The rapidly approaching 2019-20 NBA season is overflowing with intriguing storylines. Near the top in interest is the championship pursuit of a revamped team that never ceases to be interesting even in its dullest moments: the Philadelphia 76ers.
After a 2018-19 season full of personnel changes before being sent home with heartbreak in the playoffs, the Sixers overhauled their roster again. With the addition of Josh Richardson and Al Horford to the starting lineup, new backup point guards in Trey Burke and Raul Neto, another competent backup center in Kyle O’Quinn, a healthy Zhaire Smith and the freshly drafted Matisse Thybulle, there’s a lot to think about.
The rotation and staggering the starters
Brett Brown has more options at his disposal now than in past years. Staggering his starters and two star big men, Al Horford and Joel Embiid, is at the forefront of this increased flexibility. While the combined talent and frightening defensive potential of the two together is exciting for Philly, possibly most importantly, they added a big who can elevate the team when Embiid is off the floor (more on this shortly). Rather than falling off without Embiid, the Sixers can have one All-Star level center on the court at all times. Heavily staggering them should be a priority for Brown.
Brown will (and should) likely experiment with staggering options. One possibility is pairing Ben Simmons and Horford. This can open up the floor for Simmons to cut away from a new stretchy, playmaking center and utilise a run-and-gun style with four shooters around him.
However, staggering a trio of Richardson, Tobias Harris and Horford and a Simmons-Embiid duo may be the best way to go. For a start, it means that the Sixers can better spread out the minutes of their two top passers, Simmons and Horford. With more time away from Simmons, Harris will have a little more free reign to operate as a lead scorer in pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs with Horford, while operating at his optimal position at the 4. Horford will be able to work his versatile magic at the 5 to complete lineups with four or five shooters. Meanwhile, Richardson can neatly step into a secondary/tertiary role and develop a dribble hand-off partnership with Horford.
As for the Simmons-Embiid duo, their limitations as shooters and different preferred pace of play ensures that the fit isn’t seamless. Nevertheless, the talent level is undeniable, as is their performance when sharing the floor over the last two seasons — they boasted a plus-7.9 net rating in 2018-19, and plus-15.5 in 2017-18. (For more analysis of how these stagger patterns can work, read this great piece by LB’s Jackson Frank.)
For the overall rotation to start the season, I would suggest using something along the lines of the chart below, created by my LB colleague Adam Aaronson in this quality article (made using the excellent new “Rotations” tool at earlybirdrights.com).
Before moving onto offensive and defensive specifics, there are a few components of the rotation in particular that are worth covering.
Ensuring the team is in prime health for the playoffs is essential, and holding Embiid’s minutes lower than last season’s average of 33.7 per game would be a good way to start. Based on the comments of Embiid and the team at Sixers media day, it sounds like there will be more emphasis on limiting his nightly minutes, rather than his overall games. With Horford, that’s easier than ever. And as you can see from the above rotation chart, it’s fairly easy to limit their time together.
As Adam also mentioned in his article, there are two positional battles on the bench to keep an eye on:
- Backup point guard: Raul Neto is the better defender, while Trey Burke is more adept offensively with his ability off the dribble (something that was absent on the bench with McConnell as a backup). They should expect similar minutes early on while Brett Brown sees what he has to work with, and there’s room for both to have secondary ball handling duties through the season. Whether Brown develops a clear go-to choice or if there’s much variance depending on matchups (Burke’s poor defense will be exposed more against teams with multiple dynamic guards to cover) will be worth monitoring.
- Reserve wings: Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle should both be able to contribute a handful of minutes, given how their defensive skillsets can help the team. Thybulle also has a more proven history than Zhaire when it comes to three-point shooting. Thybulle shot 35.8 percent from deep on four attempts per game through his four years at college, along with a 78.2 free throw percentage. Despite having plenty of confidence when returning for six games last season and in Summer League this year (as did Thybulle), Zhaire’s shooting is encouraging but he’s still coming off 40 total three-point attempts in college. How these young guards utilize their high IQs and prove themselves as shooters will be vital in increasing their minutes. Any increase in their minutes will likely take time from James Ennis, the established veteran who will almost certainly lead the three in playing time to start the season.
Rankings last season after Jimmy Butler arrived: 112.6 offensive rating (6th), 102.4 pace (8th), 64.5 assist percentage (5th), 14.2 turnover percentage (22nd), 28.3 offensive rebound percentage (8th)
“Hear me loudly, we will end up playing smash-mouth offense and bully-ball defense,” Brett Brown said at last week’s media lunch when describing the play style of his new-look Sixers, per The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann.
Brown knows how imposing his massive starting lineup is. Smaller defenders have nowhere to hide now. Point guards will likely be forced to cover Josh Richardson, the smallest starter at 6’6”. Even though one of the main ways for Richardson to improve next season is through reducing his usage after he served as a number one option in Miami, there are going to be times through drives and occasional post-ups where opponents can't keep up physically. Philly already had a major size advantage against Toronto in the second round of last season’s playoffs that gave the eventual champions trouble.
That said, there are concerns that come with the Sixers’ supersized starting unit. Firstly, the offensive fit of Horford and Embiid when they share the floor is far from perfect. As much as staggering to limit their time together will help, it can’t fix everything.
For one, running pick-and-rolls with Horford will be harder with the starters. There simply won’t be as much space with both Embiid and Simmons around. Horford will need to spend more time operating from the arc, where he’s effective but doesn’t possess a ton of gravity and can’t use his own interior skill and post play as often. And most importantly, with another big and no ball handling wings like Butler, there’s the concern of less perimeter creation.
Perimeter creation and closing games
This is the Sixers’ biggest problem heading into next season. Butler’s creativity can’t be matched by anyone on the roster.
“Joel Embiid is our crown jewel,” Brown said when discussing the Sixers' crunch-time options at his media lunch, per Hofmann. “Mightn’t we say based on a matchup, you’ve got Al Horford, or Tobias, or Ben’s get somebody small … but on first glance, you should hear about the crown jewel belief and you should hear about I am completely aware we have other possibilities.”
Going to Embiid will work sometimes. He's one of the league's top post players and Philly’s best scorer scorer, fresh off a 27.5-point-per-game season. He also continued to improve his decision-making and awareness as a passer last season. The problem is that it's much easier to send double teams to players in the post, particularly when a game or key possession is on the line and defenses are doing all they can to remove their opponent’s top option.
When Zach Lowe asked Embiid on the last episode of The Lowe Post podcast if he can consistently dominate in crunch time as a big man, Embiid replied, “I believe so, but it’s harder. That’s why this summer was focused a lot on my handles and my shot off the dribble." Even if he's made those improvements, Embiid can't be dumped with the ball every time.
This is where others need to step up. Growth from Simmons as a scorer will help get the Sixers through games, but he won’t become a closer without a reliable jumper or an increased free throw percentage. Richardson is a complementary ball handler, but shouldn’t be asked to lead an offense.
Tobias Harris is the main player in question here.
There are several improvements besides his three-point percentage that Harris can make to his game, such as sharpening his ball handling and playmaking, which I looked at fully here. More pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off opportunities will help him look more like his Clippers self as well, showing the kind of offensive versatility he had to cut back on with Butler around.
It’s more than fair to expect Harris to return to his best and turn in an impressive 2019-20 campaign. That’s what I’m expecting. Creating as a No. 1 option against an opponent’s top wing defender is another matter, though. Harris isn’t nearly the ball handler, passer, driver or foul-drawer that Butler is. Philly’s defense won’t always have them ahead late in games either.
How Harris carries the creative scoring load with Embiid will play a key role in the Sixers’ playoff run.
Three-point shooting and five-out lineups
Horford is a fine shooter. He’s made 38.2 percent of his threes over the last three seasons. The drawback is that he’s only attempted 3.2 per game in this span and most of his attempts are when he has plenty of time to pull the trigger (202 of his 203 3-point attempts last season were open or wide open). To pull defenders out as much as possible and maximize space from the 4 for Embiid and Simmons, Horford will need to pose more of a threat by upping his attempts.
While he still won’t have tons of gravitational pull, this is one of the ways the Sixers can make their three-point shooting and collective fit of the starters a little better than some might think.
Harris is essential to this, too. After shooting just 33.3 percent from three in his first run as a Sixer (regular season and playoffs), returning to top form (42 percent from three through 2017-18 and the start of 2018-19 in L.A.) alone would make him look far better.
A huge new weapon for the Sixers is having a center in Horford who can space the floor and pick-and-pop to the arc. Unlike Mike Scott-Ben Simmons frontcourts from last season which couldn’t hold up defensively, the Sixers can now run out Simmons with four shooters, or five-out lineups with Horford at center (for instance, Burke-Richardson-Thybulle-Harris-Horford or Burke-Richardson-Harris-Scott-Horford). Horford can stretch the floor and also serve as a pick-and-roll player who can dive to the rim and make high-level reads out of short rolls (and on the move against closeouts). This will look particularly dangerous when he’s surrounded by four shooters, and provides a totally new dynamic to the offense.
Richardson’s three-point shooting will be valuable, too. He’s shot 38.5 percent on catch-and-shoot threes on 4.2 attempts per game over the last two seasons, and only saw his overall percentage falter in 2018-19 as his volume (a career-high 6.3 attempts per game) and pull-ups soared — he shot just 0.2 pull-up threes in 2017-18 and 1.6 in 2018-19 (making 28.8 percent). He’s still more comfortable taking shots like those below now. If Richardson’s efficiency can benefit from playing off elite bigs with less defensive pressure and fewer attempts, it’ll go a long way to easing the load on Harris.
Ben Simmons’ off-ball role
“You’re not going to see me put him down (in the dunker spot) at the start of the year,” Brown said when discussing Simmons at his media lunch, per The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. “(You’re) probably going to see him in one of the corners. I’m going to start there and we’re going to encourage him to shoot threes.”
I’m not expecting too much from Simmons’ jumper this season. He has such a long way to go with his touch overall, on floaters, mid-range shots and, obviously, threes. There are plenty of ways for him to improve, from more screening off ball to rim rolling, which I wrote about in detail here. It’s important that Brown is shifting him towards the corners, though, continuing with some of the experimentation away from the dunker’s spot that he implemented more late last season. Simply clearing some space in the paint, even though Simmons won’t command the respect to draw defenders far out, is something.
At Media Day, Simmons spoke with serious confidence when asked about taking corner threes, as LB’s Adam Aaronson noted. “If it’s open, I’ll take it.” If Simmons can show development with his range, this will go a long way in starting the process of the Sixers reaching their more spacious offensive ceiling.
There’s clearly some variance to how good the Sixers’ offense can be. If Simmons takes a step forward, Richardson’s efficiency rises, Harris returns to form and guys like Zhaire and Thybulle are reliable shooters, Philly will be harder to stop. If not — and the lack of Butler’s creation can’t be avoided — the offense will be closer to mediocre.
But for a Sixers team that plans to lead the way with elite defense, they might not be quite as worried.
Rankings last season after Butler arrived: 109.4 defensive rating (15th), 74.4 defensive rebound percentage (5th), 7.4 steals per game (19th), 5.3 blocks per game (11th)
Last season, the Sixers’ defense was dead average after Butler’s arrival, ranking 15th. A few flaws were the main culprits: poor point-of-attack defense against dynamic guards; a drop coverage pick-and-roll scheme that allowed too many open jumpers, with Philly’s rim protectors sitting back and smaller guards failing to beat screens; no reliable center to hold his own with Embiid off the floor; and Robert Covington’s departure (Butler’s often sub-par effort in the regular season didn’t have nearly the same impact).
With their reloaded roster, the Sixers have a real shot to have the NBA’s best defense next season. Their starting unit will be a force to be reckoned with, including four players 6’9” or taller, two elite defensive big men in Horford and Embiid, one of the league’s most versatile defenders in Simmons, and an upgraded point guard defender in Richardson. The rim protection will be almost unfair with Horford and Embiid patrolling the paint together.
Philly’s roster changes addressed several of their key weaknesses.
The non-Embiid minutes
Even with their issues last season, Joel Embiid alone was good enough to lift up the team’s defense. The Sixers recorded a 104.9 defensive rating with Embiid on the floor, which would be good enough to tie with Milwaukee for the best in the league. Without Embiid, that number rose to 110.5, the same as 20th place San Antonio.
The Embiid-less minutes that killed Philly’s defense last season will now (mostly) be taken over by Al Horford. Having such a intelligent, communicative and mobile defender to control the backline of the defense — rather than an out-of-place Jonah Bolden or the plodding feet of Boban Marjanovic or Greg Monroe — is a major improvement for this team. Horford knows exactly where to be at all times and knows just what to do when he gets there. The value of turning porous interior defense without Embiid into a strength with Horford cannot be understated. Having another solid backup center in Kyle O’Quinn will help, too, providing a capable defensive option to manage a few minutes when need be.
Improved pick-and-roll and point-of-attack defense
While Josh Richardson can’t hope to replace Redick’s shooting, he’s a phenomenal upgrade defensively. He's the kind of guard defender Philly was missing. Richardson has good size, length, and quick feet with a high motor (all of which help him fight around screens, unlike Redick or TJ McConnell), plus strong shot-blocking instincts and the versatility to switch across positions 1-3.
Richardson’s arrival will also allow Simmons to spend more time guarding wings, where he’s best suited.
Zhaire Smith can’t be forgotten either. His blend of elite explosiveness, physicality and ability to stick to opposing guards and navigate screens is needed. His offense and three-point shot will determine how many minutes he can earn, but whenever he is on the floor, his defense can help.
At Brett Brown’s coaching clinic event on September 23, new assistant coach Ime Udoka, who will be focusing on defense, shared some insight into how the team will approach next season. He hinted at using more blitzing and aggressive, varied pick-and-roll coverage. “[Embiid and Horford are] two of the best bigs at defending the pick-and-roll and protecting the paint, and guarding smalls on the perimeter,” Udoka said, per NBC Sports’ Noah Levick. “I think our versatility and flexibility there is almost endless. Coming off the bench, as well — with James [Ennis] and some of the young guys we have, we can do multiple things there.”
Some schematic tweaks, tougher guard defenders, and the presence of Horford (an excellent pick-and-roll defender who's also nimble enough to hedge outside and switch onto smaller players), should have the Sixers' pick-and-roll looking noticeably better.
Owning the defensive glass
The Sixers already ranked fifth in defensive rebounding percentage last season. Now, they’re even bigger. While rebounding isn’t a strength of Horford's, the sheer size the Sixers have in their frontcourt now, with Simmons (8.8 rebounds per game last season) and Harris (7.9 rebounds per game) to help, they’ll be incredibly tough to out rebound.
More fast break opportunities
The Sixers ranked 10th in fast break points per game last season, but they limited their opportunities by ranking just 19th in steals. With their new personnel, that should change.
“Turning people over,” Brett Brown said at his media lunch when explaining how the team’s length can help defensively, per Hofmann “And so we can get into, ‘OK, how?’ There’s going to be a premium placed on deflections. Might we blitz more because we got the ability to rotate behind it because we just cover so much ground? Might we get into a little bit more lanes? Might I be a little bit more tolerant on if we might foul some? That’s where my head is at.”
Having Richardson to apply pressure on the ball against guards will help, too. As will the efforts of Zhaire and Thybulle off the bench. Both are high IQ players, with Thybulle in particular possessing terrific instincts to be disruptive off the ball. It’s how he excelled when roaming in Washington’s zone defense, averaging 3.5 steals (and 2.3 blocks) per game last season.
While Thybulle will need to cut down his gambles, he should learn in time and will benefit from only needing to guard weaker assignments — there will be some freedom for him to pounce off the ball. His talent won't disappear just by shifting from a zone to man defense either.
Positional changes to watch
There won’t be many weak links in Philly’s defense, but there are a couple items to watch. With Harris starting at the 3, his limited quickness is going to be challenged more by faster wings. If Harris, a fairly average defender when engaged, is the worst defensive starter and he has elite big men behind him, it’s safe to say the defense is in pretty good shape. Nevertheless, it will be harder for Harris when he’s moved away from the 4. For what it's worth, Harris did say at Media Day that he's been focusing on improving his lateral quickness this summer to help with this, per LB's Adam Aaronson.
In 2017-18, when Horford spent more time at the 4 next to Aron Baynes, the two recorded a plus-12.1 net rating with a stifling 95.5 defensive rating in 863 minutes. Horford has been effective when shifting away from the 5 before and will be extremely well supported, but how successfully he defends quicker forwards through the year is something to watch. Making good use of Harris-Horford frontcourts will be helpful in keeping both at their optimum defensive positions.
Both Brett Brown and Embiid have expressed how much they want the No. 1 seed this summer, and their battle to claim it against Milwaukee will be a close one.
Despite having offensive issues to overcome, upgrades to their overall talent level, depth, defense and lineup versatility with Horford can lead them to the Finals.
I'm predicting that they make it.