The 2018-19 season has been one of the most eventful in Sixers history. There was Markelle Fultz drama, there was a big trade, there was Jimmy Butler drama, there were injuries, there was another big trade, and there was a push for playoff seeding, and there was a long and boring finish. But we’ve finally made it to the first round of the NBA Playoffs. With the Sixers facing the Brooklyn Nets, think of this as a reference sheet for all storylines and angles to be following throughout the series.
What will the rotation look like?
First thing’s first is that the Sixers need to figure out who's going to play, and how much they will play. There really are only six players certain to get significant playing time: the five starters (Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid) and Mike Scott.
Since this has become a common debate recently, I want to address it right off the bat: Zhaire Smith should absolutely play in this series. Despite his very small amount of NBA experience, he has already demonstrated significant potential as a defender against guards. The Sixers are facing a Nets team that features two dynamic guards in D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, both of which can get hot at any time. In fact, those two averaged a combined 44.7 points per game in the four matchups between these teams, including a game in Brooklyn in which Russell and Dinwiddie each scored over 30, combining for 69 total points. The Sixers are going to need at least one trusted defender of guards on the floor at all times, and Zhaire has shown enough ability in his small handful of games to have earned the first crack at coming off the bench to disrupt Russell and Dinwiddie.
James Ennis seemed to be a lock for some minutes, but now will likely miss at least the first few games of the series due to a reoccurring quad injury. This leaves a hole on the wing for the Sixers for the time being. One solution is Zhaire Smith, though given his lack of upper body strength he likely makes more sense as a guard, especially considering his job would likely just be to defend opposing point guard. Jonathon Simmons is available, but given how much he has struggled since being acquired and his general lack of awareness, he doesn't seem fit to ever see meaningful minutes in the playoffs. Furkan Korkmaz will get hunted defensively, and isn't nearly good enough of a shooter to make up for it.
I just poked significant holes in every backup wing on this roster. So, what are they going to do? Well, Brett Brown may have hinted at what will happen to offset this concern. Against Milwaukee and Chicago last week, you may have noticed that Jonah Bolden actually played with Joel Embiid for some time, instead of just being his backup. Having Bolden play minutes at the four would allow a player like Tobias Harris, who gets the bulk of his run at the four but can play the three, to slide down a position. In essence, Harris would be the starting four and also log some of the backup minutes at the three. And truthfully, I can’t say I’m against this idea from Brown — though in a very small sample size, lineups with Bolden and Embiid posted an elite +14.5 Net Rating (point differential per 100 possessions) this season according to Cleaning The Glass, a very impressive number, though factors such as variance and luck should be accounted for. To increase the sample size, I took a look at the numbers that lineups with both Embiid and Richaun Holmes on the floor were able to produce last season — Holmes and Bolden are different players, but they do check (and not check) many similar boxes. The Holmes lineups were even better than the ones with Bolden, posting a gargantuan Net Rating of +21.9. The point here is not that Bolden-Embiid lineups will destroy everyone in their path, because they won't. They may only be playable against teams also playing two traditional bigs. And with this small of a sample (roughly 500 total possessions between the Bolden-Embiid and Holmes-Embiid lineups), it’s very possible that all of this was fluky in some way. But we know that Joel Embiid can coexist with other big-men, and we know that playing Bolden with Embiid could allow Harris to eat up some of the minutes on the wing that need to be occupied by somebody. I think it’s fair to say this is something worth trying.
Before he improbably lit up the Celtics, the plan for TJ McConnell in last year’s playoffs was to simply be the backup point guard, on the floor whenever Ben Simmons was off and off the floor whenever Ben Simmons was on. That's been a strategy the Sixers have relied on since the second big trade back in February, though the amount of injuries and lack of playable bodies has occasionally led to the dreaded McConnell-Simmons lineups. In all likelihood, the Sixers will enter these playoffs with the same game-plan. But are we sure the backup point guard shouldn't be Jimmy Butler, with McConnell out of the rotation? TJ is easily exploitable on defense due to his size, and can also be taken advantage of on offense because of his inability to quickly catch-and-shoot. Plus, given that Simmons is extremely durable and doesn't often show signs of fatigue, one would imagine his minutes per game will at least be in the high-30s (Simmons averaged 36.9 minutes per game last postseason). So instead of giving McConnell a few very short stints of action, why not let Butler operate with the ball in his hands when Simmons needs a rest, and give the minutes originally intended for McConnell to someone like Smith, who won’t help the spacing but will be a significant upgrade over McConnell defensively? While TJ provides comfort in that the coaches know what they’re getting from him, it may make more sense to play the wild card.
What version of Tobias Harris are we getting?
Recently, it seemed to me that Harris was struggling. Then I checked his Basketball Reference page, and... it’s much worse than I realized. In his last 15 games, Harris is shooting 4.3 three-point attempts per game, and only making 24.6 percent of them. His total three-point percentage with the Sixers is down to a lowly 32.6 percent. In fact, his overall performance on the offensive end has been underwhelming since joining the Sixers. He’s looked much more similar to his pre-breakout self than the one who has made pushes for All-Star votes in recent years:
Tobias Harris’ offensive performance by team
|Season / Team||PPG||3PM / g||3PA / g||3P%||TS%|
|Season / Team||PPG||3PM / g||3PA / g||3P%||TS%|
What version of JJ Redick are we getting?
However concerned you may be about Tobias Harris right now, you should be more nervous about JJ Redick. To put it lightly, Redick has not been able to maintain his regular season form in the postseason:
Comparing JJ Redick’s regular season and playoff performance
|Year||Reg. Season 3P%||Reg. Season TS%||Playoffs 3P%||Playoffs TS%||3P% Difference||TS% Difference|
|Year||Reg. Season 3P%||Reg. Season TS%||Playoffs 3P%||Playoffs TS%||3P% Difference||TS% Difference|
As you can see, he sees a pretty drastic drop-off in production once the postseason begins. And this is for more reasons than one. Forgive me for stating the obvious here, but: you play the best teams in the playoffs, and it’s harder to perform well against those teams. Also, Redick’s shooting ability is very well-respected, often enough that teams will put their best off-ball defender on him, often a player bigger than him such as Boston’s Marcus Smart or Toronto’s Danny Green. And, truth be told, I think part of this equation is that Redick can struggle under pressure. For more on Redick’s struggles in big games, you can read this piece I wrote in October.
But here’s the thing: I’m not anywhere near as worried about what happens if Redick goes cold as I was last year. The Sixers became a below-average offense with JJ off the floor last season, but have maintained decent offensive production with him on the bench this season. They are much less reliant on his movement and gravity to create looks, thanks to the additions of Butler and Harris as well as the year-to-year growth of Simmons and Embiid. Other than getting the ball to Embiid, the Sixers’ only reliable source of offense last season was their array of actions either surrounding Redick or using him as a decoy. And while that still remains an important piece of the offense, it’s far from their only alternative to just throwing the ball to Joel and watching him do work.
Looking at in-game matchups
Whenever the Sixers are about to play, I try to map out what the defensive strategies of each team will be — specifically, when both starting units are on the floor, who will each player defend? This is a simple but useful method to occasionally find mismatches that go unnoticed. The first few defensive assignments in particular that jump out to me are the players who are set to defend Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The reason for this is pretty simple: they are by far the most difficult Sixers to find a capable defender for. Simmons has the size of a four but the quickness and court vision of guard, while Embiid is simply a massive human being who will run through you if you aren't also a massive human being.
Assuming the Nets stick with the starting lineup that they were using for last month or so, Ben Simmons should expect to begin games being defended by DeMarre Carroll. Defensive metrics are imperfect, but it’s worth noting that Carroll’s aren’t great overall. However, he is a physical player with loads of playoff experience who will not be at all nervous for this series. He possesses the theoretical size, strength and speed to at least hold his own against Simmons. But since Brooklyn is a deep team, particularly on the wing, Carroll isn't the only player Simmons should prepare for. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson cedes a few inches to Ben, but makes up for it with long arms, great athleticism and a high motor. He grades out as a slightly better defender than Carroll. Expect RHJ to get a crack at the Sixers’ second-year All-Star.
The bulk of Embiid’s minutes will come against second-year standout Jarrett Allen, an exciting young player who leverages his elite physical tools to make himself a premier shot-blocker, and a rising star as a defensive-oriented big-man who fits today’s NBA. Expect more on this matchup later on...
But for a second, let’s look at the rest of the starting five. If Carroll is on Simmons, that means rookie Rodions Kurucs likely guards Tobias Harris. That likely leaves D’Angelo Russell to guard JJ Redick, a matchup that the Sixers could potentially exploit due to Redick’s ability to get open on screens and Russell’s tendency to sometimes fall asleep defensively. And in what could be an even more lopsided mismatch, Joe Harris should see a lot of time guarding Jimmy Butler. And as much as I like Joe Harris... Jimmy is going to be a tough cover for him.
As for what the Sixers do defensively, it gets a bit complicated. They have liked having JJ Redick on point guards regardless of how good that player may be, but one would imagine that Brett Brown will adjust that now that the playoffs have begun. It makes sense to have Redick defend Joe Harris, a fellow sharpshooter. Harris will not be an easy cover, but nobody on the perimeter for Brooklyn is. Minimizing Redick’s time defending people who have the ball in their hands should be a point of emphasis for the Sixers on that end of the floor.
That leaves the D’Angelo Russell assignment for either Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons. Butler has been for the most part disengaged as a defender since his arrival in Philadelphia, but it would be fairly surprising if he didn't increase his level of activity now that the playoffs are beginning. Based on reputation, Butler probably is most worthy of guarding Russell — but don’t count out Simmons to get some stops against him as well. Simmons, who played with Russell in high school, possesses the adequate level of quickness and smarts to handle this matchup for brief spurts, especially given his massive frame that makes him a difficult obstacle for smaller ball-handlers to circumvent.
For more on the matchups within this series, Justin Carter wrote this excellent piece.
Will the Sixers make any adjustments to their defensive scheme?
This season, the Sixers have deployed a “dropping” scheme against pick-and-rolls that has been the cause of much ire among fans. It’s exactly what it sound like — when the opposing team runs a a pick-and-roll, the Sixers instruct their big-man to drop down into the paint, a schematic decision made to maximize Joel Embiid’s time spent near the rim as opposed to on the perimeter. They have experimented with some other ways of defending pick-and-rolls in the second half of the season, but dropping is their go-to. Dropping the big-man serves as an open invitation for opposing ball-handlers to pull up and shoot two-point jumpers while limiting their ability to get to the rim, which makes a good deal of sense — long two-pointers are the shots teams want their opponents taking, as opposed to three-pointers or shots in the paint, which provide a higher expected value. But in this matchup, it may actually be smart to invite Russell to drive to the rim instead of pulling up for long jumpers. According to CTG, Russell is in the 13th percentile of shots taken at the rim, and just the 37th percentile in accuracy when he does shoot there. Meanwhile, Russell is in the 83rd percentile of shooters from mid-range. For most, getting to the rim is better than settling for a jumper. But for Russell, who has been an excellent jump-shooter this year and has always struggled finishing at the rim, it may be wise to bait him into moving into Joel Embiid’s paint.
How often will we see small-ball?
An underlying aspect of this series is that we may see a lot of small-ball. Small-ball is always more prevalent in the playoffs, but Brooklyn is a team who may use it more than others. They didn’t go to it a ton in the regular season, but their personnel suggests it’s a potential course of action. Allen and Ed Davis are the only true bigs on the roster, and the Nets did show their hand when they played an elongated stretch of small-ball in the final regular season matchup between these teams. In all likelihood, the center for Brooklyn in this scenario would be Hollis-Jefferson. If the Nets go small when Joel Embiid isn't on the floor, the Sixers have a few different options at center — Jonah Bolden’s athleticism makes him capable, even if not ideal, against these lineups. Mike Scott played a surprising amount of center since coming to Philly. But what I would love to see is for the Sixers to give Ben Simmons minutes as a point-center. Surround him with perimeter-oriented players who can run the floor and try to push the tempo to a level the Nets can't handle.
Taking a look at past meetings
Because they are both members of the Atlantic Division, these teams see each other four times every year. And this season’s set of games was... odd.
- In the first matchup, Russell, Caris LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson each scored at least 20 points in a 122-97 blowout in Brooklyn, a game that Markelle Fultz started in.
- I’m sure you all remember the second game between these teams. Brooklyn was thoroughly outplaying the Sixers on, seeming set for another blowout at home. But then the Sixers’ starters went crazy, storming all of the way back to take the lead. After Dinwiddie nailed a jumper with less than 20 seconds left, the ball was in Jimmy Butler’s hands, and he hit his second game-winner as a Sixer.
- The third showdown between these teams was the Spencer Dinwiddie Game. Dinwiddie dropped 39 points off the bench for the Nets, leading Brooklyn to a statement win in Philly. This Sixers loss was a waste of an excellent night from Joel Embiid: 33 points on 18 shots, 17 rebounds and six assists.
- A few weeks back, the Sixers handled Brooklyn at home, though the Nets kept it close near the end of the game. Joel Embiid had another standout performance, scoring 39 points on 20 shots on top of 13 rebounds and six assists.
Brooklyn played the Sixers as tough as any team in their tier across the NBA. They had two decisive wins and two close losses, one of which was flukey. Don’t expect the Sixers to come into this series taking the Nets lightly.
Where can the Sixers exploit Brooklyn’s weaknesses?
In an earlier section, I hinted that there was more to come on how the Nets would try to defend Joel Embiid. Well, take a look at a few stats:
- According to NBA.com, the Nets have the second-worst defense against post-ups in the entire NBA.
- When Jarrett Allen was matched up with Joel Embiid this season, Embiid had per 36 minute averages of 33.0 points, 16.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists.
- When Joel Embiid matched up with anybody else on the Nets this season, he had per 36 minute averages of 31.5 points and 15.5 free throw attempts.
I don’t think I have to go much deeper here — Jarrett Allen can’t guard Joel Embiid, and nobody else on the Nets can guard him either. Joel should be able to get whatever he wants down low all series long.
But the interior is not the only area in which the Nets struggle defensively. According to Synergy Sports, they give up the most points per possession to pick-and-roll ball-handlers of any team in the league. Pick-and-roll has infamously never been an integral part of the Sixers’ playbook, but they’ve shown a willingness to go to it at times, specifically with Jimmy Butler. Knowing the Nets struggle against pick-and-roll, it will be interesting to see if the Sixers look to take advantage and get Jimmy Butler some of the opportunities with the ball in his hands that he’s wanted.
Once again I’m going to make an obvious statement: an important part of winning in the NBA is having depth. But in the playoffs, rotations shorten. Teams with great depth will often get a tad worse, and those without it typically improve. The Sixers have had obvious struggles with their bench all season long, while one of Brooklyn’s best characteristics all season long has been their “next-man-up” mentality — their biggest strength is arguably their depth. And now, that’s a strength somewhat neutralized. For the Sixers, this leads to a weakness being mollified.
Some neat graphics!
Here at Liberty Ballers, Andrew Patton does tremendous work for us, particularly when it comes to taking advanced metrics and creating visuals to help express what the data is saying. You can see and read more from Andrew here and here. For now, let’s look at these two graphics, showing the approximate efficiency of each team from all locations on the court.
To my eye, the Nets’ visual was fairly underwhelming. Aside from the left wing, nothing jumps out for good reasons. As for the Sixers, nothing shocking: threes and paint two-pointers are their bread and butter, with a few hot spots from directly in front of the three-point line, which I would assume are a result of JJ Redick-Joel Embiid dribble handoffs.
Finally... a prediction
I feel as if it would be a disservice to both you all and myself to write this many words about the series without making a prediction. So, here it goes... I think the Sixers comfortably take the series in five games. I’m giving Brooklyn a win because of my respect for their resiliency and their previous demonstration of an ability to frustrate this Sixers team. But talent wins out, and the Sixers have so much more talent. I see matchup nightmares for the Nets across the board, and while Russell and Dinwiddie are nice players who will put up numbers in the series, they are not nearly good enough to trade blows with the Sixers’ firepower for an entire series. Give me the Sixers in a Gentleman’s Sweep, and on to the second round from there.