This is part two of a three part Sins of the Past Countdown Series taking a look at what I think were Brett Brown’s 3 biggest mistakes of the 2018-2019 season, and what if any lessons can be gleaned for this year’s group.
In part 1 of the series, we looked at number 3 on my list of the Sixers’ top coaching mistakes from a year ago, not generating enough creative off-ball looks for Ben Simmons. Their dynamic 6’10 All-Star was relegated to the dunker spot for way too much of the series against the Raptors and it just felt like a waste of his skills. But recently in practice it sounds as if he’ll be playing off the ball more and utilized as a roll-man in the screen game, demonstrating Brown is now innovating on the fly.
Today we’re onto what a few of you mentioned in our reply section from the last post: what did the Sixers do last year when All-NBA two-way force Joel Embiid needed a rest? And what can this team learn from that fatal error?
2) Couldn’t stem the bleeding when Joel Embiid sat vs. Toronto
It’s game seven of the second round of the playoffs on the road and Joel Embiid needs a blow. Brett Brown thinks about his options. He was in what Sam Hinkie might call a zugzwang- basically, when all of your options stink. But he had to do his best anyway. He wasn’t going to win the minutes Embiid (who finished the series as a +89 plus-minus) needed to sit, he just had to bleed as slowly as possible.
There was Boban Marjanović, who in the prior game posted a -18 in just 6:46 minutes of action. Bobi was a -44 in just under 27 minutes of action for the series to that point. Brown just couldn’t quit the lovable Serbia native until it was painfully obvious he had to.
There was Amir Johnson and Jonah Bolden, both players then cleaving to the threshold of NBA-worthiness (a battle each subsequently lost this season). Bolden had looked lost defensively many times that winter and Johnson’s goose had likely reached an edible temperature years prior.
There was newcomer Greg Monroe, who’d posted a -16 in just under 20 minutes of action to that point and had been a DNP in their game 6 win. Brown ultimately opted for Monroe who posted a -9 during a 1:41 stint. In a game where the Sixers defense held Toronto to 92 points overall, Monroe’s buck-forty one was like the new dude Ft. Knox hired forgetting to lock the backdoor on his first day.
The choice I think Brown should have went with was a small-ball lineup. Options existed like swapping Mike Scott in for Embiid with all of the usual starters. A regular season lineup of all of the starters plus Mike Scott (a shooter) in for Embiid posted a +9 over 39 total minutes. All of the starters plus James Ennis instead of Embiid was a +6 in just 14 total minutes. For my money, neither lineup was utilized enough.
One valid criticism of Brown is that he just didn’t do enough experimenting with small ball lineups earlier that season; with an understanding that lumbering, non-stretch bigs are often sitting ducks by the second round of the playoffs and an especially awkward fit alongside Simmons, the right move was to get as many small ball reps as possible in before that vital moment. Rehearse your switches and sets. Even when it’s not always pretty. And yes, even if it costs you a regular season game or two.
Going with Boban as the backup five may very well have helped the Sixers get the 3 seed over Boston a year ago. That shouldn’t be overlooked. But it came with a sacrifice to small ball experimentation. All of the minutes Bobi played during the regular season cost the team critical chances to gain reps with lineups more conducive to championship basketball and more conducive to unleashing Simmons’ true potential. They chose wrong and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it cost them a championship.
Lessons for today
Word from Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer is Coach Brown won’t prioritize seeding, he’ll prioritize finalizing his rotation when the games resume in Orlando. These types of reports demonstrate learning from the mistake. Prioritizing lineup experimentation is especially wise as there’s no home court anyway, and while it might be nice to dodge Boston in round 1 by moving up a seed or two, the biggest concern should be figuring out how to maximize top end talent. They really cannot experiment enough before these playoffs begin.
How can they best complement Embiid’s interior dominance? How can they use Al Horford’s slick passing or dangerous pick-and-pop game to bring out Simmons’ ceiling? How much can Horford, Simmons and Embiid coexist? What types of plays work best for a lineup now featuring Shake Milton as a lead ball-handler? What 5 players should they close a game 7 with? Can a lineup of Matisse Thybulle, Simmons, Horford, Furkan Korkmaz, and Tobias Harris generate enough stops? They may not get answers to these questions in so few games. But at least sussing out clues would be worth trotting out a few suboptimal, even clunky lineups during seeding games in order to learn. Yes, even if it costs them a win or two. As always, it’s about the long view and winning the last game of the tournament. And they don’t want to “overplay Boban” this time around at the expense of gaining crucial reps for a unit better equipped to hang with the Bucks or Clippers in a game seven.
Stay tuned for Brett Brown’s number one biggest mistake from the 2018-2019 season in part 3 coming soon....