In a league rife with buzzwords and tropes, none stands out like the phrase “3 and D”. It has become the quintessential ‘holy grail’ of NBA rotational players with teams valuing the long ball and defensive versatility more than ever before. There was once a time, not all too long ago, when proverbial dinosaurs roamed the association, pounding the air out of the ball before hoisting long mid-range jumpers late in the shot clock. Players like Caron Butler (shots fired) commanded touches while opting to fire away from just inside the arc, and they were viewed as the ideal wing- consuming isolation sets and providing supplemental scoring on high volume rates. They would guard who guarded them, run isolation plays and now, much like our dinosaurs, they are an extinct breed. NBA teams are running away from that archetype at breakneck speed, and it’s for good reason. That style was woefully inefficient, and failed to maximize teams’ potential on both ends of the floor.
Today teams are angling to acquire wings who play more like the Sixers’ own Robert Covington: wings who can switch on positions 1-4 defensively, while taking almost all of their shots at the rim and beyond the arc. The less dribbling and isolation the better, teams want their rotation wings to space the floor and play within the flow of the offense rather than disrupt it to take a player 1 on 1. In many ways the Sixers have been ahead of the curve on this with Covington who routinely switches from covering a power forward to smothering a point guard off a pick and roll, and then heads down to the other end to stretch the defense and provide space for the likes of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Covington takes 83.4% of his shots either within 3 feet (17.8%) or beyond the arc (65.6) while using an isolation set on an astonishing 0.5% of his touches tying him with Richaun Holmes for the lowest iso-rate on the team. All of this makes Covington the perfect fit next to the Sixers two young stars, but what happens when he goes to the bench?
The impact of Joel Embiid on both ends of the floor, and the mammoth let down that is felt when he heads to the bench, has been well documented and deservedly so. While it doesn’t get nearly the same level of publicity, the Sixers suffer a significant drop in production when Covington leaves the floor as well. With Covington the Sixers have an offensive rating of 108.5 and a defensive rating of 101.2 (would rank 7th and 1st league wide respectively), while those numbers drop to 100.8 OFFRTG and 106.3 DEFRTG without him. His contributions on the offensive side are positive and he fits great with Simmons in particular, but it is his multi-positional versatility and production on defense that the Sixers really can’t replicate with anyone else right now. Covington gives you the ability to play like this
The Sixers have no one off the bench that can mimic what Covington brings to the lineup, and it shows when he’s out. The team loses the ability to switch at the same level and it leads to them getting killed on pick and rolls and perimeter mismatches. Getting a player who could give you some of the same things Covington does, especially on defense, would go a long way to shoring up the bench.
With their sights set on pursuing a big time talent in free agent, all signs point to the first round pick the Sixers are due to receive from the Lakers (barring a serious collapse in Los Angeles down the stretch) being their most likely avenue to acquiring a 3&D wing. The pick will likely fall between 10-12, which narrows the field down and leaves us with a prospect who stands head and shoulders above other potential options in terms of fit. Villanova’s Mikal Bridges would be an ideal acquisition at this point in time, filling in one of the biggest gaps in the Sixers’ rotation, and coming in ready to contribute right away. Look at the ways in which he mimics Covington’s
A) multi-positional defensive versatility
B) ability to stretch the floor
C) shot selection- he gets his buckets at the rim and beyond the arc taking nearly half of his shots from 3 point range while knocking them down at 42%.
D) And most intriguingly his ability and tendency to avoid isolation sets and play within the offense.
Bridges is by no means a finished product (his shot is solid, but still relatively new), and he’s a bit older than many of his other likely lottery counterparts (he’ll be 22 by opening night next season), but he checks all the boxes for the Sixers’ biggest need. There has been whispers surrounding his game that all sound like “well this is his first season shooting 3’s above 40%, can we trust it or is it a fluke?” and I would immediately point to the fact that he 1) shot 39.3% from deep on over 3 attempts per game last season and 2) he’s a good free throw shooter at 84.5% on over a 100 attempts this season. Those statistics coupled with the eye test indicating to me that his mechanics are fluid and consistently improving tells me that his shot is going to translate to the next level.
In many ways Bridges fits what the Sixers do and what they’ll need next season better than any prospect in the draft top to bottom. Imagine the Sixers being able to send a rotation of Covington, Simmons and Bridges at opposing wings for the entire 48+ minutes of a game- it would be a counter punch to some of the most dynamic perimeter attacks in the league. All at once Bridges gives the Sixers a reliable bench option on the wing immediately, as well as a potential star who’s progression rate shows no signs of slowing down. Not too long ago it looked like Bridges would be waiting for them right in that 10-12 range, but he’s become a hot commodity recently, and the Sixers may find themselves in a situation where they would need to package something together to move up a few spots to get him(potentially the lakers pick and their own first rounder). All signs indicate that it could be well worth it for them to do so.