The Houston Rockets defense stinks. I think most people thought there would be some kind of regression due to losing Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik. But so far they are the 4th worst defensive team in the league sporting a defensive rating of 114.7 points per 100 possessions while starting the regular season 1-4. Ouch. The Rockets have been without Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight and Nene during the five game stretch and losing Chris Paul to a suspension hasn’t helped their struggling defense either. Houston has centered their defensive concept around switching. When you have the appropriate players to execute a switching scheme it’s arguably the toughest defense to score on since the defenders have less space to recover. Unfortunately as of now the Rockets don’t have the personnel to properly switch most ball screens. Maybe when Chriss, Nene, Paul and Knight come back the ability to switch will be less of an issue but the amount of blown weak side assignments due to players being out of position or poor communication has handcuffed the Rockets defense so far. Smart teams have also head hunted the mismatches as a consequence from uneven switching.
The Rockets are in desperate shape. They recently offered the Timberwolves four 1st round draft picks for Jimmy Butler and coach Mike D’antoni has said “the Rockets awful defense needs a do-over.” Counting on players like Gerald Green, Eric Gordon, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden for defensive prowess was fool hearted from the beginning to rely on. A defensive minded coach would have altered the Rockets defensive scheme to more of a hybrid between hedging and drop coverage until the Rockets get more capable players to execute a scheme entirely built off switching. Maybe the trade for Jimmy Butler goes through and the Rockets get one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA to fit their defensive scheme. However that still won’t be enough to contend with the Warriors and it still seems like coach Tom Thibodeau will sabotage any offer made to not trade Butler.
A Butler trade is shooting for the stars. It’s a super risky deal to pull off with Butler being a possible free agent this summer and not being able to resign him will be a setback for the Rockets. So I was thinking of trade idea that would be more risk averse but obviously not as flashy as the Butler trade. The idea is centered around trading Zhou Qi for Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are off to a hot start with new coach Mike Budenholzer and a revamped 5-out motion offensive system deploying Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez as stretch bigs. That system is not really the greatest fit for Sterling Brown since playing within a motion offense calls for players to have solid spatial awareness, good decision making and fine tuned skills which isn’t Browns game. So far Brown has lost minutes to players that fit the system better like Donte Divincenzo and Pat Connaughton. Both players are newly acquired this season while Brown was a second round pick last year. I’ve been a fan of Brown since the pre-draft process last year and have followed his progress closely.
Brown shot 35% from three his rookie season last year and had a +.67 defensive real plus/minus which ranked 13th among shooting guards according to espn.com. A very solid rookie year for a player that’s 6’6 with a 6’10 wingspan trending towards a “3-and-D” wing player in the NBA. He’s still only 23 years old and clearly needs more time to develop but would be a practical roster move for a team without many options. The Rockets run a spread pick-and-roll system on offense with a switching concept on defense as previously mentioned. Sterling Brown would be a great fit within those constructs playing off of Harden/Paul’s play making and Capela’s vertical spacing. Brown can make open threes, attack a closeout in a straight line and is suitable to play in a switching defense. Brown also dealt with a horrific ordeal with a local police officer in Milwaukee that if you want to read up on click this (Story). Brown had to deal with this unfortunate situation for most of his off-season and could use a change of scenery to distance himself from that toxic situation.
Zhou Qi, the 7’1 center, was a second round pick for the Rockets in the 2016 draft. Qi has had his offensive moments during summer league being able to step out, shoot long distance and rebound at a high clip. He’s currently dealing with an injury but has recently returned to practice. Qi could be a nice project for the Bucks as the stretch big for their future center spot while Brown could be that “3-and-D” wing the Rockets so desperately need at the moment. Brown has one more year left on his contract after this season at $1.618 million that’s non-guaranteed while Qi has 2 more years left at $1.618 and $1.752 million both of which are non-guaranteed also.
This isn’t a trade idea that’s going to make headlines. It might not even be on the bottom ticker on ESPN. But as far as a low risk high reward deal for both teams then this trade idea makes sense to me.
On an incredible stretch run of basketball winning 20 of 21 games how did the Philadelphia 76ers lose in five to the undermanned Celtics? Even with Boston having home court advantage the Sixers seemed to be the favorites due to Bostons injury woes and momentum. The Sixers were trending towards a matchup with Lebron in the Eastern Conference finals. Philadelphia had two budding superstars and with the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova a deeper team. So what went wrong? How did everything come crashing down on the hottest team in the league in a matter of five games? Was the winning streak a mirage? Was the matchup problem with the Celtics that egregious? Now with Lebron in the Western Conference there’s a chance this potential rematch can determine the outcome of the Eastern Conference. If these teams meet again during this years postseason both rosters will look different. I want to examine what struggles the Sixers went through and explore what triumphs did Boston achieve last Eastern Conference semifinals. I also want to analyze the effects of the new rosters and what impact they will have if a postseason rematch happens.
The Sixers were up four points with a minute left to go in overtime during game three and up four points with a minute and thirty-seven seconds left to go during game five. Now those leads aren’t insurmountable and one possession games can be fickle with terribly blown calls, a convenient bounce of the ball, head scratching turnovers and weirdly called fouls. But there’s no question the Sixers should’ve closed those games. They are the type of games you have to win. I’m about to probe this series and go over what Philadelphia did wrong but a couple minutes is the difference from changing the narrative completely. I’m not even going to include game two where the Sixers were up five points with five minutes and forty-eight seconds left to go in the game. At least that scenario is less deplorable for the Sixers.
The end of game three and game five bring me to arguably the most important factor of Philadelphia’s descent: finishing games and situational basketball. Before I go more in depth here’s a video I made breaking down some of the 76ers end of game mishaps:
This was on the coaches for not making the correct play call adjustments and the players for not being poised enough to make the correct reads. Game three was tied and with five seconds left to go JJ Reddick throws a bad pass for a turnover transitioning Boston into an easy fast break bucket. Apparently the play the Sixers were running called for Simmons to get the pass from Reddick off an Embiid screen. The problem was Simmons never turned his head around but Reddick threw it anyways. Some might chalk that up to a miscommunication but Reddick has to identify the action more properly and hold onto the ball and adapt accordingly. Bottom line is if Simmons isn’t looking don’t pass the ball even if the play calls for it. Reddick should’ve known better.
Luckily Marco Belinelli made a last second buzzer beater to send the game into overtime. Ben Simmons gets an offensive rebound with seventeen seconds left in overtime and the Sixers were up one. You might be thinking to yourself that Simmons pulled the ball back out, got fouled and made the game a three point difference. Makes sense, right? If that’s what you’re thinking than you’d be wrong since Simmons immediately shot the ball, Boston got the rebound and called a timeout. The Celtics ended up running a simple but clever play knowing that the Sixers were switching most everything off-ball. During the play Embiid gets switched out onto Jaylen Brown off a Horford pindown and Tatum cross screen, clearing out the paint and lobbing an overhead entry pass to Horford for the easy two. The Celtics were dictating the terms of the game. But don’t worry though. The Sixers still have five seconds left to give themselves a solid chance at winning. Surely they can get a good shot off? Well, not quite. Simmons doesn’t throw a clean inbound pass to Embiid and Horford picks the ball off for the win. Oh good grief.
Most of game three errors can be attributed to unforced turnovers and not knowing what the situation called for. Game five on the other hand had a lot to do with basic fundamental missteps. With a minute twenty-seven left to go in the game five Dario Saric and Ben Simmons miscommunicated on a pick-and-roll coverage leaving Horford open for a lob pass. Next Boston possession Simmons gets beat at the point of attack by Jayson Tatum. Tatum missed the layup attempt but both Saric and Simmons remained flat footed while Marcus Smart explodes for the easy put back. Next Sixers possession Saric commits an unforced turnover then the next Celtics possession Simmons gets beat backdoor for a Tatum layup. That was the go-ahead bucket and the Celtics never looked back. Simmons was terrible at defense with two minutes left to go in the game: not boxing out, floating off-ball, not staying balanced containing dribble penetration, biting on fakes in the paint and overall looking lost on defense. Simmons was bad at defense but this was a team effort at being unclutch. The Sixers were -21.2 points per 100 possessions throughout the playoffs during games that had five minutes left to go and the score being within five points.
The end of game performance and unforced turnovers were frustrating but the rate at which they occurred were just mind boggling. You can somewhat blame the Sixers youth for their blunders but they did lead the league during the regular season with 16.5 turnovers per game so clearly this was a major problem all year. Also the Celtics were a young team too being lead by a rookie in Jayson Tatum. I don’t know how legit of an excuse being young is then. Maybe the biggest culprit of error for Philadelphia was coaching and game strategy. The Sixers run a motion styled offense with a bunch of ball reversals, screen aways, cut throughs, fills, curl cuts, long curls, backdoors, ball movement and player movement. They were second in the NBA with an assist percentage of 66.3% and a pace of 102.2 possessions per 100 possessions which ranked fourth. The Sixers offense was about bending the defense to find open shooters and pushing tempo to get into their early offense. After the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova the Sixers had an offensive rating of 111.5 offense which was fifth best during that stretch. Combine that to their already stout defense lead by defensive anchor Joel Embiid and the Sixers ended up winning the final twenty-two of twenty-seven games. With a team humming on all cylinders how did the coaching and strategy breakdown?
Boston presented Philadelphia with a few matchup problems. For starters Boston singled Joel Embiid in the post and made Philadelphia’s shooters into drivers. Embiid normally good in the paint sported a .97 points per possession from the post during the regular season but a .81 points per possession from the post in the playoffs. If Embiid is failing in the post then why would anyone leave their shooters? The only time I noticed the Celtics doubling Embiid was when he had great position around the restricted area. The Celtics were content on letting Horford or Baynes guard Embiid one-on-one in the post and close off air space for the Sixers shooters. The Celtics would lock-and-trail shooters on off-ball movement and would switch on-ball depending on personal reads. Boston was forcing the Sixers shooters to create separation on their own.
The Sixers had a solid group of shooters during the regular season making 36.9% of threes which was tied for eighth best. However outside of Dario Saric and JJ Reddick no one was able to attack closeouts proficiently. Even when the Sixers shooters got solid looks from three they still missed some with Belinelli shooting 31%, Covington shooting 25%, Ilyasova shooting 21% and Philadelphia shooting 31% from three as a team during the Celtics series. Add that to their inability attacking closeouts and that’s a recipe for complications. One way the Sixers combated this issue was dribble pitches and dribble handoffs with Embiid and Reddick as a two man game from the wings. Embiid would stretch out the Celtics defense bringing Horford or Baynes out of the paint. Embiid is also a brilliant passer and Reddick has terrific foot work off screens using variations of stunts, fakes and set ups to create enough daylight for wider passing angles. The Sixers also maintained off-ball actions trying to free their shooters through pindowns, flares, staggers, hammer passes and rescreens. Essentially doing what they know how to do: motion offense.
Philadelphia was having trouble getting their shooters space so they ramped up motion based plays. The problem was that Boston’s defense was built to switch off-ball so no matter what action you ran it could still be cut off, in particular when you’re using players who can’t create off a live dribble. For the most part the Sixers had spot-up shooters who couldn’t off-dribble pull up or get to the rim. If that was the case then why not use more spread based pick-and-roll offense? During the regular season Philadelphia was last place in possessions when using the roll-man out of pick-and-roll and second last when going with pick-and-roll ball-handler. This just highlights how much the Sixers used pick-and-rolls to stabilize their offense even though it’s a very effective play especially when using the roll-man.
Throughout the series with Boston every time the Sixers used a high side pick-and-roll with Simmons/Embiid surrounded by shooters Boston had their help side defense tagging Embiid on his dive leaving a shooter wide open. When the Sixers ran simple spread pick-and-roll either the dive-man got an easy layup attempt, a shooter was left open or the ball handler had more space to contort the drive. The Celtics couldn’t just switch their way out of this action and had to scramble help defense. As a result the Sixers shooters had more space to operate. But for some reason the Sixers rarely went to it and stuck by with motion. The few times they did go to pick-and-roll the outcome would typically be positive. I found that to be a huge adjustment mistake by the Sixers coaching staff.
The Sixers coaching staff ended up making a lineup adjustment starting TJ Mcconnell game four over the struggling Robert Covington which worked out well but it didn’t fix the root of the problem. Mcconnell has dribble drive moves that can collapse a defense and create movement for his shooters but it was only a band-aid. It was a temporary fix because the court was still shrinking for the Sixers even though they were able to manipulate driving lanes better. It isn’t an advantageous situation when you have Embiid in the post with two non-shooters on the perimeter. Sometimes the Sixers off-ball cutters would run into Embiid when he was working the post. Simmons was doing Embiid no favors either by being passive on his drives and routinely picking up his dribble resetting the offense. I don’t know if it was because Simmons isn’t confident at the free throw line but time and time again Simmons misread driving angles and had poor body control on his floaters. Simmons shot 28.6% on paint attempts not including restricted area shots. The Celtics did put Marcus Morris and Al Horford on Simmons sagging off him at times helping maintain dribble penetration but there were still opportunities that Simmons didn’t leverage.
Defensively for Philadelphia the Celtics would occasionally space out Embiid with Aaron Baynes in the corner or Al Horford on a high side pick-and-pop. Taking Embiid out of the post to leave the rim unprotected left the Sixers back end more vulnerable. Early in the series Embiid was late on his rotations when recovering drop coverage versus an Al Horford pick-and-pop. Embiid does a solid job on switches but can struggle to cover space in a hurry due to lack of acceleration and change-of-direction. The adjustment was to put Embiid on Marcus Morris more since Morris isn’t involved in pick-and-roll situations as much. But again this is only a band-aid since it doesn’t fix how porous the paint is without Embiid protecting it.
The Sixers were not scrambling well on the Celtics side-to-side swings, dribble penetration and weak side shooters. When you have Embiid recovering late and perimeter defenders like JJ Reddick getting beat by first step attacks it’s an uphill battle for the defense to overcome. Robert Covington was one of the better defenders in the league sporting the third best defensive real plus/minus at +4.24 during the season. Surly he was able to stifle first step moves or setup dribble drives? Yet again even he was having trouble containing dribble drives getting beat by pivots, rip-thrus and exhibiting poor balance. Covington looked like a deer lost in headlights this series. At times he was unplayable and looked like the undrafted player he is. The Celtics would also headhunt Marco Belinelli, JJ Reddick and TJ Mcconnell since they literally couldn’t guard anyone. The Celtics had a few players who were tough to guard out of the triple threat stance and with no one protecting the glass the Celtics would routinely attack Reddick with Brown or Belinelli with Tatum; the Celtics didn’t have to worry about weak side block attempts. Overall the Sixers didn’t have the foot speed to bottle up the Celtics perimeter scorers.
This series was combination bad matchup and not so stellar coaching. Maybe if the Sixers had more versatile players the coaching staff would’ve engaged the Celtics with different tactics. And again maybe I’m reading too much into it because a couple minutes is the difference from the series being turned upside down. Or it could just be that the inherent flaws the Sixers possess lead them to blunder play after play late in the game. Are the Sixers doomed to repeat the issues of the 2018 playoffs in 2019?
One of the Sixers biggest needs this off-season was a perimeter scorer. The Sixers three best scorers are Embiid who isn’t efficient from three and is post heavy, Reddick who is a liability on defense and Simmons who can’t shoot. The Sixers wanted to go after Paul George, Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard but struck out on all three. This remains a huge issue going forward as late game scoring devolves into one-on-one basketball quite often. Philadelphia needs a three level perimeter scorer if they want a better chance at beating Boston. The Sixers also lost Belinelli and Ilyasova this off-season and replaced their shooting with Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and to a certain extent Furkan Korkmaz. Muscala is a lesser known name coming from Atlanta but is a career 37.8% three point shooter. Shamet is a rookie but shot 44% from three his last two years of college. Korkmaz dealt with injuries during his rookie year last season but deserves a crack at the rotation since he’s been able to showcase his scoring ability during the summer league and preseason. There’s a lot of unpredictability in trusting three obscure players but I actually like all three to fill the void as shooters. Being able to defend though is a different discussion.
To fill in the gaps defensively for the Sixers they went out and drafted Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler. Both players have the size and athleticism to be apart of a switching defense, something that was lacking versus the Celtics. Chandler seems to be dealing with a hamstring injury, it doesn’t appear to be too serious but hamstring injuries can never be taken too lightly. Smith on the other hand could be out for the season with a broken foot. Even if he comes back late in the year he’s still starting from behind. Smith has the defensive acumen the Sixers crave but is super raw offensively. Taking away that season of development might mean that Smith will be unplayable during the playoffs. Zhaire Smith being hurt was a big loss for the Sixers hopes at beating Boston.
Internal development will also be key for the Sixers battle against Boston. Simmons needs to shoot better from the free throw line and mid-range. The media is clamoring for Simmons to start shooting threes more but I just want him to step into a mid-range pull-up. Just that alone will affect the defensive alignment for the opposing team. Embiid needs to improve his outside jump shot but that’s more of a luxury at this point. And finally the man of mystery Markelle Fultz needs to mentally be over his shoulder injury. If Fultz can play like the draft hype imagined then he could be the x-factor the Sixers need. He can create separation on his own, initiate offense for others, take it to the rim with ease and force pressure on Boston’s defenders. His release on his three point shot is still low but confidence might be the objective to forge in this scenario.
There really isn’t much to say about Boston’s new roster since health is their main goal. The Celtics are the ones with the vantage point over the Sixers in terms of perimeter defenders and three level scorers. The Celtics are built perfectly for the modern day NBA but staying healthy is an ambiguous aspiration. Getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back and maintaining their well-being might determine a possible rematch against the Sixers. The Celtics biggest roster move this off-season was drafting Robert Williams who might be a couple years away but has the potential for an immediate role as a rotational big-man. The Sixers lost to the Celtics without Hayward, Irving and Williams last postseason. After Philadelphia made marginal moves to upgrade their roster this off-season are they ready to win a potential rematch?
Well it could take Boston a few months to reintegrate Irving and Hayward plus Philadelphia could end up using more pick-and-rolls with Markelle Fultz getting additional playing time. So there’s a chance Philadelphia plays better than Boston in the early months but it’s obviously how you play during the postseason that matters most. As of now it doesn’t look good for Philly if a postseason rematch happens. Losing Zhaire Smith was a big blow and banking on internal growth is a fortuitous ask for the Sixers. The regular season does tend to be volatile with injuries, trades and breakout stars. Six months from now is a long ways away and a lot could happen between then. The Bucks offense looks really good during the preseason and the Raptors are stacked. By no means is a Sixers/Celtics rematch in the works but as a basketball fan it sure be enjoyable to watch.
*All Stats Provided by NBA.com*
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