Bob Cooney had an interesting article on Philly.com yesterday and I'd like to talk a little bit about a few points he brought up. It was the first concrete glimpse into the Sixers' defensive scheme that I've seen and I have a few issues with it.
The story does a good job of explaining help and recover, which is a pretty simple principle of helping to stop penetration, then recovering to your man on the perimeter. Eddie Jordan explains it as such:
"You're supposed to be in a help position off the ball," said coach Eddie Jordan following yesterday's practice at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "There are positions on the floor where you're supposed to be when the ball's on the side of the floor. [Tuesday night] we didn't get those positions. The most important thing in help defense is your posture. Are you standing the right way? Second of all is your positioning. Are you in the right position when the ball is on the wing or in the corner or at the top? And then there's your vision. Are you seeing the ball and your man? Those are the most important things in help defense."
It's a sound theory, especially if you have deficient defenders at a couple of positions. It allows you to draw on the defensive abilities of the entire unit to collectively keep opponents out of the paint. The problem, as far as I can tell, is two-fold: (1) It's used far too much with this team. (2) The priorities. Let me explain.
Help defense, on the entire team level, is kind of a nebulous idea. Honestly, it's like the defensive equivalent of the Princeton offense. A ton of reading and reacting, constantly hedging against a teammate getting beaten off the dribble. Attention split between your man, and the man with the ball. That split favoring the ball rather than your man the further your man is from the ball. As I said above, it's an excellent way to cover up for the weaker defenders on your squad, and it's also an excellent option when you're playing a team who can't shoot, like the Sixers. Someone actually brought a similar point to this up in the comments the other day, and it makes sense.
Think about consequences for a second. In practice every day, the Sixers play against the Sixers. They run this helping defense, and their primary concern (penetration) is exactly what the offense is trying to do, for the most part. Over-helping may lead to an open look, but it's more than likely going to be an open look for a guy who's shooting 30% from three. Now apply the same principles to a game against the Celts or the Magic. It's not going to be Willie Green taking the open three, it's going to be Eddie House, or Ray Allen, and the shot is going to hurt you a lot more.
That's an overly-simplified explanation of the problem, but it should point out to you the fault in running a defensive scheme that calls for all five players to essentially be help defenders. Check out this quote from Jrue:
"I think it's about the rotation," said Holiday. "I think we help too much. I know there were times when I was stuck down low with a big man because I was waiting for my man to come back. Maybe sometimes we need to be a little more selfish and keep our eye on those outside shooters."
That's the point exactly. Personal responsibility. Here's the thing, the Sixers have a few things not too many teams have. They have an elite wing defender, who can take the other team's best offensive threat completely out of the game. They also have two bigs who can block shots in Dalembert and Brand. They don't need to have every player on the floor worried about help defense. They don't really have to have anyone worried about it, but the big closest to the rim. Thad shouldn't be cheating off his man (especially if his man is a legit threat from three) to help stop the driver from getting into the lane. That's Lou's responsibility, initially, and then Sammy's, or Brand's, whoever the big on that side of the floor is.
Think back to any team Pat Riley coached in New York or Miami. They had an insanely simple, yet effective, defensive scheme. His guards pushed their men to their weak hand on the drive, funneling them right into the weak-side help from the shot blocker. Everyone else stuck with their men. The rules have changed to make it harder to force the offensive man in one direction or the other, but the theory should still work. That's what the Sixers need to do.
This over-helping and hedging is also very, very hard to sustain against a team that runs efficient half-court offense and has the ability to hit the three. It's downright suicide against a team whose offense is already designed to free shooters. It's way too easy to get caught out of position, it requires way too much recovery. Patient teams with weapons will pick it apart late in the shot clock. It's time for the Sixers to play to their strengths on defense.
Dalembert and Brand can, and do, handle their business down on the blocks. Nine games out of ten there won't be a gross mismatch on the floor except maybe at the point, but it's time for the Sixers to shift their way of thinking. Penetration alone won't kill them. They have two guys who can alter, block or deter point guards from converting at the tin. The problem with penetration against the Sixers is that you have 5 defenders collapsing down to do the work that Sammy and Brand can handle on their own, leaving their men open on the perimeter to do so. Stay at home, let the bigs take care of the paint and cut off the kick out opportunities if/when penetration occurs.
Rule changes, the level of competition and elaborate offensive schemes make defending extremely hard in the NBA. The Sixers have a leg up on most other teams in their personnel, it's about time they start using that advantage and stop running a scheme that teams with lesser individual talent need to rely on.
This is obviously an overly-simplified look at team defense, but we're talking about the underlying philosophy that dictates how the team handles the finer points, like pick-and-roll defense. Take another look at Jrue's quote above and I'll give you an example. I remember the exact play he's talking about. He was on the weak side, with his man, the ball was outside the three-point line on the strong side. His man sucked down to the baseline, with Rasheed at the elbow on the weak side. Jrue had to hedge against a lob to Sheed and basically stay in the vicinity of the basket because three defenders were hedging to the strong side, worried about penetration. When House made his break for the three-point line, he had to hesitate a second, to make sure Wallace wasn't wide open for a backdoor lob, allow Wallace's man to recover from his help on the strong side. That half-second delay was enough to let Wallace set the down screen and free House for the open look from three. If the Sixers are staying at home on their men, instead of hedging against penetration, Sheed's man is there to prevent the lob and Jrue can stick with House, fight over the screen and be there to contest the shot.
Now this example could also point toward Speights being out of position, helping too early, or just way too far off his man, but I think the problem is exacerbated by a faulty philosophy. If Speights is in Sheed's hip pocket, on the strong side, he's in position to challenge a layup if the ball beats the man on the perimeter, and he's right there to stop the lob. Instead, you've got perimeter guys assuming weak side responsibility on a big and losing a shooter in the process.
Again, it's early, but this is something I'll definitely be keeping my eye on.
In other news, Tom Moore has a good piece on the open competition for the role of first guard off the bench. We really, really need Jrue to step up and take that spot.