The Philadelphia 76ers invested in size this summer, bringing in Al Horford to pair next to Joel Embiid and adding Josh Richardson to man the perimeter next to Ben Simmons. Those four, along with Tobias Harris, create the tallest starting five in the NBA.
The size and length of this group would have any coach salivating over the defensive potential, and Brett Brown is no exception. In his annual luncheon with the media last Friday, Brown said the team will play “Bully Ball defense.”
“There’s going to be a premium placed on deflections,” Brown said, hinting at the possibility of playing more aggressive on that end. “Might we blitz more because we’ve got the ability to rotate behind it because we just cover so much ground? Might we get into a little bit more lanes? Might I be a little bit more tolerant on if we might foul some? That’s where my head is at.”
This increased aggressiveness could positively correlate to an increase in forced turnovers. An uptick there would be a welcome sight for a Sixers team that finished 28th in this department last season.
This lack of aggression at the point of attack coupled with a dearth of defenders at the guard position led to some gaudy scoring performances by opposing guards last season. Most notably, Kemba Walker roasted the Sixers for 60 points in Charlotte.
Walker, now a member of the Boston Celtics, gets four chances to replicate that output this season. The Sixers may have a better answer for him in new addition Josh Richardson.
Richardson, known for his aggression and toughness on defense, will be given the assignment of defending the opposing team’s lead guard this season. The fifth-year guard is aware of his role.
“I know this team has had their problems with smaller, quicker guards,” Richardson said at Media Day. “And that’s one of the areas where I tend to excel at. So I think I can put a band-aid on that situation.”
Richardson was not the only player to discuss his defensive role, as questions regarding the defensive potential of the team became a theme throughout the day.
Tobias Harris, who most would consider being the one weak link defensively in the starting five, has committed to that side of the ball this summer. Brett Brown had some words on this commitment last Friday.
“[Tobias] goes out of his way to tell me that ‘I’m good to go, I can’t wait to play defense for us this year,’ he knows, he’s too prideful,” Brown said of Harris. “He knows, like he starts looking around and he’s not going to be the weak link.”
Harris was also asked about his defensive focus at Media Day.
“It’s been a huge emphasis for me this summer,” Harris said. “Lateral quickness, being able to stay lower longer. I’ve been back here for about three weeks now for the pickups and 5-on-5 we’ve been playing. It’s been a higher level for me. A lot of the coaches have been able to see that, and it’s been motivating me. I want to be a better two-way player, both for myself and as a group.”
Harris will be asked to guard threes this season with the starting group, which puts a spotlight on his lateral quickness. If he did hone that ability this summer, the Sixers could have no weaknesses on the defensive end.
Maybe the most important acquisition for this Sixers team is Al Horford, who will now man the starting four position next to Joel Embiid. The Celtics excelled defensively when Horford played the four last season, and Basketball Insiders asked Horford why he is so valuable in that spot. He responded by noting his versatility.
“Defensively, I’ll be able to get out and guard perimeters, bigs, whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll be able to do,” Horford said. “I think that’s what our team will hang their hat on.”
Basketball Insiders asked Ben Simmons a similar question, specifically questioning where he saw himself fitting into this unit defensively. He responded by issuing a challenge.
“I want to be the best defensive player on this team,” Simmons said. “Hopefully, everyone on my team hears that. They should want to do the same thing.”
That will be no easy task with a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Embiid and another elite defender in Horford to vie against for that title.
The Sixers’ bench also brims with defensive potential thanks to rookie first-round draft pick Matisse Thybulle and second-year player Zhaire Smith.
Thybulle excelled defensively at Washington, leading the country in steals last season and winning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award in each of his last two campaigns. Washington employed a zone defense that allowed Thybulle to use his seven-foot wingspan to disrupt passing lanes and wreak havoc around the perimeter.
Basketball Insiders asked Thybulle about his transition from this zone scheme to the man-on-man he will be asked to play in the NBA. The rookie didn’t mince words.
“I played zone for two years, but my whole life I played man,” Thybulle said. “I was known as a defender before the zone. I’m not too worried about being able to have an impact playing man.”
Smith also brings a defensive pedigree from his time in college. His explosive athleticism and quick feet make him a prime candidate to pester opposing guards off the bench.
Brown made note of the two young players’ energy in his media availability after the first day of practice on Tuesday.
“Those kids, there’s a bounce, there’s an energy,” Brown said. “They know what I know. I can’t play everybody. They both are coming out and they put their hand up to say, ‘Look at me.’ That is for sure the quickest way to get my attention, just sitting down and defending, and they really can do that.”
The Sixers all-in-all have a top-to-bottom roster that may amount to the best defense in the league this season, and the players are excited to show off that ability on the court.
New backup center Kyle O’Quinn summed it up well.
“Defense is something that we have to do. We’re just so big, and so long,” O’Quinn said. “We played pickup the other day, and the paint was so clogged. We just have so much length, and I think that if we don’t play defense, I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing, but what are we doing out there?”
It’s clear that defense will be the calling card for this group, and the Sixers reaching their full potential on that end could cement them as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.