Pretty recently Shake Milton wasn’t guaranteed a chance to crack the Sixers’ playoff rotation at all. Now fans are wondering if he’s the new starter when the season resumes. Recall, Ben Simmons, the team’s acting point guard was fully healthy and the team had recently acquired veteran backcourt players like Alec Burks and Glen Robinson III. It was a sudden rash of injuries to players like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons that set the stage for the breakout Milton exhibited shortly before the NBA season was postponed. His game is marked not by unbridled explosiveness but by dexterity, cunning, and a rare controlled lankiness. Poise describes his game well. How he can confidently drill a low-release shot right over the outstretched hands of a hurdling Giannis Antetokounmpo. How he can slither or dart into the lane past wings then hit the brakes and extend every inch of a 7’ wingspan behind the outstretched arms of Anthony Davis to flip the ball in softly. But the word also describes how he was able to stay ready when Simmons went down with that back injury and Milton was thrust back into not just a rotation role but a starting one. He delivered during his signature performance in Los Angeles, dropping 39 points on Patrick Beverley, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers. The team didn’t get a win but they certainly got plenty to think about as they plan for the playoffs. So what might his emergence mean?
[Above is a video I made with plenty of highlights from the Sixers’ own @Sixers Instagram and more from Youtube, the music is a cover song featuring Dan Berk and Lance Allen, via Tristar Records. They’re singing the Billie Eilish hit “Bad Guy.”]
If this were a different team, Milton would purely be a feel-good story. If this were the Knicks for example, having found a guy who seems this good with the 54th pick in the 2018 draft would signify a rush of refreshing front office competence and we’d all relish in his future no matter how he played for the rest of the season. But Philadelphia is a different animal. The Sixers have so many burning questions surrounding their roster as we begin to imagine basketball resuming: can Milton bridge some of this team’s gaps? Is he that “bad guy” who can hit contested shots and fix the problems they have whenever away from Wells Fargo? Does his skill set represent another shot at the off-ball combo triple-threat guard they once hoped Markelle Fultz would become? Can Shake get “Playoff Al” Horford going or at least make his fit alongside Joel Embiid less clunky? Even if he is not a traditional “lead guard” might he facilitate Simmons finding new ways to impact the game off the ball, like being a roll-man? Is he a starter or a bench guy? Can he stay healthy despite his recent history of injuries? Listen Shake, are you the franchise’s savior or not!?
Milton gave fans just a quick 5-game flavor of something the team has been missing so desperately: perimeter creation and hot shooting. It understandably unleashed some floodgates of fan hope due to how barren the team’s roster has been of bona fide perimeter play makers. The season is set to resume on July 31st, though everything in life feels tentative lately. Assuming that’s really the case though, it would not be a shock to see Coach Brown elect to start Horford, using the reasoning that a starting unit of Horford, Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Haarris and Josh Richardson has a +8.5 net rating in their very limited time together. Now that they’re all reasonably healthy, let’s stick with it. Similarly, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Brown elect to stagger Embiid and Horford for as many minutes as he can get away with, and bring a player like Milton or someone else into the starting unit. Milton has really complimented many of the things Horford does best and they’ve made each other better. That’s worth considering. How Milton and Horford’s minutes go will be one of the more intriguing things to keep an eye on and it will be in some ways the biggest decision of Brown’s weird-disjointed season. There are always rumors that he’s on the hot seat this time of year, but this time it’s felt even hotter than usual.
It’s unclear just how good Milton is at this point. As our Steve Lipman has argued, it appears the Sixers have a keeper. But the emergence of the 23 year old from Oklahoma also gives this team one more reason for hope beyond what they have seen for most of this largely disappointing season; he at least represents a splash of gasoline for that “don’t worry they’re built for the playoffs” fire we’ve yet to see burn, save for the occasional Christmas Day spark. It’s looking like there will be 8 games whose outcome may not matter all that much (since there are some good justifications for preferring a 6 seed to a 4 seed). I’ll be very curious to see how Shake might be able to help us answer all of our most important questions. In Philly the fans can be harsh and the expectations high. But maybe Shake has the poise to take it all on and deliver.