Can The Sixers Run A Nick Nurse Defense?
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If there is anything to be taken from the Sixers’ first two preseason games, it’s that Nick Nurse will not be compromising his defensive style from his days in Toronto. The Sixers are playing aggressive, intense, havoc-causing defense that mirrors what Nurse’s Toronto teams played during his time there.
With it being preseason and the Sixers resting key players, we can’t glean much from those two games in terms of how the Sixers have fared at executing those schemes. But the sheer fact that Nurse is dialing up his patented aggressive defenses with this personnel makes for an interesting discussion – I would argue that their ability to master Nurse’s defense is the single biggest x-factor in determining their ceiling for this season, aside from the outcome of the Harden situation.
Here’s the thing: while Nurse’s schemes are a proven success, aggressive defenses are inherently more dependent on having good personnel – more blitzing, more helping, more ball denials, and more double teams means more rotations, more decision making, and more ground to cover for your defenders. And, so, aggressive schemes are only worth using if your players are good at rotating, making split-second decisions, and covering ground.
If we think back to the days when Brett Brown was coaching the team, the Sixers found themselves on the polar opposite end of the spectrum in terms of how aggressive their defensive schemes were; they played deep drop coverages in the pick and roll, sent minimal help in the gap, and rarely ever sent double teams at opposing stars – which you might remember especially well from the 2020 playoff series against the Celtics.
To contrast that defense to Nurse’s, you need only look at the numbers from that season. In 2020, the Sixers allowed the second-lowest opponent 3-point attempt rate in the league, while Nurse’s Raptors allowed the most by a mile. The Sixers allowed the 3rd most mid-range attempts in the league, while the Raptors allowed the 3rd fewest. The Sixers forced turnovers at the 21st highest rate in the league despite excellent personnel, and the Raptors forced turnovers at the 2nd highest rate in the league. Essentially, more aggressive schemes mean that you force more turnovers, and allow more 3s and fewer mid-range attempts.
When Doc Rivers and Dan Burke took over the defense, the Sixers found themselves somewhere around league average in terms of overall aggressiveness; the Sixers’ defensive decision making generated average outputs at just about everything – they were 19th in opponent 3-point attempt rate, 16th in mid-range attempt rate, 14th in at-rim attempt rate, and 12th in turnover rate.
With Nurse’s hyper-aggressive schemes, you will see those numbers bend even further from where they were under Brown, and more towards the outputs that Nurse’s Toronto teams had – allowing more 3s, forcing more turnovers, and selling out to defend the rim.
Brown’s decision to run ultra-conservative defense – something he and the rest of the Spurs coaching tree have always rigidly adhered to – was a mistake given the personnel that he had. With rangy, chaotic off-ball playmakers like Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, and Josh Richardson on that roster, the Sixers were better suited allowing them to scramble around and create havoc off the ball rather than staying glued to their defenders on the wing as Joel Embiid played drop coverage. At that time, I would have been staunchly in favor of running a Nurse-style defense.
But now, with a completely different roster, I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with Nurse dialing up those aggressive schemes given the limitations of the personnel at hand. The Sixers have a long list of players whose defensive deficiencies – be it athleticism, decision making, processing speed, or sheer willingness – will find themselves making mistake after mistake in Nurse’s system.
Tyrese Maxey lacks the size and decision making to run around plugging holes and switching onto opposing wings when needed. P.J. Tucker can no longer close ground at the rate that he would need to in order to be an anchor of this defense. Tobias Harris has never had the mental processing speed to be part of a scrambling defense. James Harden, if he’s around, will likely continue to lack the effort necessary to make these schemes work.
Certainly, the Sixers can thrive with Nurse’s defense in certain lineups – a Patrick Beverley-De’Anthony Melton-Kelly Oubre-Paul Reed-Joel Embiid lineup, for example, would kick ass with Nurse’s style of defense. But it’s just hard for me to imagine lineups like, say, last year’s starters flying around like this:
If Nurse can manage to get players to buy-in, and can manage the rotation in such a way that there are never too many poor decision makers on the court at the same time, then I do think his schemes can raise this team’s defensive and overall ceiling. If the players don’t buy what Nurse is selling, and he can’t seem to find the right rotation in order to keep the defense active and alert at all times, then I think his defensive schemes will make the team worse off than they otherwise would have been with bland, league-average schemes. Of course, much of this depends on whether or not Harden is traded, and what he is traded for; if you replace Harden’s minutes with Terrance Mann and Robert Covington, that automatically makes this team’s defensive ceiling significantly higher, and I would be much more comfortable with these types of schemes.
Truly, this will be the biggest determining factor in where this team ends up between its floor and its ceiling. Nurse’s schemes introduce a lot more variance than the schemes of Brett Brown and Doc Rivers; it allows for a much higher defensive ceiling, but also a lower defensive floor. With the personnel they have on hand at the moment, I find myself a bit pessimistic on how it will pan out, but with the right trade and improvements from the right players, it could easily flip and I would be all-in on the Sixers’ defensive potential. I would not be the least bit shocked to see a Nurse defense with Mann and Covington instead of Harden crack the top-5 in defensive rating. If a trade like that happens, and the team can truly build an identity around their defense, they would suddenly catapult themselves into a much higher level of enjoyability and would certainly endear themselves much more to the fans.
All stats courtesy of Cleaning The Glass.