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With or without you: examining some early data splits on the Sixers starting 5

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Sixers’ GM Elton Brand made some big swings before the trade deadline the new additions (like Tobias Harris and Mike Scott ) have not had a ton of time to gel with the incumbent stars (Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons). But the early returns have been special. In 7 games of action with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick in the lineup the team is 6 and 1. They’re 12-5 with any four of those 5 players in the starting unit since the trade back on February 7th. Across their 116 minutes on the floor together they’re a +52. That +- number is second since the trade was made only to the Portland Trailblazers’ top unit. Not bad.

But the playoffs are getting closer and because the team does not have a ton of depth behind their big five, head coach Brett Brown won’t always want to have them all on the floor together. That would mean really getting outplayed when he rested a few of them. Instead he likes to break up their minutes into combinations.

Let’s take a look at some splits data regarding how each individual member of the starting unit impacts his teammates when he’s on or off the floor. Keep in mind our samples are very small and these will be very noisy. But because the playoffs are so close, it’s worth exploring to see if it’s possible to gleam any signal for something that might work down the stretch.

And remember, we’re not alone. Other teams are forced to do the same.

The Bucks, the team with the best record in the NBA recently lost a key starter in Malcolm Brogdon for 6-8 weeks with a minor tear in his foot, then tried to adjust on the fly to filling his minutes. As we saw on Sunday in the Sixers’ big win in Milwaukee, “The Deer” were attempting to switch from a combo-guard in the starting lineup to a stretch 4 in Nikola Mirotic. A big change. But now they won’t even have that luxury:

Maybe they’ll go with Tony Snell but he’s not quite the marksmen from deep as the others.

The Toronto Raptors have been experimenting all season long because of a rash of injuries and some recent trades:

It’s been the Celtics of the Eastern Conference’s big four who has enjoyed the most continuity, although Al Horford has dealt with patellofemoral syndrome throughout the year.

Without further ado, let’s see who on Philadelphia has benefitted each other the most since the Harris trade. All the data comes courtesy of NBA.com or FantasyLabs, and applies to each player’s current team. So that means we’ve excluded things like Jimmy Butler’s Minnesota data and Tobias Harris’ Clippers data.

Naturally, a player like Embiid will have logged many more minutes on or off the floor this season than say Harris.

JJ Redick

What you’re looking at there is how each player in the left column has fared in terms of net rating in the minutes he has played with and without Redick. In 1505 total minutes with Redick, for example, Ben Simmons is a +5.9 and in the 902 he has played without Redick in the lineup, Ben’s total +- drops to -4.4 for a negative differential of 10.3. It appears then that JJ’s presence helps Ben quite a bit.

That relationship isn’t exactly mutual, as JJ experiences a tiny boost in his net rating when Ben sits, as we’ll explore later. This stuff can be confusing.

My big takeaway here is what our eyes and plenty of broadcasters tell us, that the spacing Redick provides is very important for both Simmons and Embiid. You can see Embiid’s splits with and without JJ are even more striking than Ben’s.

The Sixers’ youngest stars “miss” JJ the most when he sits. [Insert your own bromance joke].

On the other hand, a trio of Redick, Butler (not Simmons) and Embiid has the highest +- of any trio on the team since the trade, a plus 70. The trio of Simmons, Embiid, and Redick is only the 9th highest rated trio on the 76ers per NBA.com. So there are lots of little synergies going on that affect this type of statistic. Tons of variables make it hard to draw conclusions but we can make inferences.

Feel free to reply in our comment section or on Twitter if you spot anything you think could be helpful or your best bromance jokes.

Tobias Harris

Here is the table for Harris. The Tobi on and Tobi off column is the same as Redick’s as it refers to net rating with or without Tobi. You can see Jimmy Butler is a +9.9 with Tobi in their 448 minutes shared and he’s a +7.1 in the 1147 minutes without his new wingman. That’s a great sign because Butler was a very positive impact player for Philadelphia before the trade and it appears that when he shares the court with Harris now that effect has been slightly improved. Hopefully that lasts.

Nobody seems to be really hurt or dependent upon Tobi yet. A testament, perhaps to his seamless fit with some room for improvement still.

A player like Redick sees a very slight positive lift in his minutes when Harris sits. It’s a small sample and there are tons of variables going on there, like who else is on the court instead. But it’s possible there is some signal. Maybe there is still room for improvement, like more of this action:

Joel Embiid

When you watch the game and think “everything is kind of better when Embiid is out there” your eyes are not playing tricks on you. It appears that all the core members of the Sixers rotation have a better +- when they get to share the court with the big fella. Some of them startlingly so. Much was made of Redick’s reliance on Embiid’s presence when the sharpshooter recently struggled through a slump that coincided with Embiid’s absence due to knee tendinitis following the All-Star break.

You can see why people said that with his net rating being almost 21 points better with Joel than without.

Well it seems Redick wanted to put that narrative to rest in just one game last night as he went utterly berserk and delivered one of the best games of his career in a big win over Charlotte as Joel rested:

Embiid’s ability to lift everyone and patch up mistakes is great. But it does shed light on a very concerning trend that the Sixers may not have a reliable reserve for him come playoff time. Boban Marjanović has played well in certain spots, although Bobi can be targeted against a team like Boston or Toronto.

Heck, he can be targeted by a team like Brooklyn or Charlotte:

Jonah Bolden has looked completely lost recently trying to navigate switches and protect the rim. This could be an issue in the future. Maybe small-ball is the way to go? Maybe Amir Johnson has been saving himself the last couple seasons for one throw-back-the-clock run?

Jimmy Butler

The core Sixers’ net rating splits with and without Jimmy are pretty impressive. He appears to make everyone a little or a lot better even though there has been plenty of conversation and debate about his fit. These net rating numbers speak for themselves. Embiid sees a slight drop off when Butler sits, JJ and Ben a bit more than Joel. Harris seems to benefit significantly from Jimmy’s presence and the bench unit appears almost completely dependent on Butler being in the game.

In limited action, to a man, the bench seems to crumble without Jimmy Buckets; a testament to his very-balanced and well-rounded skill set. We probably don’t want to see Butler and Embiid sitting together on the bench much unless they’re up 30. We may need one of them in there all the time.

Butler has taken on even more leadership offensively the last couple of games sparking huge wins in Milwaukee and Charlotte since last weekend.

If you look at the Sixers top duo’s since the Harris trade, Butler is in all five of them. Pretty cool, per NBA.com:

If you hear someone tell you that the team would have been better off with Robert Covington (who has missed much of the season now) and Dario Saric than Butler you can remind yourself (while you reminisce) of these nerdy stats or think of Butler’s 14 point 4th quarter against Milwaukee. Elton Brand made the right move and the ceiling has been elevated with Butler.

But please do pour out a little of your drink for Homie and Roc.

Ben Simmons

Most of the core Sixers’ net ratings are either a little or a lot better when Ben takes a rest except for Redick. This one is weird, especially after watching Ben eviscerate the Hornets last night:

Why would anyone see a better +- without someone so selfless? Is it all spacing? Maybe Ben’s case here highlights how worthless this entire endeavor is, these silly statistics taking us further away from the truth that anyone who simply knows basketball can see. I’m actually open to that possibility, though still curious what the data says.

If I really squint at the data what it tells me is that with Ben on the floor, which is how Butler has played the majority of his minutes in Philly, Butler is good with a positive net rating. And those are hard to come by over huge season long samples. Seeing Ben grab-and-go with Butler filling a lane has been some of the funnest moments of this season. Those two are a terror in transition.

And in a sample that is about 4.5x smaller (when Ben sits) Butler has thrived. But that is a tiny sample compared to a very big sample so the differential column here should not be something we pay too much attention to. It’s easier to “learn” something from the differential column in the case of Ben Simmons when Embiid is in or out. Because those minute samples are both over 1,000. Less noise implies more signal.

I think the important question for Brett Brown is “how do I stagger the minutes of my stars,” and maybe this provides a clue. When Joel sits, that likely means a guy like Boban or Bolden is on. And it might mean that T.J. is on also. Well uh oh...now if Ben is on the floor our spacing is abysmal.

“Spacing” is almost like another player we always need to be mindful of and make sure he (or she) is getting his minutes. Spacing unlike a real player, should be in for the vast majority of the game. Coach Mike D’Antoni plays spacing the way Coach Tom Thibodeau used to play Jimmy Butler, all the time. Because everyone’s play suffers when spacing isn’t out there. Because Ben does not space the floor, he is the most likely to wind up playing minutes when there are multiple non-spacers.

Combinations-Permutations-Innovations

So there are some interesting questions for Brett Brown and Alex Rucker’s (Executive VP of Basketball Operations) analytics department to address: is it better to bolster Embiid and Simmons with JJ, and let more “resilient” (meaning guys who may not see a huge swing in their production based on who else is in the lineup) players like Butler or Embiid carry the reserves at times? Or is it better to go for maximum potential and then come back with a Simmons-Harris plus reserves lineup later? Lots of possible combos to try before the playoffs. As long as the team keeps tinkering we’ll have more film and numbers to pay attention to.

But when I see these numbers, it makes more sense to me why the head coach says things like this:

We will learn plenty this evening when the Sixers battle the Celtics. For more on that contest @SixersAdam, @AdioBRoyster, and @mdelNBA have you covered:

https://twitter.com/Liberty_Ballers/status/1108375179678371846

https://twitter.com/Liberty_Ballers/status/1108413174448095233

https://twitter.com/Liberty_Ballers/status/1108347284457177088