The playoffs are here, and the Philadelphia 76ers are set for a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn took the NBA by surprise this season, going from the league’s cellar to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference thanks to the production of first-time All-Star D’Angelo Russell and head coach Kenny Atkinson’s ability to craft strong rotations that took advantage of the good but not elite talent the team has.
Speaking of rotations, hasn’t that been a thing people around here have been worried about heading into the postseason for the Sixers? Especially when it comes to how Brett Brown handles bench minutes? Can the Nets leverage Atkinson’s lineup decisions and the team’s bench depth into a first round upset? (Thankfully, I’m not here to answer that question!)
Let’s look at how some different lineup-related aspects of these teams stack up.
If we were keeping score here, the Sixers would get our first points here. Philadelphia’s starting five (provided Joel Embiid is healthy and ready to go, and I’m not going to open that can of worms right now) is among the league’s best. In fact, let’s compare the expected starting rotations for these two teams based on a few factors. First, here’s what I expect to see as the lineup:
Now, a few things to note here real quick: Not counting the season’s final game against Miami where both Carroll and Harris were held out, this has been Brooklyn’s starting lineup only since March 22nd. Before that, the team started Caris LeVert in place of Carroll, and before that...well, injuries complicated a lot of things, but guys like Treveon Graham have seen extended run in the starting unit at different points. You can best describe the team’s approach to who starts as maybe not that important overall since the team boasts a strong bench and everything, but let’s look a little at what these particular lineups have done this year.
For the Sixers, that starting lineup has been on the floor together for 161 minutes, and in that time they’ve got a net rating of 17.6. Injuries have limited this lineup to just 10 games together, but it’s still been fairly clear that this five man unit has the ability to be elite.
For Brooklyn, those five guys who’ll (probably) be starting in the playoffs have played just 80 minutes together, and they’ve got a net rating of -5.8. That is...not good, and while it’s a small sample size, it’s still...not good. I’ve watched a lot of Nets games this season since I also write over at Nets Republic and while I think that lineup should be doing better than it is, especially on the offensive end with three good shooters (Russell, Harris, Carroll), things haven’t quite clicked.
In fact, of all lineups Brooklyn has used that have played at least 50 minutes, this one has the fifth-worst net rating. But subbing Kurucs out for Spencer Dinwiddie actually balloons it into the best five-man lineup they’ve used by net rating, which is interesting and is going to lead into another point I have in just a minute. But before that, let’s quickly assess what these starting lineups should mean for this series.
If Brooklyn keeps Rodions Kurucs in the starting five and keeps Dinwiddie as the first man off the bench, the Sixers should have a chance to get off to a fast start because they’ll have a distinct advantage offensively. That Sixers lineup has a true shooting percentage of 61; Brooklyn’s is of 58.2. That Sixers lineup has a defensive rating of 101.4; Brooklyn’s is 107.4. Fast starts will be important for Philadelphia, while just keeping it close until the bench comes in will be key for Brooklyn.
Bench Guards and Going Small
As I mentioned above, Brooklyn’s best lineup was the one where they ran Allen, Carroll, Harris, and Russell with Spencer Dinwiddie coming in off the bench. Dinwiddie is a better player than Kurucs, and having him on the floor gives you two ball-handlers. It also mitigates one of the bigger issues of that starting lineup, which is not having a ball-handler who can get into and finish in the paint.
That best Nets lineup had a net rating of 20 in the 62 minutes it played, which was fueled in part by being the fastest-paced of Brooklyn’s most used lineups. Having Dinwiddie and Russell on the floor means you can get out and run.
What about the Sixers using multiple ball-handling guards at once? Philadelphia’s third most used lineup this year featured Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell, and that lineup fared well, with a net rating of 10.3, but that lineup also featured Mike Muscala and Landry Shamet, two players whose shooting ability helped things immensely. Post-trade, Simmons and McConnell lineups have fallen by the wayside more and more as the team has done things like “have Jimmy handle the ball some” and “idk, just not play two non-shooting guards at the same time.”
This will be something that Sixers need to figure out. Brooklyn scored at least 120 points in three of the four games between the teams this year, and in the four matchups Russell and Dinwiddie combined for three 30-point games. Dinwiddie in particular was a problem for the Sixers, so these lineups with the two of them on the floor can be a problem.
One thing that might not be a huge problem for the Sixers is matching up inside with the Nets. Brooklyn’s main centers are Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson serving that small ball role. But RHJ found himself almost completely out of the rotation at times over the second half of the year, so I wouldn’t expect the Sixers to need to worry about sizing down. That’s good, since I’m not confident in Philadelphia’s ability to go small-ball for extended amounts of time.
Bench Wings and Other Assorted Things
So, speaking of rotations, let’s talk about the Sixers wings.
Actually, let’s just talk for a second about the Sixers whole bench.
Who’s going to be coming off the bench this post-season for Philadelphia? We can figure that the bigs will be some combination of Boban, Bolden, and Monroe, and that McConnell will be your backup point guard, but what about the wings? Shake Milton’s contract wasn’t converted, so he’s out. James Ennis has a quad injury and will at least be out to start the playoffs. That really leaves you with Mike Scott, a Sixers legend who will do great things in the playoffs, and...rookie Zhaire Smith, guy who was out of the rotation until the last two games Jonathon Simmons, and...Furkan Korkmaz? Is it Korkmaz time again? (No.)
Compare that with the Nets, who get to bring Caris LeVert off the bench and can also get production from Treveon Graham, Jared Dudley, and have rookies Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson who could be used in a pinch. While those aren’t exciting names outside of LeVert (who has, admittedly, not been as good since returning from a devastating foot injury), they do give the Nets more lineup options. The Sixers have to get a ton of production from that starting unit, because they don’t really have any go-to options off the bench, whereas the Nets have both Dinwiddie and LeVert. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on Brett Brown to make the right substitution calls and to not put lineups on the floor that have too many non-shooters in them.
Overall, the Sixers have the starting advantage, while the Nets are likely to hold the bench advantage, with the advantage in guard and wing depth working out better for Brooklyn than the interior depth, where both teams have solid options. It’ll be up to Brett Brown to use a rotation that keeps key players on the floor and doesn’t allow the Nets to leverage that bench advantage into a series upset.