Much like the Knicks did for five games in the first round, the Philadelphia 76ers have a serious Trae Young problem on their hands. The third year star guard for the Atlanta Hawks cooked them in the first half to lead Atlanta to a 20-point lead at the break that proved just big enough that Philadelphia couldn’t fully reel them in down the stretch. Young finished the night with 35 points and 10 assists — with 25 and eight in the first half — along with only four turnovers.
Early on, the Sixers simply couldn’t figure out what to do with the Young pick-and-roll, which Atlanta wisely spams over and over because it’s just a miserable thing for defenses to deal with. The Sixers communication was lacking and their opening strategy of putting Danny Green on Young failed miserably, as Young didn’t even need the screens to blow by the veteran guard and get to the paint for either his patented floater or a pass to a wide open teammate as help was forced to run towards him.
— NBA (@NBA) June 6, 2021
On the other end of the floor, Green allowed Young to do almost no work defensively, remaining stagnant in the corner as Young could camp out and be fresh for another pick-and-roll or drive on the other end. In the second half, the Sixers threw a number of different looks at Young and had varying levels of success, but all were certainly improvements over what they did initially. Still, each option against Trae comes with pros and cons, and it’ll be incumbent on Doc Rivers to figure out which is least detrimental to his team overall.
The obvious choice in the minds of many is to put Ben Simmons on Young, as the man who stumped for DPOY all year by touting his versatility should be the perfect option. However, as Rivers has noted, putting Simmons on Young is an easy way to get his star in foul trouble given Young’s mastery of the dark arts — Simmons picked up two fouls guarding Young in the early third quarter after taking the assignment and was quickly switched off. After Game 1 — when Young was 9-for-9 at the foul line — the Sixers were clearly on message about trying to get the refs to call fewer fouls when Young leans in and creates contact himself.
Ben Simmons on potentially guarding Trae Young from the jump next game: "I probably will do that. I mean, I want to. If the refs ain't gonna call so many fouls, I can be physical and be 6'10", then I'll be 6'10". But we'll see."
— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) June 6, 2021
On Monday, Rivers confirmed Simmons will not have Young as his primary assignment for that reason, noting the foul concerns as the chief reason, meaning Simmons will only be a change of pace look for Trae.
#Sixers coach Doc Rivers: 'Ben wasn't on (Trae Young) a lot. We want him on Trae but not a lot. Trae is very good at drawing fouls.'
— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) June 7, 2021
While somewhat understandable, it’s a bit worrying that Simmons can’t be trusted not to pick up foul after foul and adjust how he defends the smaller Young if that is something he is supposed to be able to do. Simmons’ preferred physicality can certainly make Young uncomfortable, but his over-aggressive manner in constantly applying that physical pressure leads to cheap fouls well away from the basket. Figuring out how to simply use his length to deter Young rather than needing to constantly be in his space where he’s in danger of getting fouls is a necessary step for Simmons if he is to be the versatile defender he claims to be in the postseason.
The advantage to having Simmons on Young isn’t just that he’s a big, long, physical defender, but that it puts the Hawks in serious conflict in transition and semi-transition situations off of missed shots. Pushing off misses would put Young on Simmons or force the Hawks to try to very quickly cross-match, which can lead to breakdowns or miscommunications as they send help to Trae against a 6’10 force of nature barreling down hill that he has no chance of stopping otherwise, opening up others or risking letting Simmons waltz to the rim. The fouls are a reasonable concern, but Simmons has the length to play more off of Young and give late closeouts on pull-up threes (which, while he’s capable of making them, are not exactly his best attribute) and not requiring as much help from Joel Embiid and others on drives, which takes away some of Young’s playmaking. It’s unlikely to be an adjustment he can make mid-series, but learning to play further off of guards and use that length and his quickness as a deterrent without relying on his physicality is the next step for Simmons as a perimeter defender that will unlock even more of his potential.
If Simmons isn’t the choice, that leaves a couple other options for the Sixers to use on Young as the primary look, and each of them presents positives and negatives for Philly.
Despite protests from Sixers fans and him getting cooked for the better part of the first two quarters, we are most likely going to see Danny Green start on Young once again. Green mentioned on Monday that it’s on him to make Young work more when the Sixers are on offense, but he seems to be focused on the wrong things in how that should happen.
Danny Green says he has to do a better job of making Trae Young work defensively, says he’s gotta be more aggressive when he has the ball
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 7, 2021
Danny Green serving as the creator to attack Young is going to be a win for the Hawks, as that’s just not his game. However, Green could be much more active off the ball and the Sixers need to design more weakside actions to force Young to work through screens or possibly get him switched on someone like Tobias Harris or Seth Curry who are better creators rather than having Green stationary in the corners. He doesn’t need to be in the primary action, but his threat as a shooter would at least make Young work to stay attached to him and possibly create some desirable switches for players who could attack a Young mismatch better off the bounce.
Should Green stay on Young, the best option for Philadelphia may just be sending him under screens and living with Young shooting threes. Young was 4-for-11 from three in Game 1, which is good, but if he’s shooting, he’s not creating for the rest of the Hawks. It also will prevent Young from getting Green on his hip, which is his favorite thing to do to defenders that jump over screens, because from there he dictates the pace, gets to his floater and is a master at slowing down or stopping outright to draw contact and toss the ball up at the rim for a hopeful and-1. Going under runs the risk of Young becoming a flamethrower from deep, but for Green it’s honestly the best chance to keep Young from getting whatever he wants going downhill by meeting him on the other side of the screen and letting Embiid or Harris focus on sticking the roll man to take away lob threats and not forcing help off shooters in the corners.
The next option, and in my mind the best one, is to deploy Matisse Thybulle more during Young’s minutes, which requires taking a shooter off the floor in Green, Curry, or Harris. That is less than ideal offensively and he provides even less opportunity to make Young work off the ball, as Trae’s not going to be concerned about sticking with him all the way through off-ball action. However, Thybulle is an elite defender with the length to bother Young’s shot and floater and while he picked up a very questionable call that Rivers challenged somehow unsuccessfully in Game 1, he’s the best bet for making Young uncomfortable and you really shouldn’t be concerned if he gets in foul trouble as he’s not a guy you’re worried about making it 30 minutes. Thybulle is the best screen navigator the Sixers have and isn’t going to get blown by when Young rejects the screen the way Green was.
The offensive questions are legit, but for the regular season, lineups with Thybulle, Embiid, and Simmons had a +18.9 net rating in 125 minutes. Many of those had Harris and Green out there, as three-man groups with Thybulle, Harris, and Green were boasted a +21 net rating in 188 minutes. Thybulle is a capable connector on offense and doesn’t disrupt things by taking bad shots, he just doesn’t always knock down the good ones.
George Hill and Tyrese Maxey are other secondary options to change the look for Young, which is the chief thing I think Philly learned in Game 1. Leaving one defender on Young for the whole game will eventually lead to him exploiting something else, and for Game 2 I expect Rivers to be quicker to change the look on the Hawks star guard. Green, Simmons, Thybulle, Hill, and Maxey will all get their shot, and as the second half of the opener showed, throwing various looks and particularly players who are quicker laterally that can stay in front while applying ball pressure can at least make life more difficult on him.
There is no stopping Trae Young, as he’s on a scoring start to his playoff career currently that puts him on lists where the only other name is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor). Young scoring is one thing, but when you let him score and collapse your defense to create wide open looks for others, you simply have no shot. He is a maestro offensively and the Sixers likely need to unleash their best on-ball defenders and live with the results of leaving them on an island to offer less opportunities for Young to create great shots for everyone else. That means more Thybulle and Simmons and less Green and Hill, and if the concern is Simmons foul trouble, then you just let Matisse go as long as he can.
It will feel like the Sixers are giving up offense for defense, but all season Thybulle plus starters units have been tremendous on both ends, and given the disastrous play of Philly’s bench unit in Game 1 on the offensive end, having either Curry, Green, or Harris out there with them rather than Thybulle makes more sense anyways.