Can the 76ers sustain their improved defense when the starting backcourt returns?

David Dow / NBA / Getty

On the heels of yet another second-round flameout, the Philadelphia 76ers came into this season facing heightened pressure and lofty expectations. The front office helped inflate those expectations in the offseason by re-signing James Harden to a team-friendly deal, bolstering the defense around Joel Embiid, and adding the kind of toughness and grit that Embiid insisted the Sixers needed following their playoff defeat.

But Philly's potential make-good campaign got off to a rocky start, with three straight losses to begin the year and just four wins in the team's first 10 games.

Embiid looked sluggish out of the gate after dealing with a bout of plantar fasciitis and then hit the shelf with a non-COVID illness. Things seemed to get worse when Harden suffered a foot tendon strain just before Embiid kicked the virus and then went from worse to worst when Harden's backcourt mate, Tyrese Maxey, sustained a small fracture in his foot about two weeks later. Oh, and less than a week after that, Embiid caught the foot-injury bug, though his was less severe than the others and only necessitated a four-game absence.

Improbably, rather than digging themselves into an even deeper hole, the zombie Sixers banded together and clawed their way out. They're 8-5 since Harden went down and 5-3 since Maxey joined him on the sidelines (that includes the game where Maxey got hurt, which Philly came back to win after trailing by five when he departed in the second quarter), bringing their overall record to 12-10 as Harden nears a return. The biggest driver of their unlikely recent success? A massive leap on the defensive side of the ball.

That part is unsurprising. Harden and Maxey are two of the weakest, if not the weakest individual defenders in the Sixers' regular rotation, and the team struggled mightily to get stops when they played together early in the season. It's been a much different story with the starting backcourt's minutes being eaten by the likes of De'Anthony Melton, Matisse Thybulle, and a rejuvenated Shake Milton. (Milton may not be anyone's idea of a stopper, but his effort level and slithery screen evasion have been welcome upgrades.) Even Furkan Korkmaz has busted his ass on defense when called upon.

Despite having offseason reinforcements such as Melton and P.J. Tucker in tow, the Sixers ranked 23rd in points allowed per 100 possessions (114.5) at the time of Harden's injury. Since then, they've authored a 104.8 defensive rating, leading the league by a country mile even after running straight into the mouth of a volcano in Cleveland on Wednesday night. New Orleans ranks second during that stretch at 108.2.

Of course, the Sixers' offense has simultaneously cratered to 28th, which is why they still desperately need their star guards back in action. But it would be nice to see the team maintain some aspects of its defensive turnaround once the roster is whole again. With Harden slated to suit up this weekend, it's worth looking at what the Sixers have done without him, and how much of it they can keep doing when he and (eventually) Maxey return.

The most encouraging and sustainable development is that Embiid, after returning from his illness, started defending like Peak Embiid again, and he continued to do so after recovering from his foot sprain. At the start of the season, he was making lethargic backline rotations and playing passive drop coverage in which he barely impacted the ball. Since returning, he's been his typically imposing self - wreaking havoc as a low man, playing cat and mouse when defending two-on-ones, jumping out to the level of the screen before retreating to contain the roll, and swallowing up ball-handlers either on the perimeter or in the paint with late switches:

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The Sixers own a 96.7 defensive rating with Embiid on the floor since that early-season inflection point, and they've allowed 7.9 fewer points per 100 with him on the court this season, according to PBP Stats. Paul Reed filled in admirably while he was out, and even Montrezl Harrell had his moments, but Philly's franchise center remains the tide that lifts all boats. So, while the defensive uptick began right around the time Harden went down, we can't chalk it all up to addition by subtraction.

That said, it certainly helps when the point-of-attack defenders in front of Embiid are applying intense rearview pressure (Melton), stopping the ball at the nail (Thybulle), or funneling ball-handlers into him by forcing them away from screens and preventing them from snaking back to the middle (Milton).

The Melton-Milton backcourt has played to a 106.4 defensive rating, compared to 112.3 for Harden-Maxey. Here's a good example of why:

NBC Sports

Sure, Evan Mobley hit the shot, because the Cavaliers hit damn near everything they tossed up in this game. But Melton and Milton's screen navigation and ball denial blew up every action Cleveland actually wanted to run with its two star guards, forcing the Cavs to eat the entire shot clock before Mobley bailed them out. You won't see many possessions like that from Harden and Maxey.

With Embiid defending at the level and switching a bit more frequently, a lot rests on how Philly communicates, rotates, and fills gaps behind him. That's a credit to the aforementioned trio, but also to Tucker - who, for all his troubling offensive passivity, remains an unshakeable pest on the defensive side - and to Tobias Harris, who's making timely low-man rotations and strong, balanced closeouts:

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Those alert rotations, coupled with amped-up ball pressure courtesy of Melton and Thybulle, have produced a huge surge in takeaways. The Sixers ranked 19th in opponents' turnover rate before Harden's injury; since then, only the rip-and-run Raptors have forced more of them.

Another important wrinkle: The Sixers have cranked up their zone usage since Maxey's injury - at least in the games Embiid has played - and it's functioned as a knee-buckling curveball. They rolled it out for virtually the entire fourth quarter against a flummoxed Timberwolves team and almost completed an epic comeback. A week later, they deployed it for nearly a third of their defensive possessions to stymie Trae Young and the Hawks.

Philly runs a standard 2-3 that allows Embiid to stay close to the basket without making the same concessions to pull-up shooters that it makes in a drop. It also allows Melton to use his length and activity to be a pure chaos agent at the top of the floor:

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It's hard to say how often the Sixers will return to that strategy at full strength, but it could be a good way to keep Harden on the backline and prevent him from having to chase guys around screens at the top of the floor. (The switch-everything scheme his Rockets teams deployed served a very similar purpose.) Maxey wouldn't bring the same bite at the top of a zone as Melton, but his length and speed are theoretically conducive to guarding areas rather than players, and doing so might mitigate some of his issues with screen navigation.

When trying to gauge the sustainability of this defensive success, we have to acknowledge the shooting luck that's contributed to it: The Sixers have surrendered the lowest opponent 3-point percentage in the league at 32.5%, including just 31.2% from the corners. Regression already started to hit on that front Wednesday night, and more is likely on the horizon. At the same time, because of the way they've turned opponents over, kept them away from the rim, and suppressed long-range attempts, they'd still have the best defensive rating in basketball over the last month even if opponents had connected on their threes at a league-average rate (35.5%).

With Embiid deterring shots at the basket and the perimeter corps running guys off the arc, the Sixers coax the league's third-highest rate of long mid-rangers. They've been fortunate not to get burned from beyond the arc, but they're making some of their own luck with the way they're getting out to shooters. Since the Harden injury, they're surrendering the seventh-fewest wide-open triples per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

This wasn't always the case. Early in the season, they were getting gashed by dribble penetration and giving up boatloads of threes.

"The better we start controlling the ball, eventually the better we'll guard the 3-point line," coach Doc Rivers told me at the time. "(Right now) it's the dribble penetration. We stop them at the rim with our size but we're committing an extra guy, and that's where the ball is coming out."

He probably didn't imagine injuries wiping out his starting backcourt, but Rivers' team did eventually start controlling the ball and guarding the 3-point line. That's one thing that could be tough to maintain when Harden, ever prone to blow-bys, returns.

The same goes for the Sixers' transition defense, which was the worst in basketball before Harden's injury, according to Cleaning the Glass. Since then, it's been the second best, allowing about 30 fewer points per 100 transition possessions. Harden was very obviously the biggest culprit, and it would be naive to expect him to suddenly start sprinting back after turnovers and missed shots when he's spent his entire career doing the opposite.

But Philly can continue to succeed in the half court as long as Embiid maintains his level. Late switching, for example, should work just as well - if not better - with Harden in the mix, given how adept he is as a post defender. That's contingent on him making a concerted effort to close pocket-passing windows while veering onto roll men, but if he can manage step one of that process, he's far better equipped to tackle step two than someone like Milton, who lacks the strength to keep big men from scoring over him on the block:

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There's also no good reason that Maxey, given his physical tools, can't do some of the same things his backups have been doing at the point of attack (if not to the extent Melton does them, then at least up to Milton's standard).

So, there's cause to believe Philly can indeed marry its improved defense with an elite offense once its starting backcourt returns to the fray. Even after that happens, this injury-plagued stretch could inform Rivers' lineup decisions. Melton has shown he can handle a larger role if Tucker's offense becomes untenable, Milton and Reed have proven worthy of regular minutes, and Thybulle has made a case to keep his rotation spot.

There will undoubtedly be some slippage, but if the Sixers can sustain even a top-10 defensive level at full strength, they'll look much more like the contender they appeared to be coming into the season than the pretender that scuffled through the opening weeks.

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Can the 76ers sustain their improved defense when the starting backcourt returns?
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