Editors Note* Trevor Booker has officially been waived since this article was published.
Shams Charania of Yahoo! Sports has reported that the Sixers are finalizing a deal to bring back forward Ersan Ilyasova in a move clearly designed to address the lack of front court floor spacing off the bench. Ilyasova becomes the second buyout-market addition that the Sixers have picked up by way of the Atlanta Hawks joining reserve guard Marco Belinelli. The two moves indicate that the Sixers are intent on addressing their bench issues by adding shooting. While the additions of Ilyasova and Belinelli certainly address the floor-spacing issues that have plagued the second unit, they also introduce new challenges and potential pitfalls that Head Coach Brett Brown will have to navigate.
First, a bit of speculation. It appears likely that Trevor Booker will be the odd man out with the team looking to clear a space to bring on Ilyasova.
If the Sixers sign Ersan Ilyasova (as has been reported), sources say that Philadelphia may waive Trevor Booker. Plenty of NBA teams, especially contenders, are monitoring that situation. If waived, Booker would receive plenty of interest as a free agent.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) February 26, 2018
Booker has provided toughness and hustle off the bench, but his inability and unwillingness to shoot from long distance makes him a poor fit next to the other bigs on the Sixers’ roster. Ilyasova will be coming in to do virtually the exact opposite, and it’s likely that he’ll simply absorb the minutes that Booker has been getting, and play somewhere between 13-18 minutes a night for the Sixers. Belinelli has already averaged a whopping 26.8 minutes in his first 5 games with the team, and while his playing time may dip slightly down the stretch, it’s clear that he’ll be playing significant minutes on a nightly basis. All of this paints the picture that Belinelli and Ilyasova will share the floor a decent amount, which is convenient because we can look at lineup data from this season’s Hawks team (courtesy of NBA.com/stats) to learn a bit about what a unit looks like when it features both players.
Admittedly, the sample size of Belinelli and Ilyasova on the court together is relatively small, but it points to some interesting conclusions that Brett Brown will surely be cognizant of when deploying his rotations. The Belinelli/Ilyasova combination manifested itself in the form of various lineups over a total of 309 minutes across 40 games with the Hawks this season. Over the total of those 309 minutes the Hawks came away with a net rating of -7.9, which on the surface isn’t great, but also doesn’t tell the whole story- we need to dive deeper. What stands out most when looking at Ilyasova/Belinelli alongside a variety of lineups is the stark difference in production when they play alongside a rim protector as opposed to playing without one. In the case of their time on the Hawks, that presence came in the form of Dewayne Dedmon. During the small sample size of 70 minutes in which Ilyasova and Belinelli played alongside Dedmon, the currently bad at basketball Atlanta Hawks posted a positive net rating of 2.7. Additionally, Ilyasova and Dedmon graded out as being the most productive combination on the Hawks of any duo that played more than 150 minutes together, with the Hawks posting a net rating of +9.1 in the 227 minutes the two big men played together.
Small sample sizes of data have to be looked at within the context of a host of different factors, and can’t be accepted as a sole indicator of performance. They do, however, operate well as a supplement to what the eye test already tells us. It doesn’t take a world-class scout to notice that Ilyasova provides little rim protection, and Belinelli is prone to getting beat off the dribble. The net ratings alongside Dedmon simply underscore the intuitive thought that Ilyasova and Belinelli work much better alongside a rim protector, and that the duo can contribute to some pretty poor defensive lineups when that presence isn’t on the floor with them.
Which brings us to the Sixers, and the rotation they can deploy at the 5. The Sixers have arguably the best defensive anchor in the league in Joel Embiid, and as with every other player on the roster Ilyasova and Belinelli would look their best alongside him. However, the Sixers need the newly acquired tandem to produce with bench units oftentimes when Embiid will be off the floor. It stands to reason that Brett Brown will opt to deploy Amir Johnson alongside them as Richaun Holmes’ defense and rim protection have been a sore spot amongst the coaching staff this year. While there’s no question that Amir fights hard and uses his veteran experience to his advantage on the defensive end, he’s actually allowing a slightly higher opponent FG% in <6ft at 56.1% than Holmes is at 54.9%, albeit on more attempts. While it appears likely that Brown will initially opt to go with Johnson in these situations, if he fails to adjust to the increased defensive pressure that comes with Ilyasova and Belinelli, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Brown gave Holmes a shot due to Richaun’s athleticism and ability to block shots from the weak side.
Aside from the challenges they’ll face without a rim protector behind them, the Ilyasova/Belinelli duo will likely play many of their minutes with T.J. McConnell and one of Simmons/Anderson/Covington with the occasional JJ Redick, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jerryd Bayless appearance. The reality is that in order to make a substantial impact during the home-stretch of the season, Belinelli and Ilyasova are going to have to shoot the long ball at a high clip in order to clear driving lanes and offset the negative impact they’ll have on the defensive end.
While there is plenty to be optimistic about regarding their addition, it will place a hefty defensive burden on Amir Johnson while testing Brett Brown’s creativity and possibly affording Richaun Holmes an opportunity to change the narrative surrounding his defensive abilities. I’ll be keeping an eye on lineup data relating to Ersan and Marco as the season progresses to monitor how Brown deploys the duo, and identify the units with which they find the most success.