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The Seventh Man: thoughts on the Sixers’ playoff rotation before the NBA trade deadline

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Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

There are three types of NBA lineup rotations:

  1. Regular-season rotation — self-explanatory
  2. Playoff rotation — the shortened-bench rotation used in an ordinary playoff game
  3. All-in playoff rotation — for elimination games and other special situations, teams will turn to extreme strategies like playing their stars 45+ minutes

In any basketball game, each team has multiple goals, including:

  • win the game
  • get better at playing together as a unit
  • minimize injuries to your team’s players
  • give experience to young players for training purposes
  • keep good players rested
  • showcase players for possible trades keep players happy with their roles

A good coach will weigh all these factors, and others, each night, with the weights changing depending on circumstances. In particular, in the playoffs winning the game takes on outsize significance, with other factors dwindling in importance. In a Game 7, the proper rest to give players becomes a function almost solely of what’s optimal for winning that night, whereas on a November Tuesday in Memphis, long-term player health and welfare may dominate the calculus.

Ordinary Playoff Rotations

This article is about 2), the ordinary playoff rotation. So, no player is going to play more than 36 minutes a night in this analysis, because we’re thinking of, say, Game 2 of the second round, where we’re up 1-0 on Indiana; it doesn’t make sense to risk Joel by playing him 41 minutes. Of course Ben Simmons is an Iron Man and might indeed play 38+ in such a game, but here we’re going to assume not. We can always do another piece on Game 7 rotations! As to the regular-season lineup shifts, I’ll probably leave that to my sighted colleagues, who’ve already done some fine writing on this subject and who will undoubtedly do more.

It is my belief, as I have expressed repeatedly here, that Matisse Thybulle is such a stellar defender that, come the playoffs, he will be a fine player, at least a +1 player, under high-stress playoff conditions. This is by no means certain; it’s quite rare for rookies to be important playoff contributors, and if you don’t think he’ll do it, you will reach different conclusions than mine with regard to playoff rotations, as I have Matisse down for a full complement of playing time.

Relatedly, I’ve seen a fair amount of commentary, some joking and some not, about Matisse replacing Al Horford in the starting lineup. Funny aside: I wrote the first draft of this piece maybe six weeks ago, and this sentence was in there, but instead of Al Horford it said Tobias Harris. But Toby has been hot from 3, Al cold, so there’s a new whipping boy in town. Food for thought!

Anyway, obviously that could happen, anything can happen, but I see the discussion as pointless. Or rather, it has a point, and the point is for people who don’t like the Al Horford acquisition or contract or both to slag him (again, this sentence is unchanged from December except for the name change). Well, we’re Philly fans, we can slag away! But as I say, it’s silly, and the reason it’s silly is this: a “normal” playoff rotation requires a sixth man who plays full time, around 36 minutes, and so it really doesn’t matter whom you call the “starter” and who is designated “sixth man.” They’re both going to play the same amount. Of course if someone wants to say Matisse should play over Al at crunch time, we can have that discussion, but when different rotations play will not be a focus of this essay. My point here is:

48*5 = 240 so there are 240 minutes to fill in a game

36*6 = 216 so if your six best players play a “full” 36 minutes, you still have 24 minutes to fill

Every team, every coach, is a special unique flower; nevertheless we can say a “classic” or “typical” playoff rotation in the BL76 format contains an 8-man rotation:

  • 36 mins from starting center
  • 12 mins from backup center
  • 36 mins from starting point guard
  • 12 mins from backup point guard
  • 36 mins each from 4 wing players (including power forward types as wings)

BL76 Format

It goes without saying that everything doesn’t really happen in multiples of 12! What I mean by “BL76 format” is this: I am a weirdo who, while waiting in line to board a plane or woolgathering while attending a dull lecture, likes to daydream about lineup rotations. And my brain can only track four lineups at once, so this requires me to think in terms of 4 12-minute groups. Hence almost anything I write about rotations will use that format, with Red, White, Blue, and Gray teams playing 12 minutes each. Of course in reality there are all kinds of exceptions — injuries, matchups, special situations, offense/defense switches, foul trouble, and on and on. We can dig into all that, but let’s start with the simple BL76 method. If the Sixers follow this prescription, and if I’m right about Matisse and if the roster doesn’t change, then the “normal” approach would be:

C: Joel 36; O’Quinn or Pelle 12

PG: Ben 36; Burke or Neto 12

Wing: 36 each for Horford, Richardson, Harris, and Thybulle

That gives Tobi 12 minutes at PF and 24 at SF, and Josh and Matisse 48 SG and 24 SF minutes to share as Brett sees fit.

Tweaking the Format

But as we all know, it’s unlikely to play out that way. In the playoffs, Al is going to be the backup center, with KOQ playing only in a pinch or an easy win. At the other end of the lineup, it seems fairly clear that Brett does not have faith in either Burke or Neto, and that therefore he would really, really like for Josh Richardson to be the backup point guard. This frustrates some fans as he’s not the best ever at initiating an offense. But Brett’s impulse makes sense: the one thing we know about playoff basketball is that teams will, ruthlessly and repeatedly, attempt to exploit your weakest defender. Philly’s core six don’t leave a lot of holes to take advantage of; it’s basically five stellar defenders and Tobi. Tobi guards the opponent’s weakest wing, so now the opponent’s least-bad choice is to set a screen on the hope of getting their ballhandler covered by Harris, who is in fact pretty good defensively; not a stud at that end but not really exploitable. As a reminder to all those who weep with each Landry Shamet made three: Landry Shamet is not a very good basketball player and Tobias Harris is. But also: if we’d kept Landry instead of dealing him for Tobias, we’d have a key rotation guy who gets hunted every single play he’s on the court come the Spring. Having watched that story unfold during the Marco Belinelli experiment, we know how painful it can be. Not saying Shamet’s D is as bad as Marco’s, that’s rare! But a weak defender in the playoffs is very costly.

It seems like Brett’s view is: maybe playing JR at the point causes our offense to deliver, say, 1.07 points per possession instead of 1.1. But in the playoffs, putting an exploitable player on the floor costs far, far more than 0.03 PPP at the defensive end. So it’s worth it. And that logic is correct, in my opinion, unless and until Raul Neto or Trey Burke persuades the coach that he is not exploitable defensively against an elite opponent with time to prepare. My sense is that neither Burke nor Neto has been particularly bad on D so far this year, but that isn’t really what it’s about. In March of 2018 Marco belinelli was not hunted all that ruthlessly, but when the Sixers faced the Celtics in the playoffs, with a top coach, a team that listened to him, and lots of practice time, Belinelli was exploited on play after play after play. If BB thinks that will be the fate of Burke or Neto, he’ll let the offense stagnate with Point Josh rather than allow it to occur. So let’s explore the implications of that. For the moment let’s suppose come the playoffs Brown wants his backup PG to be Josh Richardson, and see where it leads us.

C: Joel 36, Al 12

PF: Al 24, Toby 24

SF: Toby 12, Matisse 12, Furkan 24,

SG: Josh 24, Matisse 24

PG: Ben 36, Josh 12

We’ve solved the C and PG issues, but of course the lump in the rug just shows up elsewhere, in the form of a tough choice on the wing. Either Furkan Korkmaz and his thin frame and inexperience, James Ennis and his adequate-but-not-so-great-overall play, or Mike Scott with his toughness and much-needed quick trigger on threes but also his poor defense and unimpressive 3P% this season. I put Furkan in for the last 24 minutes because he’s been pretty clearly our 7th-best player so far this year, and he wins on fit as well as quality, since he provides the thing we most lack in the top six, elite shooting. But Ennis and Scott are playoff tested so if you think they’ll get the minutes over Furky, feel free to adjust accordingly. And of course if you don’t like Josh at the point, you’ll still play him 36, the 12 minutes of Burke or Neto or a trade or buyout acquisition will come out of Furkan’s hide.

The Seventh Man

Don’t take the seven players thing too, too seriously. Of course other guys will get minutes. If we’re up 20 early in the fourth, Brett Brown will give Ennis and Neto, say, some run and hope we can steal some rest for the starters without blowing the game. Someone will get three fouls early and end up playing 30 instead of 36. The coach may conclude that even with no back-to-backs Al should only play 32 a night, or that Matisse can’t handle a full load yet and should play 30. We may fall behind and need to bomb away from three in a comeback attempt, leading to extra minutes for Neto or Furk. An opposing player may destroy one of our guys just due to being the right matchup and we may bring in Ennis to bird-dog him. If you like, tell yourself that there are 10 “swing” minutes that will go to someone unexpected; maybe one night Furk gets some of them as he’s on fire, another night it’s Burke as the offense needs a jump-start, etc. Here, try this:

Joel 36

Al 32

Tobi 36

Josh 36

Matisse 30

Furkan 24

Ben 36

Swing 10

So if you, like me, believe in Matisse, you can see it all comes down to Furkan, right? I mean, if we’re thinking of trading for Chris Paul or something, then it doesn’t all come down to Furkan. But if you think we aren’t trading any of the top 6 players, and if we assume our guys are healthy come the playoffs, then upgrading Furkan is the only thing you can do to have a meaningful impact. My view is that Josh and Tobi are +2 players, Ben is at least a +3 now, Al probably a +3, Joel is Joel. You can’t upgrade all the swing guys, and any one of them you upgrade has only a couple of expected minutes per game since those swing minutes are split among the whole team and there are only 10 of those minutes anyway. So either you’re adding a guy so you can play the Icepick less than 30 minutes, which I counsel against. Or you’re upgrading Furkan.

I guess I need to talk about Al Horford, since I have now passed the Millenium mark; that is, I’ve read over a thousand comments about how great it would be if Al Horford were sent to the bench. The extreme version of this would have Al literally playing only the 12 minutes Joel is resting. Compared to my 32 above, we’d be taking 20 minutes away from Al and giving them to the new guy, on the theory that either Noob is better than Al — unlikely! — or, more plausibly, that even though he’s a worse player than Al, he fits better. To this I say: if we add a guy who’s worse than Al but better than Furkan, why not play him over Furkan instead of over Al?! I mean, I guess if the guy’s a power forward you could say we don’t have enough PF minutes to go around so Al needs to hit the pine, but for that you need a PF who’s say a +2 rather than a +3 like Al but who stretches the floor so much better that he’s an upgrade when Joel’s out there. I submit that it’s easy to think of such players as long as one commits the common sportswriter error of forgetting that there is a defensive end of the court as well as offensive. But as soon as you stop making that mistake, you’re going to realize that we aren’t really better off sitting Al. And then we’d have shot our bolt, trade-wise, for a guy who barely plays. If I’m wrong, show me the scenario in comments, the player who’s worth trading for and who, after the trade, will take big minutes from Al Horford in a rational world.

An aside: what Is everybody thinking?

OK, I can’t help myself, I have to say one more big-picture thing, about Al and basketball and life. As far as I can tell from consuming their work, all the Philly writers and talkers, and many of the fans, have a very clear belief about how the world works. What they think is that the way to be the very very best, the way to be a champion, a dynasty, is to do everything EXACTLY THE WAY EVERYONE ELSE DOES IT, but a little better. How do you build a championship basketball team? Simple, have a traditional PG, a traditional SG, and traditional players at SF, PF, and C. Just really good ones! For damn sure you’d better have a traditional sixth man, a “microwave scorer” who can come off the bench and put up points but who’s not good enough to start due to his porous defense. A traditional backup center and PG are also musts. And then of course a traditional coach to lead them. Go read the comments on LB after a loss, or, hell, after a win, and you’ll see that a shockingly high percentage are complaints about deviations from standard practice. Read the postgame wrapups from even our finest writers and podcasters, and it’s more of the same. We need a classic 4, or a classic stretch 4, or something classic! We need a traditional backup PG, someone who dribbles really fast and is little!

I say it’s all wrong. Remind me, who was the starting PG on the great Bulls teams? They didn’t have one, they played Ron Harper along with Jordan in the backcourt. Who was the superstar wing on the Duncan-Robinson champions? They did without. Who was the center in the Warrior dynasty’s best lineups? Draymond Green, a small-forward-sized player who barely got drafted. Tell me again about how the Patriots had a bell-cow running back who led them to all those championships and how Andy, too, needs to run the damn ball. Yeesh!

But forget history and just try logic. If you’re attempting to be above average, it certainly makes sense to avoid risk — do what we know works reasonably well, and try to do it a little better. But how on Earth can you expect that to lead to domination, to greatness? Do you know how many awesome basketball players there are in the NBA? Think what it would take to accumulate so much talent that you’re not just better in terms of talent than the best of the other teams, you’re way better on talent, so much better that you crush them even though your approach isn’t innovative. I submit to you that it’s totally unrealistic to expect to achieve that at all, let alone with a team dominated by young, pre-prime players. I submit to you that if you want to be successful in life, you should follow all the rules and do everything the traditional way, just being a little smarter and working a little harder than others. But if you are a crazy nut who craves not success but greatness, domination, world-historical status... well, the traditional plan will never work. For that you have to do something unexpected, something extreme.

No, if you want to dominate, you’re going to have to try something bold. Hey, you want to read a great sports book? Check out Monsters by Rich Cohen (no relation). Cohen is a terrific writer on any subject, he has like a dozen published books, but Monsters is especially dear to him as it’s about his beloved hometown team, the 1985 Chicago Bears. Their incredible “46” defense was designed by Buddy Ryan of course. Buddy’s theory was that if he sent enough guys at the QB, he’d probably give up a few big plays early but the opposing signal caller would endure such an enormous number of brutally punishing hits that he’d be playing scared — or injured, or not at all! — the rest of the day. It worked, and not just for a season; one of the few defenses in NFL history with a case as being the best of all time is the 1991 Eagle group Buddy put together (though he was fired right before that season); Football Outsiders says they’re the best defense in the last 30 years.

It took about a decade for the rest of the league to design offenses sufficiently spread out to force the D to reveal where the rush was coming from. That, and some rules changes to protect the QBs from Buddy’s marauders, finally created an effective counter to what Buddy wrought.

So, look, if you were infuriated by the Lineup of Death and thought the Dubs needed to trade Draymond for one of the Plumlees, if you thought Buddy Ryan needed to run more prevent defense, if you’re a boring coward who believes the way to greatness is avoiding innovation, then by all means continue to demand we trade Al Horford for the mediocre PG of the moment while trying to turn Ben Simmons from the white-hot greasefire of pure entertainment he currently is into the new PJ Tucker. I’ll stand with Brett and Elton as they try to break the mold, try to show there’s a new way to win. 538 says they’re 45% likely to make the Finals and 24% likely to win it all, and as Homer Simpson says when told Krusty the Clown has spit into every hundredth hamburger, “I like those odds!” And if they don’t make it, well, they won’t be alone, they’ll be one of 29 non-champions this season, and most of those will have had a lot less fun getting there.

OK — back to trades

Let’s consider one of the more sensible trade targets, Tomas Satoransky of Chicago. The Bulls have high draft pick Kobe White as one PG, fake star Zach LaVine as a sometimes point, Kris Dunn who’s having a very strong advanced-stats season, and other PGs like Shaquille Harrison and Ryan Arcidiacono who are young and having solid years. And they’re tanking. They can easily do without Sato. And TS would be very useful for Philly; he can handle the ball, shoot the 3, defend; he’s 6’7” so can play on the wing if needed, he’s under contract for one more year so not just a3-month rental. Say we get him for Mike Scott, Trey Burke and two high seconds, a high price but not crazy. Now our lineup looks to me like:

Joel 36

Al 32

Tobi 36

Josh 36

Matisse 30

Furkan 12

Ben 36

Sato 12

Swing 10

Hmmm, we gave up real value for an upgrade from Furk to Sato for... 12 minutes! Maybe Furk should be fully benched and then it’s 24. If you want to make the case that we should play Satoransky another 6 or 12 and take them away from Al, have at it, but I sincerely doubt you can persuade people that it’s much more than a break-even. Of course we picked up an additional benefit: we got rid of our 12 minutes of Point Josh and replaced them with Sato, who to be honest is also a combo guard rather than a true point but maybe he’s a little more creative than J-Rich.

Now, I assumed health above, and health is not guaranteed. Maybe Josh blows a hammie, or Joel has an ailment, or Al’s knees hurt, there are a million ways it would be useful to have a good, versatile player like Sato on the squad. If we got him for the package above, I’d be very pleased, not crushed. But most of the value in that deal would be for emergency preparedness, it wouldn’t improve our healthy rotation all that much.

To summarize: you shouldn’t support a Sixer trade unless you believe at least one of the following things (and perhaps not even then):

  1. We’re getting back a minor-star-or-better player, a +3 type, this would include deals for actual stars like CP3 and for hidden borderline stars like (arguably) Davis Bertans
  2. We’re giving up very little; let’s say Scott + cap filler + one high second, or less
  3. Matisse is not good enough to play 30 +1 or +2 minutes per playoff game
  4. Furkan is not good enough to play 24 +0 minutes per playoff game
  5. We’re very likely to not be healthy so our 8th man will really be our 7th man many nights
  6. The acquired player is a vastly superior PG to Josh Richardson and so there’s huge value in replacing the 12 Point Josh minutes with the Noob
  7. The acquired player has significant long-term value so the deal is good even if it doesn’t help us much this year

I don’t believe 3) or 4) and I’m OK with Point Josh. So the deals that make sense to me are for truly good players like (IMHO) Bertans, for young guys like Derek White, and for versatile emergency coverage that doesn’t cost a ton (maybe Sato).

Six-Man Weave?

I see I’m almost at the end of an article on lineup rotations and I haven’t actually listed any, you know, lineups! That’s because there’s really not a lot to say. To see why, let’s take a quick cut at the Game 7 problem. This won’t be the correct Game 7 answer, but just for fun, imagine that the way we handle a desperate game is simply to play only 6 guys, and play them 40 minutes each. 6*40 = 240 of course, so that’s all a team needs to get through a game. One way of summarizing Game 7 against Toronto last year is this: you need 7 really good players for a normal playoff game, and a mere 6 for a desperation game, but we only had 5, and that’s why we lost; Joel was exhausted at the end because instead of playing”only” 40 minutes, he had to play 45. This year, granting me Matisse, we have 6 playoff-quality guys; not ideal but a whole lot better than 5!

With six good players delivering 40 minutes each, the rotations are trivial. Each player gets 8 minutes off while all of the other five are on the floor. Whether that’s four 2-minute chunks or two 4’s or what we will let Brett decide based on game flow. But there will be six lineups, each playing 8 minutes, they are:

  1. Joel-Al-Tobi-JR-Ben (Matisse on bench)
  2. Joel-Tobi-Matisse-JR-Ben (Al on bench)
  3. Joel-Al-Matisse-JR-Ben (Tobi on bench)
  4. Joel-Al-Tobi-Matisse-Ben (JR on bench)
  5. Joel-Al-Tobi-Matisse-JR (Ben on bench)
  6. Al-Tobi-Matisse-JR-Ben (Joel on bench)

Nice! You can see why Brett really wants Richardson to establish that he can play the point; if he has that flexibility, combined with Al’s ability to be effective at PF or C, then the team’s best players look great in any combination. Of course in reality we aren’t likely to play everyone 40 minutes even with everything on the line. But it shows us what is possible, and why in scenarios adjacent to this, we don’t have to work too hard to nail down the lineups — in the six-player scenario the setup above is literally the only possible combination that delivers 40 minutes or fewer for every player.

The Lineups

When we go back to seven players at 36 minutes for all but one, our modified BL76 format, we get more choices, but not by all that much. Here’s a suggestion:

Sixers Red: Joel-Al-Tobi-JR-Ben

Sixers White: Al-Tobi-Matisse-JR-Ben

Sixers Blue: Joel-Al-Furkan-Matisse-Ben

Sixers Gray: Joel-Tobi-Furkan-Matisse-JR

See the point? There are some small tweaks one could make here, but not a lot. I chose to have Al on the floor whenever Ben plays since I see him as a better floor-spacer than Joel; Ben and Joel are together for 24 minutes in this setup. If you agree with me on the wisdom of that, there are few degrees of freedom remaining. If anyone sees a better way to do these rotations, let me know in comments. And, looking at this simple setup, ask yourself where your favorite trade target fits in, and how much better that makes our rotations.

Conclusions

  • The Sixers have a terrific team with tremendously valuable flexibility, especially if Josh Richardson can be a reasonably effective point guard at the offensive end. There is real potential payoff to letting him develop that ability.
  • The Sixers will need four playoff-quality wings, and they have two established players of that type, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris.
  • It is my belief that Matisse Thybulle will be a playoff-quality wing come April, and if that’s true we need only one more, to cover the last 24 minutes, in order to have a complete playoff rotation.
  • If you believe in Furkan, we have our seventh man already; if you don’t, we kind of need to make a trade unless you think one of Scott/Ennis/Neto/Burke/Shake is the solution.
  • The trade target needs to be enough better than Young Turk to be a significant upgrade or the deal serves only to improve our emergency depth.

Let’s see what Elton and the gang come up with!