After the initial 48-hour quarantine period in the Orlando bubble, the Sixers are back on the court and head coach Brett Brown has already made waves at Ben Simmons’ local fishing spot by unveiling a new-look starting lineup. The first 65 games of the regular season showed the offensive dysfunction inherent in any Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons-Al Horford on-court grouping, so continuing the trend started what seems like 25 years ago back in February, Horford will be moved to the bench in favor of a smaller teammate better able to provide floor spacing and gravity.
This time, however, the inclusion of Shake Milton into the starting lineup hasn’t followed the Sixers’ recent recipe of throwing another wing out there to nail catch-and-shoot 3s, in the vein of Furkan Korkmaz, Glenn Robinson III, or Matisse Thybulle. No, Milton is being designated the team’s starting point guard, with Simmons moving to the nominal power forward position.
Now, this switch doesn’t mean Ben will stop punishing the competition in the open court following grab-and-go defensive rebounds, but we will see more of Simmons as a roll man, a topic our Tom West covered extensively a couple weeks back. Logically, the move means more of Milton as a primary initiator in the half-court, and less of Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in that role, players who have seemed overextended at times when tasked with being the team’s top creator. Plus, on those occasions when Brett does call out for a 2-4 or 2-5 pick-and-roll, the Sixers will replace a 34 percent 3-point shooter in Horford, with a 45 percent 3-point shooter in Milton, a player who also happens to have a much quicker release and range a couple feet beyond the arc. That disparity can only benefit the four holdover starters in their efforts within the painted area.
Still, for all the sense this lineup adjustment makes, it’s interesting to consider from another perspective. Can you guess the number of minutes the new projected starting five of Shake Milton-Josh Richardson-Tobias Harris-Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid has played together in an NBA game?
I’ll give you a hint, the answer is one minute fewer than the number of people who believe Bryan Colangelo was “absolved” in the Burnergate controversy (a group which appears to include the high-collared one himself and no one else).
How many times has a starting lineup with zero experience together had only eight games to gel before the playoffs? I can only speculate the answer is not many. Sure, everyone loves to fondly recall occasions when a coach made a significant lineup change to turn things around in the postseason, a recent famous example being Steve Kerr replacing Andrew Bogut with Andre Iguodala in the 2015 NBA Finals. In that instance, though, the new grouping was already referred to as the “Death Lineup” and had logged 102 minutes together during the regular season, plus another 41 minutes through the first three rounds of the playoffs. It was far from a green group, like Shake and the Sixers.
Let’s take a look at the top two contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks’ starting unit of Eric Bledsoe-Wes Matthews-Khris Middleton-Giannis Antetokounmpo-Brook Lopez has already played 408 minutes together this season. Toronto’s starters have accrued either 280 or 197 minutes together depending upon whether you want to slot Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka next to Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-OG Anunoby-Pascal Siakam. Now, sure, a starting unit typically only plays about 15 minutes per game together, and a closing unit isn’t always the same group, but there’s still something to be said for the on-court chemistry and nuanced knowledge of each other’s games that can only be earned by putting in the time together.
However, don’t go thinking that I believe Brett Brown is making the wrong move here. I don’t. I’m very excited! With the COVID-19 pandemic splitting this season in two and still looming over the NBA and everyone else as a threat, every team will face its own set of challenges in Orlando. Key role players have already opted out of playing due to personal matters or to avoid the health risks of participating. Boston could lose Gordon Hayward for an extended period if the Celtics are still playing when Hayward’s wife Robyn gives birth to their fourth child. Teams could lose guys at critical junctures of the postseason due to a positive test or having crossed the campus line to pick up a food delivery. If the Sixers’ biggest difficulty is the team’s starters only having eight games to play together prior to the playoffs, they should consider themselves fortunate.
Essentially, the inexperience of this new Sixers starting group underscores how essential this training camp period, as well as the scrimmages and seeding games, will be for their success. The conclusion to this NBA season will feature countless things we have rarely or never seen before. A playoff starting five with fewer than 10 games’ experience together is just one small example.