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The 76ers’ journey to defensive success under Lloyd Pierce

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Could the results in Philadelphia inform expectations in Atlanta?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk decided to offer the head coaching position to Lloyd Pierce after a robust search. Some risk was involved in working through a fairly deliberative process given how many NBA teams were looking for new head coaches, but it seems that Schlenk got the coach he wanted. There were no reports of other candidates having turned down an offer for the position and Pierce fit every stated criteria that Atlanta was looking for in their next head coach.

As information surfaced from a host of trusted NBA observers, Hawks fans would quickly learn that Pierce is broadly considered to have the talent and skill to move the needle for an organization in two areas: player development and defensive execution.

Pierce was in Philadelphia for each the five seasons that Brent Brown has held the head coaching position there, and there were some ugly seasons, especially from a win and loss perspective. With that said, there is something to be seen when digging into how the franchise built across those seasons to the 2017-18 season in which they would finish third in defensive rating.

The Defensive Journey

Let’s take a look at how those teams performed, as measured by defensive rating across those seasons.

This allows us to see that the 76ers were able to deliver relatively successful defensive results when the top of the roster included players with defensive potential, even if most of those players were quite young.

The 2014-15 team, despite winning just 18 games, measured as an above average unit on the defensive end of the court. Since that season, Luc Mbah a Moute and Robert Covington have cultivated reputations as being among the very best wing defenders in the league.

Nerlens Noel entered the league as the No. 6 overall draft pick possessing the potential to become an all-NBA level defender. It has not come to fruition as of yet, but his play early with the 76ers only served to build on his reputation as an emerging defensive anchor in the league.

When Mbah a Moute, Covington and Noel were all on the court during that season, the Sixers posted a defensive rating of 97.4, which was four full points better than the defensive rating of best defensive team in the league that season (Celtics, 101.5).

This suggests that, if Coach Pierce has even a few defensively capable players with which to work, he can produce solid results.

The 2016-17 Sixers measured just below league average defensively despite winning just 28 games. The minutes leaders posted for that season could be a bit misleading. Robert Covington was playing in his third season as an established rotation player and started 67 games. Dario Saric played more than 2000 minutes as a 22-year-old rookie.

Joel Embiid was also playing as a rookie at the age of 22. And although he was limited by injury to fewer than 800 minutes on the season the 76ers were nine points per 100 possessions better on defense when he was on court as to compared to when he was not.

The young trio of Covington, Embiid and Saric played only 135 minutes together that season but they produced a defensive rating of 93.5, regardless of who were the fourth and fifth players on the court.

Even with a young and imperfect roster, under the guidance of assistant coach Pierce, it is clear they were building something successful on the defensive end of the court if they could just keep their best players relatively healthy.

The 2017-18 season would certainly prove that to be true.

Now let’s dig in a bit deeper to see how they were building toward that defensive success.

Defending the 3-Point Line

The first season the 76ers played under Brett Brown and Lloyd Pierce they were basically the worst team in the league defending the three-point line. But you can see some distinct improvement in the second year, when they profiled a couple of solid wing defenders.

Consistency in defending the three-point line can be seen in years 3 and 4 despite the fact that Philadelphia would win only 38 games across those seasons.

In year 5, last season, it is clear that it all came together. If the volume of opponent’s three-point makes looks like a regression, consider a few things. Three-point volume has been increasing consistently across the league over roughly the last five seasons.

Also, the 76ers won 52 games and had the fourth best net rating in the league. So they were playing with the lead significantly more than during any of the previous four seasons. When teams are ahead they are going to see more three-points attempts as their opponents work to try to get back into the game.

Just Add Rim Protection

That first season under Brown and Pierce Philadelphia was among the worst teams in the league at protecting the rim. They allowed the third highest opponent field goal percentage on shots inside of five feet. And they allowed the sixth most attempts inside that range.

Some improvement can be seen in year 2 in affecting shots at the rim even with the addition of the 20-year-old rookie Noel manning the center position for 2,311 minutes.

They remained below league average in rim protection in years 3 and 4 as they lacked any real rim protection on the roster.

But last season, as they did from at the three-point line, they put it all together defensively at the rim. Teams did not express a lot of interest in trying to get to the rim. And when they got there they did not have a lot of success.

Much of that can be attributed to the presence of the uniquley talented Joel Embiid. (And you might be thinking well how are the Hawks going to get one of those? Have patience.) And he deserves a lot of credit. But the 76ers played more minutes last season with Embiid off of the court (2,044) than they did with him on the court (1,912). So the scheme and the execution of team defense deserve a fair amount of credit as well.

The Scary Part

The 2013-14 76ers gave up the most points at the free throw line in the NBA. And the scary part is that they really haven’t improved in that area very much if at all. One of the toughest things for coaches to impact is a young player’s propensity to foul.

A coach can work hard to get his young players in the right spot, making the right reads, communicating sufficiently, etc. But playing good defense without fouling just requires a volume of live game repetitions. So just imagine how good the ascending Sixers could become on defense if they can improve in this area.

So what does this mean for the Hawks during the 2018-19 season and beyond?

Well, the first phase of defensive execution to track seems obvious to be how they perform defending the three-point line. And it should not be expected to be above average or even close to it from the beginning of the season. But I like to break a season into quartiles, 20-ish game samples.

It will be interesting to see if they improve in this area from that perspective. Although the context will be important in terms of whether the rotational veterans remain on the roster and active for most if not all of the 2018-19 season.

Also, when the Hawks give up a lot of points during some games, take a peek at how many points the opposing team got at the free throw line. If the number is 20 or more it probably shouldn’t be an alarming thing especially if the youngsters got a lot time in that game.

Additionally, rim protection is something that should not be overly worried about this season. If they surprise and do to a respectable level, great! But if the last 5 years of defensive play in Philadelphia tell us anything, its that effective rim protection could be the last step to this team potentially being built into a one that is good enough on that end of the court to produce what could be the next good version of the Atlanta Hawks.


Look for a follow up piece in the near future where I intend to break down some video as to what the 2017-18 Sixers were doing schematically on defense to produce the results.

*All stats were collected from NBA.com/stats