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How the Sixers could Optimize Playoff Rotations

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Brett Brown will have quite the task figuring out exactly how to deploy playoff shifts.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been working on an article about the Sixers’ playoff rotations, and what keeps jumping out at me is that one question dominates the conversation: who backs up Cov?

Now, to be clear, NBA teams rarely, and almost never in the playoffs, use an old-fashioned “second unit” where each starter has a designated backup who plays behind him. Coaches don’t want to give time to their tenth-best player; plus positions are fluid, etc. I like to think of a rotation with four 12-minute units, where no player plays in more than three of the four groups. Even that is oversimplified of course, but I think that framework provides an attractive combination of capturing most of the real world dynamics while remaining reasonably simple.

In this post we won’t even need to get to that level of detail — hopefully I’ll get down in the weeds like that in a future post. For now, let me just say I’m going to speak in terms of 12-minute “shifts” on the court. You might think of a shift as consisting of two 6-minute sub-shifts, one in each half. Now, of course the shifts don’t have to be 12 minutes; Brown has been using 14-minute shifts for Markelle in close games, two chunks of around 7 each. And who knows, in the playoffs Ben may stay on the court for 40+ minutes. We’ll see. But I don’t want to sweat those details here, so I’ll talk about shifts and we can all recognize that a shift might be 9 or 14 minutes rather than 12 on any given night. And of course some shifts may be split, either to keep more guys sharp or to exploit matchups. Still, we have to start somewhere, so let’s start with this sort of shift breakdown.

So, the team has 4 x 5 = 20 shifts to fill since 4 x 12 = 48 minutes. Let’s assume the key players are healthy since the alternative is too unpleasant; so Dario’s elbow is 100%, Masked Joel is just as magnificent as Regular Joel, etc. Then we’re looking at:

Joel: 3 shifts

Dario: 3

Cov: 3

JJ: 3

Ben: 3

Total from starters: 15 shifts

What else can we fill in? Well, Markelle has looked good so assuming he continues to play at this level or, better, continues his steady improvement, he will continue to get the shift when Ben is off the floor.

We know a big man will back up Joel. There are actually three possibilities here. I am a big fan of Amir Johnson’s great-D, high-BBIQ, low-usage game, but the Free Richaun movement feels his energy and dunks have as much or more value. And then there’s Ersan, who both last year and this has done a solid job when asked to back up in the middle. So, I’ll put this shift on some lists as going to “Amir*” by which I mean, probably Amir, but possibly Ersan or Richaun, or split among them.

How about SG? It’s clear that Brown will use Marco Belinelli to backup JJ Redick. I wrote at length about my concerns — indeed, GRAVE concerns — with Marco and some folks have wondered how I like Marco now that he’s done so many great things for us. Here’s the answer:

1) As I said in my Marco Series, Marco has historically been a good-not-great offensive player who shoots well; around 37-38% from 3 and 47% from 2 on average, with plenty of volume. He is a terrible defensive player, as best i can tell; not saying he doesn’t try, but he appears to lack the athleticism and the instincts to be effective at that end.

2) Putting it all together, I see him as a player who, historically, has added -3 points per 48 minutes, which is very poor.

3) Since joining the Sixers, Marco has hit just under 39% from 3 and just over 63% from 2. Since he takes about 9 of each per 100 possessions, his slightly-above-his-norm three-point shooting is adding a fraction of a point per game and his absurdly-good 2-point shooting is adding around 3 points a game.

4) Thus if Marco is doing everything else in its usual way, his tremendous shooting takes him from -3 to a little above zero. And recall it’s not like we had +0 alternatives; Marco’s minutes were coming at the expense of -2 and -3 players, so a little over zero has been an enormous addition!

5) Upshot is, I’m thrilled with what Marco has given us. But, I still have Grave Concerns. Basically, the question is, did Marco become a 63% 2-point shooter in his mid-30s? Unlikely! Or is our scheme just so perfect for him that he can shoot 63% on our team when he was a 47% player with everyone else? Not impossible, but in my view, still unlikely. My guess is he’s just been lucky, or let’s say a fraction of the improvement has been scheme but it’s mostly luck. And the problem is, if he reverts to 47% from two — WHICH IS QUITE GOOD!! — then his poor defense sends him back to being a -3 player. And that could really hurt us in the playoffs.

And that problem is exacerbated by the fact that we now have an alternative, in Markelle Fultz, who is probably somewhere between a -1 and +1 player, and who currently only receives one shift. If Marco is a -3 but the only other choices are injured-and-not-that-great-when-healthy players like TLC and Bayless, well, he’s still helping us. But now I’m less sure. Of course for Markelle to get a second shift, he’d have to play with Ben. More on this below.

So, as before, I’ll be rooting for Beli with all my heart, but I am worried that what we’ve seen from him is not repeatable, and that he’s going to be a big problem in the playoffs. Only one team has LeBron, but every team has the tape of Friday night that shows the blueprint for easy buckets against us: find Marco and get him switched onto your star. Buried deep in the Marco series is the following observation: with great players, offense matters a lot more than defense, as you can make sure Harden or LeBron or whoever has the ball almost all the time, magnifying their offensive impact.

But with bad players, defense matters more than offense, because the other team will ruthlessly exploit a weak defender, whereas there are ways we can minimize the impact of a bad offensive player. Since we as fans pay the most attention to the best players, we tend to think of offense as being what really matters in basketball, and that’s not crazy — with great players, that is usually the case. But on those rare occasions when we focus on the least-good players, we have to remind ourselves that this is flipped, it’s the bad defender who can swing an entire game in a way a bad offensive player rarely will. Recognizing that center is special so this is a bit unfair, we might nevertheless call this the “Lesson of Jah”

So with all that said, the basic Playoff Marco question is, will he get zero shifts, one shift or two? And I feel confident that, unless and until he is brutally exploited, which I hope doesn’t happen, it’s not going to be 0; Marco will get the shift backing up JJ.

So that gives us 19 of our 20 shifts.

Joel 3

Amir* 1

Dario 3

Ersan 1

Cov 3

JJ 3

Marco 1

Ben 3

Markelle 1

Total 19

We’re missing only the final wing shift, the one behind Cov, if we want to think of it that way, though as we’ll see that is not exactly the ideal way to view it. Who could play that shift? We don’t have any perfect choices, but we have lots of choices! First, let’s shorten the list by assuming that Jerryd Bayless, whose wrist is obviously hurt, is not capable of effective action, and that TLC, who is suffering knee tendinitis and who frankly wasn’t great when healthy, is not likely to see high-leverage playoff minutes. BB is not going to start playing Amir or Richaun at PF this late in the season, and it seems clear Furkan Korkmaz is not yet ready for prime time. So that leaves:

Marco Belinelli

Ersan Ilyasova

Justin Anderson

TJ McConnell

Markelle Fultz

Of course I’m not listing guys like Redick here; I already gave him three shifts. If Markelle gets the final shift then JJ may slide over to SF for one of his three shifts, but that doesn’t affect the count. Similarly, Ersan isn’t going to play SF for us. But right now Ersan is only playing 1 or perhaps 2 shifts, he is certainly capable of 2 and probably, despite the advanced age of Arsan Ilyasov, can play 3! So it’s possible we give him a second PF shift and let Dario play SF for one shift.

Let’s look at the possibilities in turn.

Shift goes to: Marco Belinelli

Possible lineup for this shift:

Joel Dario Marco JJ Ben

Main advantages:

  • Marco has the basic size and skills for an SF and has played the position a lot
  • Offers good offense and excellent floor-spreading
  • Still only 2 shifts for Marco under this plan so should have plenty of energy
  • veteran former champion who won’t find any playoff moment too big for him

Main Disadvantages:

  • Terrible defender who may be brutally exploited by opponents

Overall take: This would be the easy, obvious choice for BB but I would prefer more creative options; one shift of Marco is enough for me!

Shift goes to: Ersan Ilyasova, pushing Dario to SF

Possible lineup for this shift:

Joel Ersan Dario JJ Ben

Main advantages:

  • Ersan is really good at basketball, a +1 player vs. -2 to -3 players like Marco and Justin
  • Spreads the floor
  • Solid defender
  • Experienced player, can’t match Marco’s championship experience but is unlikely to panic or to be afraid to shoot

Main Disadvantages:

  • Dario is not a natural SF and may be exploited there

Overall takeaway: I think this would be the best choice against certain teams/lineups. For example, I think we could play this against Indiana when they are using Bojan Bogdanovic at SF; my guess is that Dario is capable of staying with his fellow Croatian. Clearly it won’t work against lineups with ultra-quick SFs; we wouldn’t want Dario match up with LeBron James! Thoughts welcome on what other matchups would make this workable; for example the Sixers may get Washington in Round One, could they play Dario at SF against Otto Porter, or is Otto too quick for the Homie?

Shift goes to: Justin Anderson

Possible lineup for this shift:

Joel Ersan Justin JJ Ben

Main advantages:

  • Natural SF
  • Shoots threes in volume and, while he’s not great at it, he does need to be guarded out there so spreads the floor OK
  • Tenacious, athletic, physical defender, more OK at it than great but “OK” is worth a lot compared to “problematic”; he’s not a defender teams can easily exploit
  • Can sometimes get under the skin of opposing players, possibly negatively affecting their play

Main Disadvantages:

  • Just not a very good player at this point in his career; maybe a little better than Marco, maybe not!
  • No playoff experience, and just generally inexperienced
  • Has been injured a bunch this year and may be injured/unavailable right now

Overall takeaway: Because Marco scored a lot against Cleveland, a lot of people thought he helped us win, but my guess is we’d have won, and with a lot less tension, if a healthy Justin had been out there; in my opinion with a better defender in that spot we wouldn’t have needed the heroics that Marco, to his great credit, provided.

Shift goes to: TJ McConnell

Possible lineup for this shift:

Joel Dario TJ JJ Ben

Main advantages:

  • TJ is a reliable professional, coach out on the floor, all that good stuff
  • TJ is a solid player, average-backup level
  • BB has been using this sort of lineup already, so the guys have some experience with it

Main Disadvantages:

  • Lack of outside shooting and floor spreading, especially as TJ has not been effective from deep since the All-Star break
  • Overall TJ’s play has not been great the past couple months
  • TJ is not a natural fit at SF; on defense he can guard the PG while Ben gets the SF so this is not a disaster but against teams with super-quick players at PG and SF both, could cause problems

Overall takeaway: BB has been using this approach in recent weeks; I haven’t seen the data but it doesn’t feel as though it has worked great.

Shift goes to: Markelle Fultz, pushing JJ or Marco to SF when Cov gets his rest shift

Possible lineup for this shift:

Ersan Dario Cov Markelle Ben

Main advantages:

  • Markelle, even with only a few games under his belt, is probably the second-best player among our choices, after Ersan — quality matters!
  • If he gets this shift it only makes two, so he should have plenty of energy for this

Main Disadvantages:

  • Markelle would be one of the least-experienced playoff participants in NBA history
  • Leaves no minutes for My Main Man Amir Johnson, which would make me sad
  • The big one: since neither Markelle nor Ben shoots three-pointers right now, there’s a question as to whether this lineup can spread the floor well enough

Overall takeaway: I think this is the most attractive option. We have three very strong shooters on the floor here, in Ersan, Dario and Cov. And while you’d rather have four, what we have in addition to the three shooters is two players in Ben and Markelle who put extreme pressure on the defense with their speed and driving ability.

I think this group would be more than adequate offensively. As to defense, Joel needs to get a shift off at some point, and this approach gives him his breather without killing us on D, as the Ben-Markelle-Cov group offers very strong perimeter defense that can at least partially make up for the reduced rim protection. I think Brown tried something like this against Dallas and I’m glad to see he’s thinking along these lines as I believe this lineup has real promise.