go around him away from the basket. If he does that, his job is complete with the ball handler, and the first defender should theoretically have enough time to get back to the ball handler. I say theoretically because as you see, Turner runs right into the screener. That's a no-no. Whether he goes over or under, the key is to not let the screen affect his route back to the ball handler. Really, that is dictated by knowing your ball-handler and what his strengths are. In Wall's case, the plan of attack is to clearly go under the screen. Who cares if he has a split second to take a three of the dribble? That's not his strength right now. In addition, going under a screen with a strong show often allows the recovering guard to be in the passing lane of the diving big man as he recovers. That's why guys who can also shoot off a ball screen like Chris Paul and Steve Nash are just torture to defend. Going under is easier, but then those guys will burn you from three in that split second if you give that shot to them.
Well, Turner went over, and you can kind of see what I'm talking about in the third shot. Look at the lane Wall has to throw the ball to Vesely, even after Thad does his job and makes him go around him away from the basket. You can kind of see the path that Turner will have to take to cut Wall off, and the fact that he got hung up on the screen won't make than an easy job most times. Now imagine if he's on the other side of Vesely. It's easier to see him: A) Cutting Wall off around the top of the key and B) Recovering right through the passing lane that Wall actually has at his disposal. So really, this pick and roll defense actually was far from perfect, and it needs work.
So what happens? The Sixers get a little lucky as Wall 's left handed pass doesn't lead Vesely and Turner gets his hand on it, as it is shown in the 4th shot. The other guy that we need to look at is Nikola Vucevic, who I'm just going to call the Voose. Look at Voose in the middle of the lane sliding over in the fourth shot. Even if Vesely catches the ball the Voose is in very good position to meet him outside the lane. I thought the Voose struggled in this game, but he was very good on this play. Pick and roll defense is about all five guys. It's especially hard with defensive three second rules, but there needs to be a big rotating over to help if the screener does in fact get the ball. Voose is rewarded for his good position on this play with a steal as he deflects the ball before it gets into Vesely's hands. Here's a video of the whole play:
Now, let's look at a second example (Also ironically without Jrue, but these are the ones that caught my eye) with a much shorter explanation.
It's basically the same exact spot and the situation is Jodie Meeks and Thad guarding Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche. In the first shot, Jodie is behind Blatche (Trust me!) as Thad goes to show on the Crawford ball screen. Without looking at any stats to back this up, I bet the scouting report on Crawford is to make him a driver, so in this case you go over. Plus, he is not the passer Wall is, so it's not as dangerous a proposition to go over.
That's what he does, and Jodie does a better job than Turner on not getting stuck to the screen. As you see in the second shot, he's in good position to recover.
When you look at the next shot, keep into mind Jodie has engaged Crawford for a few steps, to the point where he can't take a jump shot. I didn't think Thad did a great job recovering on this play, and it looked like he was slow getting back. I hope he was just winded, but he has the tools to be great at that and cover straight-line ground in a hurry. Fortunately for him, Jodie has been positioned directly in the passing lane between Crawford and Blatche, steering the second year guard into the help defense of Jrue and Iguodala. He ends up throwing the ball behind Javale McGee on the baseline, who might have benefitted from a better pass. I'm not sure why Brand is so far under the hoop on that play, possibly worried about an alley oop to Blatche. Oh well, this was good defense for the most part, can't have everything the first preseason game I guess. Here's the play in real time:
What can we make of this early change to aggressive pick and roll defense? Well, I don't think we can discount everyone's favorite word: continuity. In many ways, I could have seen this Sixers team being able to build on last year from an X's and O's standpoint as basically the team is exactly the same. It's as if they were a high school team full of underclassmen last year and have everyone back for another go-around this year. With the exception of the Voose, everyone knows each other's games and the coaches' system. Maybe that's why Collins was able to try some new stuff, as the rest of the team already knew his basic defensive principles.
At this point you are probably saying, "Yeah, but they are the same guys from last year that Collins had to tweak the system for!" Yes, they are, but let's say we have a 3 or 4 man rotation at the 4 and 5 depending on if Voose learns that it's OK to grab a rebound in 20 minutes of play. From what I saw from the rookie in this game, we have three guys who have the ability to help hard on the screen and recover. EB looks trim and is a very smart defender in his own right, and Thad should also be great at it. As far as the problem, of not having a shot-blocking presence underneath, maybe Collins feels that his guards, specifically J, T, and I, may be able to offset that by their length getting in the passing lanes and causing turnovers.
Maybe it's something Collins is only tweaking with in the preseason. I wonder if a team can use it as sort of a blitz package and be able to execute that in addition to what they did last year in the course of a game. It strikes me as a difficult thing to do, as this type of defense relies a lot more on rotations. The one thing I liked about last year's system is that the wings rarely had to rotate, and because of this the team was above average in defending the three. The word "rotations" sometimes gives me fear and memories of Eddie Jordan.
From what I saw in this game, they still need a lot of work if they are going to be able to defend pick and rolls this way at any point of the regular season. Their rotations are going to have to be improved if they want to show on ball screens and defend the three with the success they had last year. Who knows what Collins is thinking? Maybe this was just an experiment against a team that he figured would struggle offensively against any kind of pressure (If that's the case, boy he was right). The thing is, that if you put pressure on teams, good things can happen if you play like this. It definitely will be something worth monitoring going forward.