NBA COLUMN: Assistant coach Dan Burke should help Sixers defense
By Chad Smith
January 2, 2021
8:10 p.m. ET
There are quite a few new faces in Philadelphia this season. They have a new president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, and a new head coach Doc Rivers, who aims to deliver some magical fairy dust on the 76ers offense. On the court, new additions include Seth Curry, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and rookie Tyrese Maxey. Three of those four players will play a large role in spacing the floor for star players Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
As for Howard, his presence will be felt on the defensive end of the floor, which will be the teamís strength once again this season.
And as good as the Sixers were defensively a year ago, they forecast to improve even more this year with the addition of another individual who has flown under the radar: Dan Burke spent 22 years with the Indiana Pacers and passed on several head coaching opportunities to remain an assistant. With the Pacers coaching staff being overhauled this offseason, Burke joined Riversí staff in Philly. If you know anything about Burkeís tenure in Indiana, you know that defense is his calling card.
Last December after a Pacers game against the 76ers, Burke said in a TV interview: "I hate the Sixers. I think Embiid gets away with a ton of crap the league ignores." Embiid showed a sense of humor about the reported hire, and reportedly has an excellent relationship with his new defensive coordinator. The two are on the same page, and they want the same thing. That is a scary thing for the rest of the league.
The front office has surrounded Simmons and Embiid with shooters, but Burke may serve as an off-court x-factor to get this team over the top. Their two best players are already excellent defenders and capable of winning Defensive Player of the Year honors. Adding another big-body rim protector like Howard should have Burke salivating at the mouth.
Last season in LA, Howard averaged 7.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while playing a little less than 19 minutes per game. Should he provide the same production or better, it will go a long way in replacing Al Horford's production. The health and injury concerns for Embiid are still there, and Howard could prove to be exceptional insurance. Even more so when you consider his veteran minimum contract instead of the $109 million they had invested in Horford.
Embiid is a two-time All-Defensive team player, while Howard has been named to the All-Defensive team five times in his career, has been the Defensive POY three times and had led the league in blocks in two seasons. Last season, Simmons was named on the All-Defensive team and led the league in steals. He also had the eighth-best Defensive Plus/Minus score and ranked 17th best in Defensive Win Shares.
Make no mistake about it, Burke has all of the tools at his disposal to fortify a championship-level defense. Last season, Philly had a defensive rating of 102 when Embiid was on the court. When he was off the court, it fell to 110.5, which was the largest differential of any player who logged at least 1,000 minutes. If he stays healthy this season, those numbers could grow even more.
Shake Milton is another weapon the Sixers could unleash this season. The Sixers guard filled in admirably when Simmons missed time last February, averaging 18 points per game and 1.3 steals per game. His size (6'5") and seven-foot wingspan offer incredible length for the team on defense.
Burke is well regarded for his defensive acumen and especially developing wing defenders like Bojan Bogdanovic and TJ Warren in recent years with the Pacers. The upside and potential in Philadelphia are through the roof. Most of this will fall on the shoulders of Doc and Daryl, but Burke is extremely important as to how far this team may go in the playoffs.
After a disappointing season that ended with a first-round sweep to their rivals in Boston, the Sixers could be on the verge of breaking through and representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
Their defense will carry them on most nights, and that is the most important part of the game when the postseason rolls around. Then again, this could all be blown up with one trade if Daryl gets his guy from Houston. Time will tell if they make the right move, which would actually be to stay the course.