New-look Philadelphia 76ers aim to be a dominant defensive team, have personnel to achieve that goal

PHILADELPHIA -- Remember the gritty, physical Detroit Pistons of the late 1980's; A group notoriously known as the "Bad Boys" led by Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman? They were a team that won two NBA titles off the strength of a dominant defense, and the new-look Philadelphia 76ers are hoping to harken back to those days.  

In an era when an extreme emphasis is placed on scoring, floor-spacing, offensive output and efficiency, the 2019-20 Sixers are looking to flip the script as they plan to hang their hat on the defensive end of the floor. And if they're able to reach their full potential as a unit on that end, they could very well win some hardware to show for it, just as the Pistons did three decades ago.

After a gut-wrenching loss to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring, Sixers general manager Elton Brand went to work. The team already had a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Joel Embiid, and another player with All-Defensive team potential in Ben Simmons, and then they went and added two dominant defenders in Al Horford and Josh Richardson over the offseason. The Sixers have had a respectable defense in recent years, but now with a projected starting unit of Embiid, Simmons, Horford, Richardson and Tobias Harris – players who are all 6-foot-6 or taller – the potential is through the roof.

"[Our defensive potential] was one of the first things that I thought about when I looked at our roster," Horford said to media members at Sixers media day at the team's training complex in Camden, New Jersey, on Monday. "Our defense, we're all going to have each other's back. That's the first thing. We all know that we all have the ability to cover individually, but the way that we're going to be special is all of us covering for one another. We're not going to be afraid. If there's a mistake we're going to cover it. We're going to be strong and set a tone on the defensive end. We have guys that want to do that, and as long as everyone is on the same page on the defensive end, we're going to be trouble."

Horford pointed to Philadelphia's versatility as their distinguishing defensive trait or calling card; something that all great defenses need. 

"Guys can play multiple positions," Horford said. "That's a strength. Our length is something that's going to play to our advantage. I don't think that we're going to be one thing. Our strength is going to be being able to adapt and do multiple things as a defensive unit."

Everyone on the Sixers is buying in to the defense-first philosophy, even players who haven't necessarily been known for their ability on that end of the floor before. Harris, the one Sixers starter who isn't commonly lauded for his defensive ability, put in major work on that area of his game over the offseason.  

"[Lateral quickness] was a huge emphasis for me this summer," Harris said. "Being able to stay lower longer… . As a player I want to be a better two-way player, for myself, for the team, and for us as a group. That's something I definitely took a lot of time in this summer to enhance my game on, and it's something that's going to open a lot of doors for our group as a collective unit and for myself also, just taking that added level of being considered a two-way guy."

Harris also used the "V"-word when describing what will make the Sixers so special defensively.

"I think we're going to be an amazing group defensively," Harris said. "We understand that's going to be the key factor for us to reach our main goal. I think that's the thing that's going to separate us [from] other teams in the league. We have the size, we have the versatility."

The Sixers are taking defense so seriously, in fact, that it appears as though a friendly internal competition may be brewing.

"I want to be the best defensive player on the team," Ben Simmons said. "So hopefully everyone on my team hears that, and they strive to do the same thing. I know we have a great defensive team."

Both Embiid and Simmons expressed an interest in winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award this season, and Simmons also acknowledged that the team's overall approach to defense is much different than it was at the start of last season.

"Obviously Joel, even hearing Tobias and he wants to take pride in playing defense," Simmons added. "Just hearing that is huge because you weren't hearing that at the start of the year last season, so I think it's an exciting time for us."

On paper, it's tough to pinpoint a soft spot in Philadelphia's defense. With Embiid and Horford manning the paint, rim protection shouldn't be an issue, and though the Sixers have struggled slowing dynamic guards in the past, that's an area that Josh Richardson plans to address personally.

"I know this team has had their slight problems with smaller, quicker guards, and that's one of the areas where I tend to excel in," Richardson said. "So I think I can kind of put a Band-Aid over that situation."

Becoming a championship-caliber defensive unit takes a lot of discipline and buy-in from all involved, and the Sixers will have to prove that they can develop – and maintain – that over the course of an entire campaign. But, they do have the personnel to develop into a dominant defense, and heading into the season, they all seem to be on the same page regarding where their bread is going to be buttered as a team. 

Michael Kaskey-Blomain covers the NBA for CBS Sports. He has covered the league in some capacity since 2009 for a variety of outlets including Philly.com, ESPN 97.3, and 247 Sports. Michael hails from... Full Bio

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