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Who will Brett Brown turn to when Joel Embiid needs a rest during the playoffs?

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To go small-ball or to go with a backup 5, that is the question

Philadelphia 76ers v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

If there are no surprises at all between now and the second round of the playoffs, the Sixers are going to be heading up north to Toronto to try to steal one of the first two games. Unfortunately, at some point in those games coach Brett Brown will look to get Joel Embiid some rest. To say that those moments haven’t always worked out well for the 76ers would be an understatement.

Coaches never want to admit getting too far ahead of themselves by day-dreaming about scenarios in the distant future, should they be so lucky to even get there. Discussing them is almost sacrilege amongst coaches. We’re on to Cincinnati as Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick once famously repeated. Brown would be right to remind us his sole focus is on the Orlando Magic, his opponent for this evening.

But quietly, the team does need to prepare as if they will see these moments. They’ll need to go through some experiments for lineups without their superstar big man between now and the playoffs. The question of how to fill these minutes hangs over the team’s head.

While Brett Brown has spoken about wanting to experiment with Boban Marjanović and see what he has in the Serbian center, he has probably learned what many of us knew all along: lineups with Boban aren’t really a viable option beyond a first round matchup with say Detroit.

Detroit, who 538.com predicts will be the Sixers first round matchup as of today, doesn’t have the type of guards that give the Sixers fits. The Sixers other possible first round opponent, the Nets most certainly do.

Of all the 5 player lineups utilized since the trade that brought Philadelphia the Bobi and Tobi show, a lineup of Boban, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, and T.J. McConnell has the second highest net rating (+22). It’s second only to the starting unit (+64) for all lineups that have logged at least 25 minutes.

Boban is the backup center when healthy and could probably play pretty well against his former teammate in Andre Drummond. Pick and roll heavy teams with big men who can space the floor aren’t as good of a matchup for Bobi though.

Recently the Hornets, Celtics, and Hawks have all exposed Boban’s limitations. He fared a bit better against the Bucks, although I’m suspicious if the match ups he won against Khris Middleton would happen the same way again in the future.

More than a few smart fans would like to see Jonah Bolden given another chance over the remaining stretch of games because, in theory, he represents a more modern, switchable stretch five, although the Australian rookie has yet to put it all together.

With Amir Johnson in the lineup, Johnson’s +- is a +9 over the 105 minutes he’s been given since the Tobias Harris trade. That’s not bad but it isn’t all coming against good teams; good teams tend to take advantage of Johnson as well.

That leaves coach Brown with some tough choices for the playoffs. Does he a) stick with Boban b) give Amir Johnson a chance to turn back the clock c) throw Bolden out there tonight and give him another chance to earn playoff minutes c) utilize small-ball lineups?

As of now it seems that option D represents the highest ceiling move.

If the Sixers were to go on to make the NBA Finals, I would bet that it was because they unlocked some hidden potential of small-ball lineups. It just seems more likely to me than Amir Johnson throwing back the clock, Bolden suddenly patching all of the holes in his game, or Boban’s foot-speed increasing.

Brett Brown has the rest of the season to make these not-so-fun decisions. He’d be wise to experiment right away. He has already missed opportunities because of his curiosity about the viability of guys like Boban or Amir.

A small-ball lineup of JJ Redick, Harris, Butler, Scott and B. Simmons (still not terribly small) has received 39 min since the big trade and are a +11. That’s not enough time to make any real judgments. But that sample can and should be ramped up immediately. Maybe some point-Jimmy in these moments or target mismatches that Harris receives?

In just 7 total minutes a small lineup of McConnell, Reddick, Butler, Harris and Simmons has a net rating of +6.6.

A lineup of all of the starters but James Ennis in instead of Embiid has only logged 4 minutes. That is certainly one worth test-piloting this evening against Orlando since Ennis has looked solid lately in his role.

Some of the pros of using small-ball lineups are that you can play at a faster pace, and switch even more possessions than when Embiid is in the game. Some of the cons include leaving yourself vulnerable to attacks in the paint, and also ramifications regarding how Brown may stagger his lineups.

For example, in order to “win” the minutes when Embiid sits, it might be tempting to play the rest of the starters together with one of McConnell, Scott or Ennis. While this makes sense intuitively, it might then mean relying on a lineup that hasn’t been as productive together, once Embiid is ready to come back in.

There isn’t a lot of time to figure it all out. One possibility might be giving some burn to Shake Milton. The rookie has played in 13 games. He’s been active in the G League since breaking his finger, but he has been exceptional there since becoming healthy. There are 9 games left they could play him in. If coach Brown wanted to play all of the starters with T.J., Ennis or Scott, by the time Embiid was ready to come back in, maybe Milton could add a little extra depth, while say Harris got a rest.

Not a lot of time to experiment although planning to put Boban or Amir in against the Raptors second unit feels more dangerous than whatever other solution we might figure out between today and that moment.