This is a weekly series where we’ll look back at one player’s performance to see who stood out and why. Whether it’s the best player on the team, someone at the bottom of the bench who stepped up, or anyone in between.
Last week’s results: 97-115 L @ Indiana, 108-118 L @ Houston.
There haven’t been many positives for the Philadelphia 76ers over the last two weeks. They've lost four straight games, there's been talk of low effort and accountability issues, and Al Horford's offensive fit (and overall performance) with the starters has looked increasingly troublesome. Aside from Ben Simmons' stellar performance at both ends of the floor, there weren't many bright spots in the Sixers' loss to the Houston Rockets to end last week, either.
Trey Burke's offense was one of those few bright spots.
Burke has only started getting consistent playing time over the last couple of weeks. He’s played in almost as many games (eight) since December 20 than the entirety of the season before that point (10 games), averaging 13.7 minutes a night. Meanwhile, Raul Neto has racked up four DNPs since December 20 and played only 18 total minutes. Brett Brown seems to have finally settled on his preferred backup point guard. And since being given more of a chance recently, Burke has been making Brown’s choice pay off.
Burke started fairly well against the Indiana Pacers last week, although all 3 of his made field goals came in the second half when the deficit had reached over 30 points in Indiana’s favor — he finished the game with 8 points (3-of-7 shooting) and a pair of assists in 14 minutes. Burke flashed some of the ball handling and skill the Sixers need off their bench, but it was ultimately a rather meaningless outing.
Burke’s performance against the Rockets was the highlight of his week. He tallied 11 points while shooting 5-of-7 from the floor, 3 rebounds and 3 assists to 1 turnover in his 16 minutes.
Essentially, this game was a good example of what the Sixers can get from Burke. They need any complementary scoring off the dribble, ball handling and playmaking they can get, and that's what he can offer as a spark-plug player off the bench.
Burke provided an early jolt of offense with 5 points and 2 dimes in the first quarter. He can penetrate into the lane and has pretty good touch to finish when he gets there:
And, unlike most players on the roster (including everyone on the bench), Burke can actually attack off a screen or dribble past a closeout and pull up to shoot off the bounce. Clearly this is nothing too impressive. It says more about the Sixers’ roster construction and what they’re lacking, but it’s a way Burke can help all the same:
Brett Brown has given Burke more minutes to work with Ben Simmons over the last two weeks. It’s a pairing that makes sense, given how it takes some pressure off Simmons to create and frees him up to be unleashed more as a screener, cutter and roll man off the ball. The Rockets game was probably the best example of this yet, as Simmons’ pick-and-roll play with Josh Richardson created plenty of positive results (I’ll have an article published soon to look at this in more depth).
Burke can be used similarly to Richardson in these scenarios. So far, in the 69 minutes that Burke and Simmons have shared the court this season, the Sixers have a 121.2 offensive rating (and a +15.3 net rating). Of course, this is a tiny sample size and the play of their three teammates and opposition heavily factors into this. Nevertheless, the offensive lift matches the promising flashes that have been on display, and it’s a positive start for something that makes total sense — adding extra ball handling and using Simmons’ other gifts can help the offense.
On this simple play, Burke runs a pick-and-roll with Al Horford as PJ Tucker leaves Simmons alone on the perimeter. As Burke roams under the basket, Clint Capela shifts to the rim and Tucker moves to the baseline to prevent a kick-out pass to Tobias Harris in the corner. Now that Simmons is left uncovered, he’s able to cut to the rim and Burke delivers a crisp bounce pass to set up an easy finish:
Richardson has struggled to be a consistent pick-and-roll creator this season (he’s often been tasked with doing too much), and the Sixers lack the talent they need in this area now that Jimmy Butler is gone. While Burke isn’t the answer, he can help as a backup.
The next play is another simple example of Burke operating in a pick-and-roll, this time with Joel Embiid. The Rockets respect Burke’s jumper enough and Isaiah Hartenstein hedges, and after setting a strong screen, the lane is open for Embiid. Eric Gordon is forced to help into the paint, which leaves Furkan Korkmaz wide open in the corner and Burke delivers a smooth skip pass to set him up:
Defensively this season, Burke has mostly been... trying. He’s had some solid possessions denying passes and actively shifting his feet as well as he can to stay in front of his man, but there’s no way around the fact that he’s a liability. Burke can be targeted, which was particularly eye-catching against the Rockets. He just doesn’t have the size, strength or athleticism to hold his own against explosive guards or wings that can attack him off the dribble. As a result, it’s hard for him to consistently be much of a positive overall.
This is always going to be the case with Burke, though. It's who he is. But the Sixers have an elite defense whenever they're locked in and they're starved for players who can handle the ball and provide any kind of scoring and playmaking punch off the dribble. They can't afford to be picky and not utilize the ability of a player like Burke, who's already on their bench and able to contribute.
He may be limited, but Burke has a skillset that the Sixers need more of. He should keep earning solid minutes — including more alongside Simmons — with performances like this.