By Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer
Bully ball. It has been a popular refrain among local media, 76ers fans and even the organization since general manager Elton Brand signed 6-foot-10 Al Horford, traded for 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson and brought back 6-foot-9 Tobias Harris to form the largest starting lineup in the NBA along with the 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons and 7-foot Joel Embiid.
Heading into this season, fans and analysts alike had visions of five defenders all with enough quickness and length to switch on any and every pick and roll or screen action. With defensive-minded reserves like rookie first-round pick Matisse Thybulle (6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan), James Ennis III (6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) and Kyle O’Quinn (6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan), predictions that Philadelphia would shut every opponent down and keep opponents from clearing the 100-point mark on a regular basis ran rampant among fans. Through nine games so far this season, the team is sixth in the league in defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) at 102.4: Things are going as expected on that end of the floor.
The 76ers offense this season was always going to present the larger question. Losing players who had accounted for 48% of the team’s 3-point attempts in 2018-19 presented a challenge the team will be facing all season. Making the floor spacing work with a lineup consisting of Simmons (a non-shooter), Richardson (career 3-point percentage in the mid-30s), Harris (the lone "shooter" in the starting lineup) and the twin-towers of Embiid and Horford was always going to be an issue for head coach Brett Brown to figure out. The hope is that, as the season goes along, the starting lineup will gel together and as a result floor spacing will not be as much of an issue.
The thought in creating the massive starting lineup the 76ers have was the team would make up for their lack of outside shooting by pounding the ball inside and exploiting mismatches created by their sheer size. The problem which has arisen is that not everyone is particularly good at posting up. Nothing highlights this issue more than in the game against the Portland Trail Blazers when Simmons was matched against Mario Hezonja (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) in the post. He tried to back him down but Hezonja, despite being a poor defender in general, was still strong enough to withstand Simmons’ size. And this has happened repeatedly to Simmons, who despite otherworldly talent in many areas of the game, is still somewhat limited offensively. This has led to the 76ers, despite posting up 15.3 times per night on a league-leading 13.1% of their possessions, scoring just 0.93 points per possession on post-ups, good for ninth in the league.
Through nine games, four 76ers have posted up at least twice per game. Embiid, at 8.3 attempts per night, has been remarkably effective, averaging 10.3 points and scoring on 60.0% of his post-up possessions. Harris has also been good in the post, scoring on 47.8% of his 2.6 post-up possessions per night.
On the other hand, Horford has been bad down low despite his overall game working out quite nicely for Philadelphia. He is scoring on just 42.9% of his post-ups and shooting 42.4% on them. However, it is Simmons who has been the biggest disappointment. Despite having significant size advantages on every point guard and virtually every perimeter defender in basketball, he is scoring on just 20.0% of his post-ups, shooting 26.7% and turning the ball over on a whopping 25.0% of his post-ups.
As time goes on, the hope is the players will get more comfortable with their teammates, allowing for more cutting and screening off-ball. This will allow Simmons, Embiid and Horford, who are all outstanding passers from the post, to pick out passes for layups or wide-open threes as defenses scramble to contain the movement. For this to happen, however, at least Simmons and Horford will need to improve on their dismal post performances to start the season, or coach Brown will need to find another way to take advantage of the size mismatches generated by his giant starting lineup.