When the Philadelphia 76ers fell to the Toronto Raptors after seven Eastern Conference semifinal games last May, sure, it was due to things like Kawhil Leonard’s heroics and Joel Embiid’s shaky digestive tract, but it was also a result of insufficient depth on that Sixers roster. One capable guy to spell Embiid, or even another perimeter defender to hassle Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, could have made the difference. Instead, Philadelphia went with only a seven-man rotation for the series (using a cutoff of 10 minutes per game for players appearing in at least half the contests).
Was that tight rotation unusual for a presumed contender? Looking at a recent sample, yes. With everything on the line, Toronto featured an eight-man rotation in the 2019 NBA Finals against Golden State. The Warriors also had an eight-man rotation (and no, that didn’t include Durant and his 12 minutes played). Meanwhile, Portland went 10 players deep and Milwaukee rolled out a nine-man rotation in their respective Conference Finals.
Looking back at the final four teams from the 2018 playoffs paints a similar picture. The Finals that year featured a Warriors club with an eight-man rotation and a Cavaliers team that had 10 players meet our criteria. Both Boston and Houston had eight-man rotations in their Conference Finals that year.
While what I’ve outlined by no means represents an exhaustive sample size, it does appear that you have to have at least eight men to go to war with if you’re serious about contending for a title. Fortunately for Sixers fans, after Elton Brand made sure to acquire solid replacements for departing starters Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick in the persons of Al Horford and Josh Richardson, he didn’t rest on his laurels. In his first full offseason as general manager, Brand ensured Philadelphia enters the 2019-20 with a deeper group off the pine. In fact, as our Henry Malone recently laid out, it could be the best bench group Brett Brown has had to work with during his Sixers tenure.
The re-signings of Mike Scott and James Ennis maintain the functional structure of at least the seven-man rotation the team had last postseason (the starters plus those two off the bench). Having demonstrated the need for at least one more contributor, the Sixers didn’t add anyone with a proven track record in the role, but as we look down the roster, they have no shortage of potential options to step up and fill the void.
The likeliest possibility is either rookie Matisse Thybulle or quasi-rookie Zhaire Smith punching above his weight and earning Brett Brown’s trust with a precocious first full NBA season. Both players have the profile to play ferocious defense and spot up outside the arc offensively, skills that would lend themselves to sliding into a postseason rotation more quickly than a player who needed to learn the nuances of shot creation and distribution in order to contribute. (You could also apply this section to Shake Milton, I suppose, but I’m bearish on him at the moment following his poor Summer League showing.)
Then, there are the vets Brand brought in to augment the second unit. Kyle O’Quinn only has two career minutes played in the postseason, but he does not strike me as a man to be overwhelmed by a big stage. Raul Neto didn’t ever quite meet our 10 minutes per game criteria, but did appear in three straight postseasons for the Jazz. Like the young wings, you could see Neto playing solid perimeter defense and knocking down spot-up 3s in a complementary role. Trey Burke...was awesome at Michigan. I mean, that shot against Kansas, come on.
The point is, Brett Brown has more things to try out this year. Last season, his options were, “Boban’s huge, what can we do with that?” or “Should we throw Zhaire into the crucible of an NBA postseason right after recovering from a life-threatening illness? No, I guess not.” Most of these scenarios won’t break right for the Sixers, but really, they will likely only need one guy to step up and become a reliable eighth player in the rotation. Plus, there’s always the trade deadline and the buyout market (*blocks out painful memory of Marco Belinelli and the confetti game*).