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What the preseason opener tells us about this year’s Sixers rotation

Brett Brown left some pretty significant clues Friday night about what this season’s rotation might look like.

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

I spent months and months desperate for the Sixers to return. Friday night, they finally did. I got great seats, only a few rows up from the floor and 15 feet away from where new Sixers general manager Elton Brand was sitting. And what did I do as I watched the game from my seat? I tracked every substitution the Sixers made for the entire game, because I am a crazy person. My goal was to try to figure out how Brett Brown’s rotation will be put together during the upcoming season.

We received a pretty surprising piece of news a few hours before the game, when Brown announced that Markelle Fultz would start over JJ Redick. It seems that Dario Saric and Robert Covington have starting jobs locked in, in addition to team cornerstones Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That leaves the shooting guard spot up for grabs, and despite last year’s extreme reliance on Redick’s shooting, it seems the Sixers hope Fultz proves up to the task.

If the Sixers were to reverse course here and go back to Redick starting with Fultz coming off the bench, I’d expect their spots in the rotation to flip. (Editor’s note: For more analysis of the Redick as a sixth man decision, read yesterday’s piece by Justin Carter.)

The Sixers ran their rotation for three quarters, before going to a lineup of T.J. McConnell, Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, Jonah Bolden, and Mike Muscala (who had played earlier in the game).

One more note to address before we dive in: a lot of people were confused as to how Jerryd Bayless ended up playing 14 minutes. Wilson Chandler only played four minutes after suffering a leg injury, which is expected to keep him out 2-3 weeks. The only reason Bayless played was to fill in for Chandler so the Sixers could keep the rest of their pre-determined rotation intact. So do not worry that the Sixers have plans to play Jerryd Bayless significant minutes this season. For the purpose of helping visualize what the typical rotation will look like, let’s pretend that Chandler never got hurt, and simply accumulated the minutes that Bayless had played.

The Rotation

Starters: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid

First Quarter

6:59: JJ Redick replaces Markelle Fultz, Amir Johnson replaces Joel Embiid.

(Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, Johnson)

- Like last year, the Sixers will sub out their starting shooting guard and center early in the first quarter, with the plan of bringing them back at the end of the quarter.

3:42: Mike Muscala replaces Dario Saric, Wilson Chandler replaces Robert Covington, Joel Embiid replaces Amir Johnson.

(Simmons, Redick, Chandler, Muscala, Embiid)

- In basketball, we often talk about a team’s “second unit”- their best lineup comprised of only bench players. The truth is, the Sixers will never have a true second unit- they will always have at least one, or more likely two, starters on the floor. But this will be the closest you can get to their second unit this year - the two stars in Embiid and Simmons surrounded by three role players who will take up a lot of the bench minutes this season.

2:38: Markelle Fultz replaces Ben Simmons.

(Fultz, Redick, Chandler, Muscala, Embiid)

- With guys like Joel Embiid or JJ Redick, whose workloads are carefully managed due to durability or age, the Sixers try to give them a bunch of shorter stints on the court, instead of just a few long stretches of playing time. But with Simmons, they go the opposite direction. He typically played a small handful of long stints last year, and it looks like that trend will continue. This substitution also represents a change for Fultz - this stint will be one where he will be the true point guard, often having the ball in his hands, as opposed to at the start of the game, when he’s playing off the ball next to Simmons.

Second Quarter

12:00: Robert Covington replaces JJ Redick.

(Fultz, Covington, Chandler, Muscala, Embiid)

- This is certainly an interesting lineup, but not one I’m sure that I trust. The Sixers should be fine defensively with Embiid and Covington, but they have three guys in Covington, Chandler and Muscala who are not creators offensively, and will almost never have plays run for them either. With only one true shot creator and no JJ Redick, I’m nervous that the Sixers’ offense could get a bit stagnant when they go to this group.

9:44: Dario Saric replaces Mike Muscala.

(Fultz, Covington, Chandler, Saric, Embiid)

- This lineup makes more sense than the last one, given the addition of Saric’s shot creation. I think this group strikes a pretty good balance of versatility, shot creation, shooting and defense.

8:49: Ben Simmons replaces Markelle Fultz.

(Simmons, Covington, Chandler, Saric, Embiid)

- Simmons takes over for Fultz a few minutes into the second quarter, giving Fultz somewhere around six minutes to himself as the team’s point guard.

6:45: JJ Redick replaces Wilson Chandler, Amir Johnson with Joel Embiid.

(Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, Johnson)

- Here, the Sixers turn to their starting lineup on a night where Embiid isn’t playing. This is the lineup that started for much of their 16-game winning streak at the end of last regular season.

3:17: Markelle Fultz replaces JJ Redick, Wilson Chandler replaces Robert Covington, Joel Embiid replaces Amir Johnson.

(Simmons, Fultz, Redick, Chandler, Embiid)

- Wilson Chandler gets some run with a few of the starters here, with Covington getting some rest to end the half. I’m interested to see how Chandler does in cases when he needs to fill in for Covington. For example, if Covington needs to sit for a game with an injury, how will Chandler adjust to a different role for one game?

Third Quarter

12:00: Robert Covington replaces JJ Redick, Dario Saric replaces Wilson Chandler.

(Simmons, Fultz, Covington, Saric, Embiid)

- The Sixers go back to their starters to open the second half, as is common practice.

6:33: JJ Redick replaces Markelle Fultz.

(Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, Embiid)

5:57: Amir Johnson replaces Joel Embiid.

(Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, Johnson)

- As they did in the first half, Embiid and [insert starting shooting guard here] get quick runs to open up the second half.

5:22: Mike Muscala replaces Dario Saric.

(Simmons, Redick, Covington, Muscala, Johnson)

- Muscala only got minutes at the four, which is where he naturally fits, but I’m curious to see if he can handle any work at center, even if only against small lineups. With his outside shooting, a lineup with Muscala at center could be pretty exciting to watch offensively.

3:45: Markelle Fultz replaces Ben Simmons.

(Fultz, Redick, Covington, Muscala, Johnson)

- Fultz gets another stint with the ball in his hands here, and I think if this was a regular season game, Embiid would come back in at this point as well.

Fourth Quarter

12:00: T.J. McConnell, Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, Jonah Bolden replace Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Amir Johnson.

(McConnell, Shamet, Korkmaz, Muscala, Bolden)

- Once Brett had seen enough from his rotation guys, he brought in four players who currently don’t project as rotation players to see what they could do. Here are some brief thoughts on each of the four:

- It’s hard for me to believe that T.J. McConnell won’t somehow crack the rotation eventually. He has too long of a track record reliably helping this team for me to really think that he is just going to be a nightly DNP-CD. But even if he does see some time, it is starting to seem increasingly unlikely that T.J. is a member of next year’s team. He is an upcoming unrestricted free agent, and at this point, likely presents much more value to another team, given the presence of Simmons and Fultz in Philadelphia.

- I wasn’t a huge fan of Landry Shamet as an all-around prospect heading into the draft, but am convinced he is a great fit in Philly. He is a smart and active player who just knows what he's doing, and shoots the lights out. His potential both this year and in years to come as a combo guard who can come off the bench, play with or without the ball, and provide shooting next to guys like Fultz and Simmons, seems real.

- It feels like whenever we see Furkan Korkmaz play, he seems much more comfortable than the last time he was on the court. This was never more true than when he lit up the Las Vegas Summer League in a few different games. I’m still somewhat skeptical about how valuable of an NBA player he can be, but one thing is for sure: he can really shoot the ball.

- Jonah Bolden is at least a year away from being a rotation player in my eyes, but it’s hard not to get excited about all of the tools he displays when he's on the court. Bolden is a tall, long big man who blocks shots, protects the rim, projects to be able to switch on defense, runs the floor, displays great athleticism, while showing last year in Israel that he could knock down three-pointers. With that package of abilities, he has the potential to be a Swiss army knife for the Sixers.

In three quarters of gameplay, here is how much action each of the Sixers’ projected rotation players got:

- Ben Simmons: 26 minutes

- Robert Covington: 24 minutes

- Joel Embiid: 23 minutes

- Markelle Fultz: 23 minutes

- Dario Saric: 21 minutes

- JJ Redick: 20 minutes

- Wilson Chandler (and Jerryd Bayless): 18 minutes

- Amir Johnson: 13 minutes

- Mike Muscala: 11 minutes

It’s smart to note that it was just game one of the preseason and nothing is set in stone, but the first three quarters of the game seem to indicate signs of what Brett Brown’s regular season rotation will look like.

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