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Don’t Put the Fault on Our Stars: Sixers Must Improve Bench Unit

If the Sixers want to compete in the deepest Eastern Conference in years, they can not wait to upgrade their bench

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to national media headlines, big personalities in a big market can lead to a perfect storm of drama for an imperfect team to handle. While the speculation over the chemistry and fit between the teams’ stars can create a lot of negative noise around the team, the Sixers have quietly been one of the best offenses in the NBA since acquiring Jimmy Butler. Their starting lineup boasts the second best Net Rating of any lineup that’s played over 200 minutes together.

Nagging injuries and illnesses have limited that five-man group to just 205 minutes together over 17 games across a 28-game stretch since Butler first took the floor in a Philadelphia uniform. During that period, the Sixers have gone 18-10, a pace that would yield 53 wins over an 82-game season.

Despite the on-court blow-ups and Woj Bombs, the Sixers for the most part are succeeding with their flawed but talented triumvirate. They’re a game and a half back of third place in the deepest Eastern Conference in years, and have been one of the better offenses in the league since the Butler trade. Once you take a step back and look at the history of rosters with this much star power, you see a litany of teams where the stars don’t completely align, but talent eventually wins out.

Looking at recent history, teams with a trio as talented as Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid typically at least advance to the Conference Finals, and often find themselves playing into June. Where the Sixers can’t match recent Conference Finalists is the impact of the players that they bring off the bench.

In the summer of 2016, the NBA’s salary cap had a massive spike, jumping from $70 million to $94 million, ushering in a new era of team building and roster construction, an era in which we are still living today.

The chart above takes the Win Share per 48 and Offensive and Defensive Box Plus/Minus averages of each bench contributor on a conference finalist in those two seasons, and pits them against the Sixers’ current crop of regular rotation subs.

According to Basketball-Reference, Win Shares per 48 calculates the amount of wins that a player adds to his team over 48 minutes on the court, with league average being .100. Were the Sixers to advance to the Conference Finals as currently constructed, they would be the first team in the current era to get there without a bench player who was above the league average in this metric.

In fact, only the 2016-2017 Celtics advanced that far with only one regular bench contributor above that threshold for the full season. However, they received excellent contributions in the second half of the season and playoffs from then-rookie Jaylen Brown.

The Box Plus/Minus scores calculate how many points per 100 possessions a player adds or saves on both offense and defense. While the Sixers bench players hold their own offensively compared to the averages of the last two years (save Jonah Bolden’s -4 OBPM, which would be the worst of any player in this sample), their defensive numbers should be of much concern when the playoffs roll around and teams begin seeking out negative defenders.

Last season, Boston successfully targeted negative defenders like Marco Belinelli and Dario Saric, and with Kyrie Irving back to full strength, the C’s would feel awfully good about singling out Furkan Korkmaz, T.J. McConnell, and Landry Shamet if the teams met once again in the spring.

The Sixers’ bench isn’t just weak compared to successful teams of the past, it also pales in comparison to those of their Eastern Conference rivals. The East is widely regarded as a five-team race, and each team is talented enough that they could conceivably make it all the way to the NBA Finals. Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana, and Boston all have at least three bench players that exceed the .100 league average for Win Shares per 48.

Some write off the bench issues, noting that the Sixers have enough top-line talent to beat anyone in the East once the rotations tighten up in the playoffs. While this might hold some truth on face value, there are still some major flaws with that thought process. Although the rotations typically shrink in the playoffs, even if each team was to shrink its rotation all the way down to eight players, the Sixers still find themselves giving minutes to a handful of below average players, especially compared to who their opponents could bring off the bench.

Contrary to what LeBron James was able to do the last few seasons, the Sixers do not have the luxury of activating Zero Dark 23 and rolling through the Eastern Conference playoffs regardless of seed or opponent. In a deeper conference than ever, home court in the first round still might not cut it. The Sixers don’t want to find themselves sitting in a 4th versus 5th seed first round slugfest with another heavyweight. In the current standings, the 1.5 game difference between the 3rd seed Pacers and 4th seed Sixers is the difference in playing 20-20 Miami, or meeting the 25-16 (and surging) Celtics.

So far this season, the Sixers have sat idle and watched Patrick McCaw go to the Raptors and Austin Rivers sign with the Houston Rockets, in addition to sitting still as Kelly Oubre, Trevor Ariza, and Justin Holiday were moved for minor return. This has all happened while Empty Roster Spot continues to put up 0 points per game.

Last year, the Sixers won big on the buyout market and got huge contributions from Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova off the bench. It would be a mistake for Elton Brand to assume that success will be easily replicated this year, so the onus should be on Brand to explore all avenues when looking how to upgrade the bench. If not, this season could quickly become a failure. Although none of the players moved so far this year are perfect, they are all upgrades over an empty chair on the bench.

(Note: Basketball-Reference data is prior to the team’s January 11 game against Atlanta.)

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