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A look at the substitution patterns for the new Sixers rotation

How did Brett Brown initially integrate all his new rotational pieces?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After the first preseason game of this year, I wrote this piece running through the team’s rotation and substitution patterns. This was to get as close of a look as possible at how Brett Brown and his staff were going to manage their new additions to the rotation, most notably Markelle Fultz, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and Landry Shamet.

Well, over four months have gone by since then — and the Sixers have a completely different roster than they did at the start of the year. All four of those new additions are gone, as are former starters Robert Covington and Dario Saric. I didn't imagine having to do another one of these rotation articles until next fall. But here we are...

STARTERS: Ben Simmons - JJ Redick - Jimmy Butler - Tobias Harris - Joel Embiid

First Quarter

12:00: Starters

(Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid)

It’s obvious how well this lineup is going to perform. Even in their first game together, they were dominant against a tremendous Denver Nuggets team. But it will be complicated —this is a group of five players used to having offenses centered around them. We know Ben Simmons will have the ball in his hands the most, and we know that the Sixers will continue to go to their JJ Redick-Joel Embiid actions that have been consistently successful. So where does that leave Butler and Harris? We’ve seen Butler typically take a passive approach when playing with the starters before turning up his usage later in the game. And Harris, aside from the occasional post-up against a mismatch, was mostly limited to being a spot-up shooter when he was playing with the rest of the starters. While this likely was at least in part due to his unfamiliarity with the group, it would stand to reason that even when fully integrated with the offensive style of the group, he wouldn’t be a priority over Simmons or Embiid and Redick. It will be interesting to follow as the weeks go on, particularly once the team returns from the All-Star Break, how much Jimmy and Tobias are used when this lineup is on the floor.

5:45: James Ennis for Redick, Boban Marjanovic for Embiid

(Simmons, Ennis, Butler, Harris, Marjanovic)

The Sixers have always liked to take out Redick and Embiid relatively early so that they can re-enter towards the end of the quarter. Typically, the Sixers struggle greatly with those guys off the floor. But now, when the Sixers take out their best, most synergetic duo, they are still left with two or three excellent players on the floor.

(If you’re interested in reading about the tandem of Redick and Embiid, Jackson Frank wrote this in August about how the two mystify defenses.)

Ennis immediately becoming the first perimeter player off the bench was a pleasant surprise — and he was solid in his Sixers debut, knocking down both of his 3-point attempts and playing hard-nosed defense. He even had a T.J. McConnell-esque backcourt steal!

As for Boban Marjanovic, there will be some talk in regards to the backup center spot later on.

4:04: Mike Scott for Harris

(Simmons, Ennis, Butler, Scott, Marjanovic)

The Sixers always had one of Harris or Scott on the floor tonight, and they never played together. Brett Brown hinted before the game at wanting to get Harris looks at both the three and the four, but it was only the four tonight. Scott didn't do anything worth writing home about, but having a legitimate stretch four in there at all times will be valuable, especially for Embiid and Simmons.

2:44: T.J. McConnell for Simmons, Redick for Ennis, Furkan Korkmaz for Butler, Embiid for Marjanovic

(McConnell, Redick, Korkmaz, Scott, Embiid)

Redick and Embiid checked back in here, as the pair always does in the last few minutes of the first quarter. McConnell replaced Simmons as the point guard and lead ball-handler, also what you would expect. What I’m curious about here is the minutes Korkmaz occupied. Jonathon Simmons, just acquired from Orlando for Markelle Fultz, was not available tonight. And I’d imagine that Korkmaz’s minutes (he logged 12 total) will belong to Simmons as soon as he’s ready to go, which presumably would be today against the Lakers. We all love a good Korkmaz game, but I think the time has come to acknowledge that he just isn't going to be a valuable contributor of any kind on this team.

Second Quarter

12:00: Butler for Korkmaz

(McConnell, Redick, Butler, Scott, Embiid)

Butler coming in at the beginning of the second quarter instead of a few minutes into it was a tweak to the rotation that, to my eye, began on Christmas in Boston. And there is a minor cost for them — as you’re going to see soon, the Sixers found a spot to shave a few minutes of Butler’s playing time to make up for this earlier substitution.

8:22: Simmons for McConnell, Ennis for Redick, Harris for Scott, Marjanovic for Embiid

(Simmons, Ennis, Butler, Harris, Marjanovic)

It’s clear when you watch the Sixers for an extended period of time that while Redick and Embiid are not the two best players on the team (Joel is obviously one of them, JJ is not), they are the team’s best pair. Whether it be dribble hand-offs, Redick’s surprisingly great screening, or other actions Brett Brown has implemented for the two, they are always on the same page, and it’s terrifying for opposing defenses.

But this lineup, without Redick or Embiid, was the one that made a massive push in the second quarter, getting the lead all of the way up to 16 points at one point. Seven days ago, that occurrence would have been unheard of — but this is why the Sixers went out and got Tobias Harris. Because as I said earlier, even when their best duo is off the floor, the Sixers made a run thanks to their trio of other stars being on it.

4:07: Redick for Ennis, Embiid for Marjanovic

(Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid)

Nothing atypical here, as the Sixers get the Redick-Embiid combo back in to close the half.

2:50: Korkmaz for Butler

(Simmons, Redick, Korkmaz, Harris, Embiid)

I mentioned at the start of the second quarter that after borrowing a few extra Jimmy Butler minutes, the Sixers would give them back — and here is where that happens. This was an interesting wrinkle added to the rotation a handful of weeks ago, but this is the first time I can remember them going to it in at least a couple of weeks. This is a creative, and smart, strategy — it gets all of the best players more touches. Butler gets the ball more in those few minutes in a unit with a mix of starters and reserves than he would in a few with the entire starting lineup, and the other starters get more shots without Butler in to close the half. A clever tactic here from Brett Brown.

Third Quarter

12:00: Butler for Korkmaz

(Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid)

The starters back together to open the second quarter, nothing of note here.

6:11: Ennis for Redick, Marjanovic for Embiid

Simmons, Ennis, Butler, Harris, Marjanovic

4:33: McConnell for Simmons, Scott for Harris

(McConnell, Ennis, Butler, Scott, Marjanovic)

2:45: Redick for Ennis, Korkmaz for Butler, Embiid for Marjanovic

(McConnell, Redick, Korkmaz, Scott, Embiid)

In the third quarter, the Sixers go with essentially the same exact substitution pattern as they do in the first quarter, so nothing to elaborate on here.

Fourth Quarter

8:44: Simmons for McConnell, Harris for Scott

(Simmons, Redick, Korkmaz, Harris, Embiid)

Once again, the Sixers opt to put out the four non-Butler starters with a bench wing — who in the future will likely be Jon Simmons, not Korkmaz.

8:04: Ennis for Redick, Butler for Korkmaz, Marjanovic for Embiid

(Simmons, Ennis, Butler, Harris, Marjanovic)

In the first half, this lineup was dominant — and while it wasn't as good here, they only were outscored by one, leaving a tie game for the final four minutes with the starters.

4:09: Redick for Ennis, Embiid for Marjanovic

(Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid)

I was surprised by how long Brett Brown was willing to go with Ennis and Marjanovic out there without calling a timeout to get Redick and Embiid in the game. But when you have Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris out there already, maybe it isn't worth burning a timeout in that spot anymore, when a week ago it might have been absolutely necessary.

The starters could not have closed out this game in a better fashion — not only were they in sync on offense, with each player making contributions on that end down the stretch, but they were excellent defensively against a Nuggets team that ranks third in the NBA in Offensive Rating. Despite Jimmy only being here for a few months and Tobias only being here for a few days, they looked like a group that had been together for years. They nailed every switch, every rotation, and anything else you could have asked for.

For more on the offensive firepower that is this lineup, my colleague Sean Kennedy wrote a tremendous piece running through every play the Sixers ran down the stretch.

Final Observations

A few additional thoughts I had that I couldn't fit in above:

  • Boban Marjanovic logging all of the backup center minutes, leaving Jonah Bolden strapped to the bench, was surprising. It’s well-known that Boban can only be used in very specific situations — he struggles mightily to defend in space, as his lateral quickness is, quite frankly, non-existent. But here is what isn't as well-known: when Boban is able to play, he is on a per-minute basis one of the most productive players in the NBA, if not the history of the NBA. It’s a bizarre dynamic that I’m not sure I've seen before. His massive frame makes him at times completely unstoppable on both ends, as well as a rebounding machine.

So, what does this mean for Bolden and the backup center spot as a whole? Well, I think who backs up Embiid will be primarily a matchup-based decision, and if I had to guess, Jonah will probably get the nod more often than Boban because of his undoubtedly better perimeter defense and overall mobility. But when the Sixers play a team whose big man rotation is mostly comprised of slower players who aren’t threats on the perimeter, expect them to look to capitalize on the opportunity to put Boban in the game. Even though he wasn't particularly good against Denver, he does have the ability to shift a game in his team’s favor.

  • When T.J. McConnell and Ben Simmons shared the floor last season, the Sixers had a poor Net Rating of -2.8 according to Cleaning The Glass, a number that ranked in the 35th percentile. And this year it’s been even worse — the duo of non-shooting point guards has a Net Rating of -3.1, which falls in the 31st percentile. But finally, those lineups may be coming to an end. Simmons and McConnell logged zero minutes together against the Nuggets — every second of the game that Simmons was out, McConnell was in, and vice versa. And this is exactly how it should be. I have significant concerns about McConnell’s role in the rotation; and while it’s absolutely up for debate whether or not Elton Brand and company should look for a new backup point guard, what is not up for debate is that T.J. should never be on the court at the same time as Ben.

What did you like (and not like) from what you saw in the first game of the era of the big four? Let us know in the comments section.

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