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A statistical look into Sixers lineup trends ahead of the playoffs

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The statistics cited in this article are courtesy of Cleaning The Glass (subscription required), Basketball Reference, and FiveThirtyEight.

The Sixers have had a largely successful season, currently sitting in 1st place in the Eastern Conference. Their success speaks to the players’ ability to mesh and enable each other, and head coach Doc Rivers’ ability to construct effective lineups. By the same token, not every lineup iteration has been perfect and not all players are perfectly suited to play with each other. But those hiccups have surfaced over the course of the season and Rivers will use the film and data to amend his rotation when the games start to matter a bit more. Let’s take a look at some lineup trends that could have playoff implications.

Dwight Howard On

When the Philadelphia 76ers signed Dwight Howard, I praised the move. Long gone were the days when Howard was an offensive force, but he found offensive success in the 2019-20 season playing within himself and limiting his shot selection, while coming off the bench for the first time in his career. (Dwight shot a career-high 72.9% from the field on 4.0 FGA/game last season.) On the defensive end, I had a similar evaluation. Far removed from his days as a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but still more than capable of providing plus defense in 20 minutes per game.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, lineups featuring Howard have not been effective in the aggregate: over 2,102 possessions with Dwight at center, the Sixers have a point differential of -5.0 — the pace of a team who would win about 29 games in an 82 game season. Howard deserves some criticism here. He’s shooting just 58.2% from the floor despite 79% of his shots attempts coming at the rim and he’s been a turnover machine, with 23.1% of his possessions resulting in a turnover (1st percentile for his position). Defensively, Howard’s foul rate is through the roof with enough fouls per-36 minutes to be ejected nightly at 6.0. But I certainly would not put all the blame on Dwight.

While Howard’s been far from perfect as a backup center, the lineups he’s placed into are not ideal for Dwight’s strengths and weaknesses. There are just four lineup iterations with Dwight at center that have played at least 100 possessions together. Three of those have a positive point differential. The one negative, at -37.9 over 137 possessions, is the only of the four that features both Dwight and Ben Simmons.

It’s plain as day to Sixers fans that Howard and Ben Simmons are not a compatible match on the floor. But outside of Simmons, Doc Rivers has not had much in the way of point guard options. Shake Milton has struggled to effectively carry the offense among the reserve unit and Tyrese Maxey, who I believe in long term, is a 20-year-old rookie still figuring things out. Howard needs a running mate who can serve as the prototypical point guard and until George Hill came to town, the Sixers just could not offer such a complementary piece to Howard in the 2nd unit.

Once the playoffs roll around, Doc Rivers’ rotation will tighten up. As a result, it may be best for the team to limit Howard’s role to a matchup-specific role or break glass in case of emergency situations, like Embiid fouling out or missing a game. More importantly, Howard’s run should come only when Ben Simmons is not on the floor and only when George Hill is.

Joel, Ben and Tobi

The Sixers’ big three has been whooping arse and taking names. Over 1,732 possessions, lineups featuring Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris have the blistering point differential of +16.2 — 99th percentile among all lineups. These lineups are clicking on both ends of the floor, scoring 1.196 points per possession (93rd percentile) and allowing only 1.034 points per possession on the opposite end (98th percentile). Jo-Ben-Tobi lineups have just one weakness when it comes to the four factors: they are not grabbing offensive boards at high rate. Hey, you can’t do it all.

Tobias + Bench

One of the brightest spots of the 2020-21 Sixers has undoubtedly been Tobias Harris and his ability to lift up bench lineups. Basically, the Sixers are getting the Tobias Harris they traded for in 2018-19. Lineups featuring Tobias Harris, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons off the floor, have a point differential of +8.6 over 639 possessions. For reference, the Utah Jazz at +10.9 and the Los Angeles Clippers at +6.9 are 1st and 2nd in the NBA in point differential, respectively.

What’s surprising about these lineups is that it’s on the defensive end that they excel. Tobi on, Ben and Jo off lineups score 1.111 points per possession, a slightly less than mediocre rate placing these lineups in the 42nd percentile. However, these lineups allow just 1.025 points per possession, good enough to rank in the 98th percentile of all lineups. Tobias is often on the floor with Matisse Thybulle and Dwight Howard. Despite their propensity to foul, Thybulle wreaks havoc on the perimeter and Dwight provides adequate rim protection and limits offensive boards for the opposition. On the other end, Tobi just needs to keep the offense afloat, which is exactly what he does.

Where things get concerning is when you add Ben Simmons to Tobias lineups, while keeping Joel off. Ben and Tobi on, Joel off lineups have a point differential of -7.5. But this gets back to the Sixers backup center problems, and again, it’s less about Dwight himself as it is his fit with Simmons. When filtered to have both Joel and Dwight off, Ben and Tobi lineups have a closer-to-average -0.5 point differential and that’s without a first or second unit center. It speaks to the Sixers need to not just find an adequate backup to Embiid, which Dwight is in a vacuum, but the need to find one who fills the stretch five role rather than a traditional big. That’s an issue that is now too late to address via trade or buyout market and Rivers will need to find work around this postseason.

Matisse and Furkan on

Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz provide Philly a potent bench wing duo. According to FiveThirtyEight, Matisse Thybulle ranks 36th and Furkan Korkmaz ranks 48th in RAPTOR, their all-in-one metric measuring player impact. For context, 30 NBA teams with 5 starters each makes for 150 starters. There are 150 players starting above ‘Tisse and Kork, yet they both rank in the top 50 in the NBA in RAPTOR this season. The Sixers get to have them on their bench.

FurTisse KorkBulle have played 1,142 possessions across various lineups with a point differential of +5.1 (80th percentile). Of the top five lineup combinations that feature Korkmaz and Thybulle, only the fifth highest has a negative differential at -1.3 and that’s over a mere 49 possessions. Even more impressive is the fact that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are in zero of those five yet they still manage to be a plus. And, though it’s a small sample at only 68 possessions, a very encouraging trend among Kork and ‘Tisse lineups is that the lineup also including George Hill, Dwight Howard and Shake Milton is +18.0. The Sixers won’t have many all-reserve occurrences in the playoffs, but it’s a relief to Sixers fans to have depth, especially on the wing.

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