It didn’t take long for Philadelphia to warm to Ersan Ilyasova in his Sixers comeback. When he returned for his second stint with the team in February, the offense surged. Joining Marco Belinelli, the backup duo combined for 3.3 made threes a night, catapulting the Sixers from 17th in made threes per game (10.4) before their arrival, to 3rd (12.5) to close the season. Extra shooting and depth were no longer such big concerns, while the option of playing Ilyasova at center helped unlock some of the Sixers’ best small lineups.
Next season, the Sixers will be looking to new backup big Mike Muscala to fill that role. And barring a few differences, Muscala should be more than up to it.
There are a few areas where Ilyasova has an edge. Offensively, it's rebounding that stands out. Ilyasova averaged 2.9 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes last season, well ahead of Muscala’s 1.9. In the first round of the playoffs against Miami, one of Ilyasova’s best weapons was his positioning and persistence to create second chances, grabbing nine offensive rebounds in the first two games alone. His three-point shooting was a nightmare for Hassan Whiteside to deal with, and his work on the glass was a nuisance for Miami’s smaller lineups.
Muscala doesn’t pose the same kind of threat, but he’s at least good for a few putbacks here and there.
Ilyasova has the same edge on the defensive glass, too (7.1 per 36 minutes to Muscala’s 5.9). Despite not being the most athletic player, Ilyasova generally has a knack of where to be, which translates to his stellar charge-drawing ability as well. That’s something Muscala won’t quite be matching either.
Still, Muscala's defense will be reliable enough for what the Sixers need from him. He isn’t an imposing rim protector and obviously can’t come close to the switchability that a forward like Robert Covington provides at the 4 (which should be something the Sixers utilize more often), but Muscala is reasonably agile for his size and won't be a constant target for opponents. You can see from these clips that he’s able to shift his feet fairly well, close out, and bother a few shots:
Defense isn’t the intrigue with a floor-spacing backup like Muscala anyway. That’s what Amir Johnson is getting paid to do.
In 20 minutes per game last season, Muscala averaged 7.6 points and shot 37.1 percent from three on 3.2 attempts (per 36 minutes, that translates to 5.7 attempts with 2.1 makes, which is good volume to have). Muscala’s offensive skill set should fit in seamlessly in the Sixers’ frontcourt rotation, whether he’s spending a little time at the 4 or stepping in at center to create the same four-out shooting lineups that were so effective with Ben Simmons running the show.
While we obviously can’t know exactly how effective new lineups will be until we have a sample of them in action, it’s fairly safe to guess that the Sixers’ Simmons-plus-four-shooters lineups (such as Simmons, JJ Redick, Covington, Dario Saric and Ilyasova) will be effective when swapping Ilyasova for Muscala. The latter has the shooting ability to fit right in. And as Jacob Goldstein’s lineup predictor tool estimates, that should be the case; according to Goldstein’s tool, that exact group with Muscala at center (where he spent 52 percent of his minutes last season) is predicted to have a 111.4 offensive rating and 4.6 net rating. With all of that shooting around Simmons, who has a healthy summer of development under his belt, that kind of effectiveness on offense sounds about right.
Pick-and-pops are an obvious option Muscala brings off the bench. While he shot a scorching 48 percent on corner threes last season to boost his overall three-point percentage (27 of his 62 made threes came from the corners), he still has good range, a fast release, the mobility to get to his spots quickly (for a big), and the ability to gather and shoot on the move enough to be used at the top of the arc with actions like those below. Having a center to serve as a pick-and-pop weapon off the bench is always valuable, especially for a Sixers team with playmakers like Simmons (and Markelle Fultz until he confirms his jumper is fixed) who won’t space the floor.
Another good trait Muscala brings to the Sixers is the ability to move off the ball. He’s active, looking to find space and relocate in order to give teammates windows to target him. Sometimes just a few steps can make a difference between a teammate getting bogged down, or finding someone open for three. Again, this is something that will help out Fultz.
For instance, look at the first possession in this clip — Muscala sees Taurean Prince has lost his dribble, so Muscala shifts away from the corner to create a clear lane for Prince to pass around David West:
Muscala can move well inside the arc, too. There wasn’t much great playmaking around him in Atlanta’s tanking, 26th-ranked offense, but he still found some openings for himself by making smart cuts off the ball or slipping screens to make his way to the basket.
You can see in the first play how Muscala sets an initial screen for Prince, but De’Aaron Fox applies good pressure and Prince has no chance to penetrate. Muscala wisely opts to move in for another pick, but slips the screen after Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein move up to trap Prince, opening the way for Muscala to dive down the lane for a layup:
With all the playmaking the Sixers have to offer, from Simmons and Saric in the starting five, to Fultz and even T.J. McConnell off the bench, Muscala will get the ball on time when he shifts into space. And to add to his shooting and movement, he isn't a bad passer when he needs to be either.
Muscala fits the mold of the Sixers' rather underwhelming, star-free summer perfectly. He doesn't have eye-popping athleticism, ferocious shot blocking, or creative offensive ability to jump off the page when looking over the team’s new roster.
That said, he was a terrific recovery trade target after the Nemanja Bjelica move fell apart in bizarre fashion. Muscala fills a need. One area the Sixers can still stand to improve is some extra shooting, so having Muscala to fill in where Ilyasova left off is key. Philly once again has the same smaller, 3-point heavy lineups available that can let them run certain opponents off the floor in short stretches.
If Muscala provides the majority of what Ilyasova had to offer — and he should — then with a better bench at their disposal thanks also to a healthy Fultz and Wilson Chandler, the Sixers are primed to start the new season stronger than they did a year ago.