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The Sixers and Playoffs Wings

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Do the Sixers have enough depth on the wing to succeed in the playoffs?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the major US sports, basketball may be the one in which regular-season and playoff play differ the most. The NFL, of course, is designed such that almost every game, regular- or post-season, is a desperate struggle for victory. Bill James once wrote movingly of the young Phillies phenom Joe LeFebre, of whom people would say “he plays baseball like a football player” — crashing into the wall to make a catch, that sort of thing. James explained that you can’t play baseball that way, there are too many games, injuries will ruin you (as indeed they did to LeFebre). James argued more broadly that many of the perceived differences between the sports were the consequence of one simple decision made by the leagues: football teams played only once a week, while baseball teams had a contest almost daily. The consequences of this are staggering. To cite only one example, if they only played baseball on Sundays, then each team would have a position called “Pitcher” at which they had a starter and maybe two backups, and we’d all spend time arguing whether Pitcher or Quarterback was truly the most important position in sports.

Another enormous impact of game frequency, James argued, is the intensity of play. People who played baseball like a football player tended to have short, injury-plagued careers. In football it’s considered a given that a player should take a 5% chance of season-ending injury in order to make a touchdown catch. Anyone who didn’t — “for who? For what?” — is reviled as a coward or worse. In baseball, there’s another game tomorrow. Upshot is, a football playoff game is played almost exactly like a regular-season game. In baseball the intensity rises significantly, and this does change things somewhat — see e.g. the use of ace starting pitchers as closers in playoff games. But until the late innings, baseball playoff games are played much the same way as ordinary games, and you rarely if ever hear it said of a player that he’s valuable in the regular season but worthless in the playoffs. Maybe an innings-eating fifth starter here or there, but that’s about it.

I won’t get into hockey because, really, I know very little about hockey. But in basketball it is a common (and, I would argue, increasingly common) thing to hear about a player —“he’ll be played off the floor come the playoffs.” Home-court advantage is very important in the NBA, and regular-season record impacts home court, not to mention difficulty of matchups, and so a player who contributes only in the regular season may still have value. At the same time, few things in life offer more frustration that a great regular season followed by a playoff fizzle. So I wanted to discuss what kind of player works in the playoffs, as a precursor to figuring out whether the Sixers have enough such players, and, if not, how they can obtain some more.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to discuss this subject with an NBA executive and he set me straight on a key issue. He explained that it’s hard for a fan to appreciate how little prep time teams have for an individual regular-season game. Suppose that Charlotte plays in Minnesota on Tuesday, prior to facing the Sixers on Thursday. The Tuesday game finishes up around 9:30,players need to shower, change, face the news media, etc., it’s pretty late by the time they leave the arena. Even if players don’t go out after the game, in order for them to have a full night of sleep after unwinding from the tension of competition, they’re going to need to be in bed until 8AM. NBA teams generally fly on chartered jets, which helps a lot, but still, in this scenario it’s unlikely they’ll be back in NC in time to have a practice at all. The subsequent day is Thursday, game day. The team can get together before the Sixer game, but obviously they aren’t going to want to burn a ton of energy when there’s a game that night. Of course sometimes you have a homestand, or two days off between games, and there’s time for a full practice. But it’s less common than our intuition would suggest. And when a practice does occur, the first priority is to practice general team stuff — offensive sets, out of bounds plays, defensive alignment. Maybe there’s a chunk of practice set aside to plan for the Philly game specifically, let’s say they have, I don’t know, 45 minutes for that. Wouldn’t we expect a lot of that time to be spent thinking about how to stop Joel Embiid? Or practicing forming a wall in the paint to hold off Ben Simmons? Or discussing Redick coming off screens, or Jimmy Freaking Buckets?

So now imagine the Sixers are playing Marco Belinelli as JJ Redick’s backup. What are the odds that Charlotte is going to have time to spend thinking of, and practicing, plays meant to exploit Marco’s defensive weakness? Imagine being the assistant coach who’s come up with a play to get Kemba isolated on Marco, leading to an easy bucket with high probability — how much of Kemba’s, or the coach’s, time and attention will you get for this exciting starter-on-backup exploitation opportunity? Not much!

But now consider the playoffs. Brad Stevens is going to face the Sixers four times minimum, and possibly as many as seven. Is he going to be thinking about what he can do to Marco? Damn straight he is! If the series goes seven it’s going to last more than two weeks, and that’s over and above what might be several days between the end of the previous playoff series and the beginning of the Philly-Boston tilt. Not only is there tons of time, and not only is it all focused on one opponent, but the stakes are so much higher! If there were enough at stake, you could ask the Charlotte players to head right from the airport to the practice facility for a run-through after the Minnesota flight, but if you do that all season long, it will not only exhaust your players, it will make you an unattractive free agent destination. But when the bright lights are shining, everyone can really focus on the intense disciplined practice needed to squeeze the most out of every bit of edge.

What does this tell us about roster construction? Well, I don’t have the data yet to prove anything. But I can tell you what my instinct says. It says that a player who is a -3 on defense — that is, a player who, like Marco Belinelli, costs you around 3 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to an average defensive player — may become a -5 or -8 or -10 come the playoffs. As I say, I don’t have the data to tell you whether the effect is large (-3 goes to -5) or absolutely, ridiculously huge (-3 goes to -10). But I’d be shocked if it isn’t at least the former.

No doubt it’s not just about the level of badness of defense, it’s also about the way in which a player is bad defensively. There are probably some kinds of -3 defensive players who stay around -3 in the playoffs, and others who just destroy you, costing you a point every 4 or 5 minutes. I don’t know at this point which types of bad defenders are which. I’ll be interested to hear folks’ speculation in comments.

But we do know this: it is absolutely essential to avoid relying on terrible defenders when the playoffs roll around, even if those players were good enough offensively to justify their court time in the regular season. And this is especially true when a team uses a switch-heavy defensive approach, as the Sixers do. The Sixers’ approach is that, annoying as it is to see Mike Conley drain one 18-footer after another in Landry Shamet’s face, in the end a lightly-contested Conley 18-footer is not such a terrible outcome from the defense’s perspective, and allowing some of those is preferable to the wide-open looks that can result from not switching. Reasonable people can differ on the optimality of that defensive philosophy, but the fact remains it’s what the Sixers do, and if you’re going to do that, and you put a bad defender out there in the playoffs, then that player is going to be ruthlessly hunted by the opposition. And in that situation, playoff success depends on having enough players who don’t kill you on defense that you never have to run such a player out there. Last season, that just wasn’t the case for the Sixers. JJ is a poor defender. Marco, as mentioned, is awful. TLC and Bayless were very bad. Markelle Fultz, who I think is a solid defender now and will be a great defender over his career, didn’t know what he was doing out there last season — understandably! — and was ruthlessly exploited in a short playoff stint against Miami. That’s not even talking about bad-but-not-terrible defenders like Dario. I was banging the table for Brett Brown to get Marco off the court, but the truth is, we had very limited options.

So, where do we stand now? The answer is, as we all know, the team is thin. Let’s recall what you need for the playoffs:

C: Starter 36 minutes, backup 12 minutes

PG: Starter 36 minutes, backup 12 minutes

Wing: 4 players, 36 minutes each

As I noted in a long-ago post, this helps us understand what is, or at least should be, meant by the term “sixth man.” If C and PG are special positions requiring specialist players, then filling 48 minutes at those two slots with specialists means there are 48*3 = 144 minutes left to fill. If “positionless basketball” means that those positions are filled with somewhat-interchangeable “wing” players who can handle 36 minutes each, well, then, since 144/36 = 4, we need four of them. So there are not 5 but 6 players on the team who play approximately full-time minutes. Which is why it makes so little sense when people say that Dario, or JJ, or Markelle, or someone else should be a “sixth man” rather than a starter, as if bringing someone off the bench magically covers for weaknesses in his game. It doesn’t. Come the playoffs, “sixth man” means someone who is among the four wings who play full-time minutes. Which of the players that should be depends on various factors, including psychological factors (who is mature enough to come off the bench without feeling underappreciated). Maybe it’s a player who coheres well with the bench players or something. But it’s not necessarily someone who is less good than the starters; the 6 will play as many minutes as they do and may be just as good as, or better than, some starters. There’s no special reason a “sixth man” needs to be a shooter, or an offensive spark plug, or a microwave, or any of that sportswriter stuff. A team needs four playoff wings, and can only start three, so one is dubbed the sixth man — that’s all.

Because the Sixers have some unusually-flexible players in Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, we could in theory avoid playing backup-quality players at PG and C for 12 minutes each by using Ben as a backup center for 12 (or so) minutes and playing Jimmy at PG for 24. Of course that means we need another 24 minutes of wing play, and as we’ll see , we are short of playoff-wing talent, not overloaded with it. Still, in a scenario where we trade for a wing or wings, the above plan may be optimal. So we need four playoff wings, and if we could have a fifth we could derive great benefit from that, as it would enable us to have a star PG and star C on the floor at all times.

Let’s list the wing players we have and see how close we are to the four playoff-ready wings we need.

1) Jimmy Butler: Jimmy’s picture is in the Basketball Dictionary next to “Playoff Wing”; the only problem with Jimmy is that the Sixes have one of him when they could really use four of five!

Count: 1, or, if we use him to cover 24 PG minutes as discussed above, 0.5 playoff wings. Let’s do the former, so, 1 total so far.

2) JJ Redick: JJ has OK-not-great wing size and poor wing athleticism. He partly makes up for this with a combination of hard work on the court, basketball smarts, and dedicated practice, but even putting all those together he is a major potential defensive liability in the playoffs. The only reason he’s in the discussion is that offensively speaking, he is excellent. My view is that with the magnified impact of poor defense in the playoffs, JJ probably shouldn’t be used for a full 36 minute shift after the first round; i.e. when the Sixers are facing top teams like Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee. Instead, his best use would be as a specialist, someone who is effective against certain matchups, or who can be used in special situations such as late-game offense-defense switching using timeouts, variance-increasing bombs when way behind, or last-possession down-by-three.

Count: 0.5 playoff wings, 1.5 total so far.

3) Wilson Chandler: I was unhappy when the Sixers picked up Chandler. It was great to add a second-rounder, but since we already had a lot of them I felt the marginal value of one more was modest. Hoops writers love to call Chandler a “solid two-way player,” but I questioned this, arguing that it was misleading to call him that when he was below average, based on pretty much every metric I could find, at both ends of the court. Then he got hurt. And since returning from injury, he hasn’t been anything special, and some say he seems overweight or out of shape.

And yet... I’m actually now kind of on board with Wilson Chandler. I focused on defense above, but there’s another element here, which is that Ben Simmons at PG means that basically everyone on the team, with the possible exception of the backup PG, needs to shoot three-pointers well enough to spread the floor. And Chandler, at around 35% in terms of what we can reasonably expect from him, covers that base. I.e. there are a lot of solid defensive wings who I think are better overall players than Chandler, or about as good, but who wouldn’t be likely to succeed here because they clog things up too much. The memory of Trevor Booker is fresh enough that I need not elaborate on this!

As noted above, Wilson Chandler is not a great defender. Let’s say he’s around a 0 or -1 defender, a little below average. His offense isn’t so great that I’m thrilled with that. But that defensive level is not so low that he can be exploited. Maybe come the playoffs his 0/-1 gets magnified by clever opposing coaches into -1/-2 or something — it’s not great, but it’s not a death knell. The Sixers believe in switching everything, and obviously it’s not ideal to have Kyrie Irving on Wilson Chandler. I’d sure rather have Cov in there! But in the end, as with my Conley example above, if the shot the other team gets is a long Irving two contested to the best of his ability by Wilson Chandler, I can live with that. At least until such time as we can execute my dream plan of upgrading to Otto Porter!

Count: He’s no star, not even an average starter like JJ, but I see no reason not to count Wilson Chandler as a legitimate playoff wing, 1.0. 2.5 total so far.

4) Mike Muscala: I really like Muscala as a regular-season player. It’s not obvious to me why he is any worse than, for example, Dario Saric, whom many fans viewed as a quality starter. They shoot the three with similar volume and accuracy, have similar rebound and assist numbers. Dario is a bit more of a threat to score inside, but Muscala is a far better shot-blocker and brings the ability to play both PF and C. They’re similar, and given that Dario helped bring us the magnificent Jimmy Butler, I’m thrilled to have Muscala.

But I fear that Moose, like Dario, will not be able to defend effectively at the PF position in the playoffs. I mean, the Celtics use people like Jayson Tatum at power forward. My worry is not so much that Tatum will blow by Muscala as that he will, you know, dribble around him in circles three times like a shark around its prey, before driving in for the slam. Muscala’s defensive on-off numbers have been strong so far this year, so perhaps my worry is unfounded, but the theme of this article is that the playoffs can be very different.

I do think there’s a good chance that Muscala can play some center in the playoffs; obviously he leaves a lot to be desired as a rim protector, but offensively he enables us to play Ben with four shooters, and against the small-ball lineups seen in the playoffs these days, I think he might work at the 5. There’s a chance he will surprise me and show enough defensive ability to be a playoff wing, but for now I’m treating him as our playoff stretch five and not assuming he can deliver meaningful minutes on the wing in the postseason.

Count: 0 playoff wings, still at 2.5.

5) Landry Shamet: Shamet’s offense appears to be for real, which is super-exciting given his low draft position and low cost. And I don’t think it’s impossible that at some point he is a sufficiently strong defender to merit real playoff run. But right now his defensive RPM is down in the -3 range, and by all accounts the eye test supports this dim view. So I have to predict that he’ll be blown off the floor if we use him much in this season’s playoffs.

Count: 0 playoff wings, 2.5 total. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t really grow from here, so I’ll stop showing it until the end!

6) Furkan Korkmaz: A similar story to Shamet. Some folks are arguing that they’re seeing signs of defensive life from Furkan, and, hey, here’s hoping. But my guess is he’d be cannon fodder if used in the 2019 postseason.

7) T.J. McConnell: He’s not a shooter, so even though we had some success with Ben-TJ lineups against Boston last Spring, I’m going to chalk that up to the element of surprise. I’d like to see us upgrade the backup PG position, as I see TJ as adequate but not good in that role. That said, it seems like TJ always finds a way onto the floor, and most likely the 2019 playoffs will be no exception. But my expectation is that if he plays, it’ll be as the backup to Ben, not as a wing (and not together with Ben so that Ben is able to fill wing minutes).

8) Markelle Fultz: I’m an eternal optimist, so I still have hope for Sixers Markelle! But he’s not playing at this point, he may not be healthy, he may not be willing to play for Philly if he is healthy, he’s not a shooter.... Putting it all together, even an optimist like me can’t count him as a playoff wing.

9) Zhaire Smith: Another one I have hope springing eternal for! I love Zhaire and think he will be a terrific player for us; and specifically I think he’ll be a tremendous playoff wing someday. But he’s been through a lot, and he’s very young, and even non-injured, non-horrible-allergy, non-incredibly-young rookies rarely contribute much in the playoffs.

10) Jonah Bolden: Not impossible! We’ve seen flashes that suggest maybe he can shoot, and flashes that suggest maybe he can defend PFs. Not enough of either kind of flash yet to expect he can be one of our four playoff wings, but he’s in the mix of possibles.

11) Shake Milton: He’s the last guy; Joel is a C, Ben I’m counting at PG and perhaps C, Demetrius Jackson is not good, Amir is a backup C not a wing, plus, though I admire his career hugely, he has played poorly this season. Justin Patton is a center, is injured, and has yet to show any evidence he’s an NBA player. That makes 16, with one roster spot empty that means we’ve covered everyone.

Obviously it’s too soon to count on Shake for anything, as he’s played only one NBA game. But let’s make the Case for Shake!

  • He was considered a mid-first-rounder by many prior to his injury in college
  • He shot over 42% from three in each of his three college seasons so appears to be for real as a three-point shooter
  • Has playoff-wing size, at 6’6” with a 7’ wingspan
  • Had incredible on-off stats in college; basically the team fell apart after he hurt his hand and went out for the remainder of the season, which doesn’t prove he’s great but doesn’t NOT prove he’s great, either!
  • Has looked very good in the G-League
  • Didn’t look out of place in his one brief NBA appearance

So how did we get him near the end of the draft? He looked absolutely awful at the combine, both in athletic tests and in the scrimmage, and so he fell down all the draft boards. But after we drafted him, it came out that he... had a broken back! Stress fracture in his back, to be specific. That seems like the kind of thing that might sap a man’s athleticism!

So if the real Shake Milton is the SMU guy, and Combine Shake was just an injured husk of a man, and now we have Real Shake back... well, then, maybe we have a late-lottery talent on our team, a poor-and-maybe-not-so-poor man’s Mikal Bridges, if you will! Like Mikal, Shake is 22, so perhaps more ready to contribute than a typical rookie.

Yeah, I know, I know, he’s too inexperienced, too skinny, and just generally not good enough yet, and perhaps ever. I’m not counting him as a Playoff Wing on our roster; I’m not that crazy!

But, look, the Sixers have 2.5 playoff wings, so we need two more to have a real shot to make the Finals. If we ask who on our roster could be those other wings — and actually be good enough to take us to the next level — it seems to me the most likely are:

  1. Mike Muscala (even if we need him as the backup C for 12 minutes, he could be half a wing too (36 minutes total) if his defense holds up)
  2. JJ, maybe they’ll find a way to cover for him such that he can be a full-time playoff wing, rather than a specialist, without killing us defensively
  3. Zhaire Smith
  4. Shake Milton

I.e. even if both Muscala and JJ solve their defensive issues, which would be a real longshot, we’d be .5 or 1 wing short. As to Zhaire and Shake being next on the likelihood list, your mileage may vary, I can see a case for Markelle, or Shamet, or TJ, or for others. But we need 2 or 3 more Playoff Wings, and while there is promise in the trade and buyout markets, those are highly unpredictable. If we could develop just one more guy internally, it would be a huge step toward where we need to be. Please share your favorite candidates in comments!