By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Editor
The Philadelphia 76ers have all the tools to become one of the NBA's best defenses this season. The starting lineup consists of players all 6-foot-6 and taller, including two potential Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. However, the team's bench also has the talent and mindset to be great defensively.
General manager Elton Brand did a good job adding to the team's bench this offseason, working together with head coach Brett Brown to add players who excel on the defensive end of the floor. It is widely known that Brown highly values defense and hustle on that end of the floor, and the 76ers have become a team with a strong defensive identity.
"I feel like when you look at the course of 82 games in the regular season, I think that our second team can establish that type of identity," Brown said after the game against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions, via an article by NBC Sports Philadelphia's Noah Levick. "But I've said a lot, I want to play aggressive defense. I want our defense to be the launching pad to our offense, not the other way around. And I think that our length and mentality can help me achieve that."
The first players off the bench for the Sixers are James Ennis III, Mike Scott and Matisse Thybulle: All of whom can play more than adequate defense. Ennis III described the team's bench as "bulldogs," a word which perfectly describes the identity and style of play the unit will have this season.
Scott carries an attitude and grit on the floor that has resulted in Philadelphia fans quickly falling in love with him (see: Mike Scott hive). He is not afraid to play the enforcer role for the 76ers, and his high-intensity play on the court creates some energy. Scott rejuvenated his career after getting traded to Philadelphia mid-season, averaging 7.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting a career-high 41.2% from 3-point range.
The 76ers in the previous two drafts have added players with tremendous defensive potential. In the 2018 NBA Draft, Philadelphia executed a trade on draft night resulting in the addition of Zhaire Smith. At Texas Tech, he was known for his incredible defense and athleticism. However, he was very raw on the offensive end of the floor.
In the 2019 NBA Draft, Brand traded up with the rival Boston Celtics to draft Thybulle with the 20th overall pick. Thybulle excelled on the defensive end of the floor while at Washington, and he currently holds the single-season Pac-12 conference record for steals (126 or 3.5 per game as a senior), a record that was previously held by Gary Payton.
Thybulle possesses the combination of elite defensive skills (quick hands, agility) and high basketball IQ. Through three preseason games, he has averaged 2.7 steals and 1.3 blocks in 17.4 minutes per game. What was once a "quiet competition" for minutes between Thybulle and Smith has become a rout due to Thybulle's excellent play in both training camp and thus far in the preseason.
While both players possess standout defensive abilities, they do also differ from each other. Thybulle uses his high basketball IQ to excel getting in the passing lanes while Smith excels at using his athleticism and strength to get in the chest of the offensive player.
“Matisse’s ability off the ball where he can cover ground and shoot gaps and get in lanes and pick stuff out of the sky with his length stands out,” Brown said, via an article written by PhillyVoice's Kyle Neubeck. “I think Zhaire’s gravity, his center of gravity where he’s just dogging someone at a lower balance level, he reminds me a little of Avery Bradley at times."
It looks like Smith will be heading down to Delaware to begin the season so he can receive minutes and continue to develop. However, his defensive abilities all but guarantee that he will be back up at the NBA level sooner rather than later.
The defensive identity Brown is trying to build this season is affecting everyone, not just the players who excel on that end of the floor. For example, guard Trey Burke, who was brought in this offseason via free agency, has been tasked with improving his game on the defensive end of the floor.
“Brett [Brown] challenged me from day one when I decided to sign here, he challenged me on the defensive end and said he was going to be on me all year about having that edge," Burke said, via an article written by PhillyVoice's Kyle Neubeck. "It’s something I’ve accepted and I’m trying to get done every time I’m out there."
The 76ers are looking to play a more aggressive, attacking style of defense this season. That style of defense involves playing more full-court press, something the 76ers have done throughout the preseason and have seen early results (23 turnovers forced against Guangzhou in the preseason opener). Ime Udoka, one of the 76ers' new assistant coaches, is employing an aggressive defensive philosophy in an attempt to force more turnovers this season.
"That's something we talk about, creating turnovers," Udoka said, via an article written by NBC Sports Philadelphia's Noah Levick. "We want to up our physicality on the ball. That should help there. And there are multiple things we can do out of timeouts to trap guys and make them more uncomfortable."
After just one offseason of Brown and Brand working together, they have already changed the team to make it have a clear defensive, bully ball identity. From the starting lineup to the bench, Philadelphia has all the tools to be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.