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How Brett Brown should assemble this year’s Sixers rotation

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Figuring out how to put the puzzle pieces together

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There are three constants in life: death, taxes, and the Sixers having a remodeled roster for which it’s nearly impossible to set real expectations. We know this new-look team is going to be very good — legitimate Finals contenders, even. But we know little about how they are going to get there. So many questions exist about how this team will be structured, from their offensive playbook that will likely need revamping to adjusting the defensive scheme in order to support multiple big men.

In an attempt to gain some clarity as to how this team will operate, I turned to earlybirdrights.com and their brand new “Rotations” tool, which allows you to build an entire rotation for any team in the NBA. I took the role of Brett Brown in this exercise and attempted to map out the entire Sixers rotation from opening tip to final buzzer.

Going into this, I had three objectives. They were as follows:

  • Minimize the amount of time without at least one of Joel Embiid and Al Horford on the floor, but make sure not to give either too many minutes.

This idea is not groundbreaking. In fact, everyone seems to agree that the right course of action is essentially using Horford as the starting power forward and backup center, so I won’t harp too much on it. I’ll just say this: when the playoffs begin and starters are playing lots of minutes, the Sixers will be able to have Embiid or Horford manning the middle at all times. That is going to be a scary sight for opposing offenses.

As for the workload each one receives, my goal was for neither to play much more than 30 minutes on a nightly basis.

  • Effectively stagger the starting lineup.

How Brett Brown staggers the minutes of his best players is probably the most important aspect of this rotation. He needs to figure out the right pair of combinations of his five starters: Embiid, Horford, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson. If he can solve the puzzle, it would allow the Sixers to always have a strong group of multiple players on the court together.

So, how would I go about it? I’d have Embiid and Simmons play together at most times, with the others (Horford, Harris, Richardson) being grouped together to make for the other alliance of sorts. While Simmons and Embiid have never been a seamless fit offensively, the Sixers have consistently crushed their competition when the two players share the floor, posting an elite plus-9.5 Net Rating when the two young stars were on the floor last season. They are both talented and smart enough to make the fit work offensively, and can be a monstrous duo on the defensive end if they are fully engaged. I also have high hopes for the Horford, Harris, Richardson trio, but I won’t expound on this — instead, I will direct you to my colleague Jackson Frank, who wrote an excellent piece a few weeks back about how the Sixers can find harmony within that grouping.

  • Set up position battles and let natural selection show its head.

There are two areas where we could see some serious competition among the Sixers’ reserves for minutes: on the wing between James Ennis III, Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle, and at point guard, with Trey Burke and Raul Neto both vying for playing time.

Here’s what I’d like to see: each of the five players getting legitimate chances to establish his worth on the court from day one, and then gradual adjustments to the rotation made based on performance. There’s no downside to getting an early look at as many players with real chances of contributing as possible, while also setting the stage for a few to emerge as key cogs.

Let’s start with the wings: Ennis should see more minutes than the two young players at the outset given his established track record of being a playable wing and his strong postseason performance last spring. But the two young, promising prospects both deserve a real opportunity to play their way into the rotation, likely using standout defensive work as the vehicle to get there. It seems clear that the pecking order should at least initially be Ennis > Smith > Thybulle. But what if Zhaire’s jumper falls more than we expected it to, or if Thybulle is even more “pro-ready” than previously thought? Ennis is well-liked and should be the early leader of this pack, but the Sixers should not be afraid to give their two young wings a chance to take his place.

As for the point guards, I was a bit more strategic in splitting the minutes between Neto and Burke. While I like Burke, he is very limited defensively. So I tried to make sure as many of his minutes as possible came when Joel Embiid was also on the floor. Given everything we have seen from Embiid as a defensive player, I feel more than comfortable having Burke out there knowing he has Joel behind him.

With all of that being said, here was the rotation timeline I landed on, screen-grabbed straight from EBR’s tool:

Before I give my biggest takeaways from this exercise, if you’re interested in an even more detailed look, here is a list of every lineup we would see over the course of a single game.

After spending more time on this than I would like to admit, here were a few of my biggest takeaways:

  • Brett Brown has not often been fond of deep rotations, typically settling on a group of about nine players from whom he simply knows what he is getting. But with this roster, it might be time for Brett to deviate from his norms and try extending his rotation a bit — at least at the start of the season, so he can properly evaluate what he has with many of the new additions to the team.
  • I have always thought of Tobias Harris as a four and not a three. At power forward, his perimeter defense that leaves a lot to be desired is masked to some extent, and his shooting ability can be even more lethal when weaponized. But given the way this roster is constructed, I don’t see the avenue to him seeing much run at the four. The presence of two bigs in Embiid and Horford as well as the return of Mike Scott leaves little opportunity there.
  • Kyle O’Quinn’s value will mostly be seen in the games where Embiid or Horford is out, where he will be a traditional backup center. (By the way, this will likely be a common occurrence.) But O’Quinn can serve a surprisingly valuable role even when both of those players are in the lineup. Because what is just as important as giving Embiid and Horford nights off is making sure they don’t play too many minutes per game. And in order to keep both players around the 30-minute target I established earlier, the Sixers may need KOQ to step in, even if only for one small stint each game. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Horford and Embiid both had to play 32 or 33 minutes per night, but it just isn’t wise when easily avoidable. A few extra minutes each night throughout the regular season will catch up to players like Embiid given his injury history and Horford given his age. It’s best to play it safe.

Big-time thank you to Jeff Siegel, the founder of EarlyBirdRights, for creating this wonderful tool. If you don’t already have EBR bookmarked, change that now — the site is my go-to for all salary cap information, and provides great X’s and O’s breakdowns as well.

This thought experiment brought some major clarity as to how Brett Brown can go about formulating his substitution patterns. We won’t know what he is thinking until the first preseason game in just over a month from now — but I think this gives us a pretty good look at where he might be leaning.