Editor’s note: Liberty Ballers is happy to welcome our newest contributor to the team, Dan Volpone.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ bench issues are a long time in the making.
You could argue they started on this path in 2016, when Bryan Colangelo (aka Eric jr) traded Jerami Grant for 53 games of Ersan Ilyasova and change. Or in 2017, when he gave up Nerlens Noel for Justin Anderson and a second round pick disguised as a first.
Or maybe it started further back in 2015, when Bryan’s dad Jerry seized control of the team and gave up two second rounders for 50 games of Ish Smith.
Over the past three seasons, Sixers management has wasted assets that could have become solid bench pieces on acquisitions of NBA journeyman, not just in trades, but in free agency too.
The Colangelos ditched Sam Hinkie’s effective strategy of signing young players to team-friendly deals, using up the team’s cap space on guys like Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, and Jerryd Bayless. None are on the Sixers anymore, and they’re really feeling that lack of depth.
After the summer of Brett Brown, the team named Elton Brand their new general manager, and overall, he’s been a success. He’s made two huge trades, and he got ahead of the racist incident involving Mike Muscala’s dad, the first time the Sixers have handled an issue well in team history.
But on the buyout market, Brand has entirely whiffed. He wasn’t able to land Wes Matthews or hometown guys Wayne Ellington and Markieff Morris. And now he’s struck out on Andrew Bogut as well. Any of these guys would have been nice pickups for this depleted bench.
Although the bench was transformed at the trade deadline, it’s hard to argue it got any better. James Ennis has done nothing in his six games as a Sixer. And as much as I want to love Jonathon Simmons, he’s looked like the answer to the question “What if Tony Wroten were taller and less fun?”
Mike Scott is easily the team’s best hope to play the wing off the bench. He’s shooting 50 percent from three in his nine games since the trade, and he’s looking more and more comfortable (and versatile) on defense.
But there’s still a glaring hole at the backup center position. The problems are obviously exacerbated with Joel Embiid and Boban Marjanović both out, but even before their absences there seemed to be something missing.
Boban is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Philly, and for good reason. The dude is giant and hilarious, and he’s a solid player, too. In certain situations, he’s the all-time mismatch, grabbing every rebound and backing in for easy layups, all without getting more than six inches off the ground.
But against more agile and athletic bigs, Marjanović can be taken advantage of. Defensively he can’t keep up, and on offense he’s pestered by quick hands.
He’s a lot like T.J. McConnell. They both play the game in a way that endears them to fans, and they unquestionably help the team win. But like Boban, McConnell isn’t perfect for every situation.
Against elite athletes, McConnell can get exposed. Luckily, Jimmy Butler stepping into a part-time point guard role means that T.J. doesn’t need to be thrown into bad situations when Ben Simmons gets a rest. The Sixers can pick and choose the spots they think he’ll have success and bring needed energy.
When the situation doesn’t call for Boban, the Sixers have tried going small, using Mike Scott as a small-ball five. It might work in certain spots, but it isn’t a sustainable solution – just ask Jusuf Nurkic. And Amir Johnson is definitely not the answer. The Sixers have just one player with the athleticism and skill set to play anytime Joel Embiid isn’t the game.
It’s time to unleash Jonah Bolden.
Bolden, the 36thpick in the 2017 NBA Draft, has had plenty of ups and downs this season, as can be expected out of a guy who’s played just 33 career NBA games. But the more time he gets, the more the 23 year old Aussie looks ready for this moment.
He has his issues no doubt. For starters, he’s committing 6.1 fouls per 36 minutes. Bolden doesn’t seem too concerned, though.
According to Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia, Bolden said of his foul trouble “Obviously it’s not good, but I’m not going to take away from my defensive ability by stepping off and not doing what I need to do, foul or not.”
Bolden has a point. Fouls are a problem if he’s asked to play just under 20 minutes per game, like he has the last three contests. But come playoff time, Joel Embiid will be hitting minutes totals in the high 30s. Embiid’s return, along with some minutes for Boban, means Bolden should never have to play more than 15 minutes off the bench.
Other than fouls, Bolden doesn’t have any weaknesses that can’t be masked. His defense still has a way to go, and he occasionally looks really lost on that end. This play certainly didn’t go how he had hoped.
The Sixers miss Embiid so much in situations like this. Bolden can't handle Cousins' strength, then fouls immediately on the pump fake pic.twitter.com/ZbcKz6uI59— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) March 3, 2019
That happens. DeMarcus Cousins makes most centers look silly. But other than the rare time he may face a Cousins post up, Bolden looks ready to step up as an all-around defender at the five.
Although his broad shoulders and tall hair suggest otherwise, Bolden is listed at just 6-10 and 220 pounds, below average size for the center position. But he plays strong enough to match most centers, especially most backups, and his 7-3 wingspan can make up a lot of lost ground.
Bolden has a block percentage of 5.4 percent. To put that in perspective, Anthony Davis is at 5.8 and Joel Embiid is at 4.5. Bolden just has a knack for affecting shots. And while his rotational instincts aren’t quite at that level yet, his length and great energy allow him to make up for some mistakes, and he should get better as he spends more time in this system down the stretch.
Bolden also has the quickness to step out, allowing him to guard stretch fives and even bigger fours without too much of a problem. Even when he switches into a mismatch, he’s held his own better than expected.
And as versatile as he is defensively, he’s arguably more so at the other end. He’s shooting 35.5 percent from three, better than Mike Muscala shot for the Sixers and a dimension that Marjanovic doesn’t bring at all.
On top of his shooting, Bolden looks like he’s learned a thing or two from Joel Embiid, as he’s grown more and more comfortable attacking closeouts, ultimately leading to this beauty.
Jonah Bolden gettin' fancy with the reverse pic.twitter.com/QMc49gCBSU— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) March 3, 2019
His shot selection is straight out of Daryl Morey’s dreams. Per Basketball Reference, Bolden is taking 92.8 percent of his shots either within three feet of the basket (where he shoots 82.5 percent) or behind the three-point line, leading to an excellent 62.1 True Shooting percentage.
Bolden’s versatility allows him to be a threat from deep, opening the lane for Simmons, Butler, and Tobias Harris to slash and cut off-ball, while still being a factor inside on both ends. He can even play some minutes with Embiid if the Sixers want to go big. No one else on the roster offers that.
Of course, there are still situations when Boban should be the go-to guy. The Sixers rarely run smaller lineups, but Bolden gets exposed on the defensive glass when they do. Boban’s passing is superior too, although neither guy has been able to get J.J. Redick clean looks like Embiid does.
Bolden hasn’t played in any of the four games Embiid and Marjanovic were both active in, but his performance with them out of the lineup is proving that should change when they get back.
Last season, the team relied on Marco Belinelli for scoring off the bench, but the Celtics’ ability to exploit his lack of defensive impact was fatal in the Sixers’ disheartening 4-1 series loss. (For your reference, here is a list of all of Belinelli’s tattoos).
The Sixers need to avoid relying on players who can be picked apart by a game plan. Boban deserves minutes when the situation calls for it, but he can’t be the ride or die backup center. Brett Brown needs to put some trust in the young guy.
It’s ironic for things to shake out this way. In his three years of decimating the Philadelphia 76ers’ future depth, Bryan Colangelo drafted the guy who could stabilize their bench as they look to make a playoff push. It’s time for Jonah Bolden to become an everyday role player.