Over the past few seasons, Sixers games tended to follow a similar pattern. The starters would open up a giant lead, the bench would cough it up, and the starters would have to come back in and close the door on their opponent.
In 2022-23, the Sixers’ bench finally may be a strength, not a liability.
Two years ago, the starting lineup of Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid outscored opponents by a massive 16.0 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, which ranked in the 82nd percentile league wide. The bench was 13th in scoring and 10th in net rating, but the leading reserves that season were Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Dwight Howard. This year, Milton, Thybulle and Korkmaz will be on the fringes of the Sixers’ rotation, while Howard is still searching for an NBA job. (At least he has the WWE as a backup plan?)
Last season, the five-man group of Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Thybulle, Harris and Embiid had a scorching plus-20.3 net rating in 660 possessions, which ranked in the 89th percentile league wide. That was the third-best mark of any lineup with at least 300 possessions, trailing only Atlanta’s group of Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Clint Capela and Boston’s starting lineup of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III. The bench, meanwhile, was an unmitigated disaster.
The Sixers got only 27.2 points per game from their reserves last year, the third-worst mark league wide, led by Georges Niang (9.2) and Milton (8.2). Andre Drummond was a rebound-gobbling machine during his half-season stint as Embiid’s backup, but down years from Milton and Korkmaz (38.7 percent overall and 28.9 percent from three) left head coach Doc Rivers without many great options outside of his starting group.
Thanks to their offseason moves, the Sixers should be far more balanced this year.
P.J. Tucker is going to add much-needed toughness to the Sixers’ starting lineup. Beyond that, he gives them a legitimate small-ball 5 option when Embiid is off the floor.
“Depending on the right matchup, he can be very, very good,” Rivers told reporters recently. “First off, he’s the spacer. You can have, let’s say, Matisse on the floor as a roller. You can really just play unorthodox basketball with that. P.J. gets in the corner, he’s gonna make the shot. Dragging the 5 out to the corners. Play Minnesota, you know? Making their 5 stand out in the corner, it’s good for us.”
Howard and Drummond were both steady backups for Embiid, but they were traditional back-to-the-basket bigs. They presented zero scoring threat from outside of three feet, and their main sources of offense were pick-and-rolls and put-backs after offensive rebounds. Tucker, who drilled a career-high 41.5 percent of his three-point attempts with the Miami Heat last year, gives the Sixers a vastly different look than they’ve had in recent years.
The same goes for De’Anthony Melton, who combines Thybulle’s ability to wreak defensive havoc with a legitimate outside game.
Melton shot 38.8 percent from three-point range on 4.7 attempts per game over the past two seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, and he averaged a career-high 10.8 points in only 22.7 minutes per game last season. Thybulle, meanwhile, averaged 5.7 points in 25.5 minutes while shooting only 31.3 percent from deep last year. Although the Sixers briefly experimented with some pick-and-rolls involving him and Harden, he became virtually unplayable in the playoffs because he was such a non-factor offensively.
Melton isn’t a good enough ball-handler to serve as the primary point guard of the bench mob, but Rivers can—and should—stagger Harden and Maxey to ensure at least one of them is on the floor at all times. Harden in particular should get time running the second unit given his past experience playing with Danuel House Jr.
House had his best seasons alongside Harden in Houston. He averaged 9.4 points while drilling a career-high 41.6 percent of his three-point attempts in 2018-19, and he scored a career-high 10.5 points per game while shooting 36.3 percent from deep the following year. He might not generate as many highlight-reel defensive plays as Thybulle, but his steady two-way play should make him a fixture in the Sixers’ rotation this season, too.
Paul Reed and Montrezl Harrell still appear to be battling it out for the backup center job, but both bring something unique to the table. Reed’s defensive switchability could make him a turnover-generating machine—provided he can cut down on his fouling this year—while Harrell’s nonstop motor helps him swallow up offensive rebounds and draw fouls.
It’s still unclear exactly how Rivers will whittle down his rotation, but he now has far more options at this disposal this season. Niang, Thybulle, Korkmaz and/or Milton might be on the outside looking in after being among the most-used reserves last year.
“It’s definitely reassuring to know that there are guys behind you who are going to be ready to play and play at a high level every night,” Niang said at media day. “I think depth is a good thing. You look at the teams that have won championships in years past, they all have depth. I think that’s something we wanted to add this offseason, and we’ve done that. I’m excited. Competition is a great thing.”
Milton was likewise bullish on how the increased competition will impact the team.
“Having that competitive factor and guys pushing each other, I feel like it’s going to do nothing but take this team to the next level,” he said at media day. “Having guys come in with certain mentalities and certain mindsets, I feel like it’s just going to be an atmosphere full of growth from top to bottom, and I think it’ll be good for us.”
The Sixers should use the regular season to experiment with different lineup combinations to see which units work best together. Rather than run all-bench units, Rivers should tinker with seeing which starters and reserves complement one another most effectively. Having more cards to play during the playoffs will only behoove the Sixers in the long run.
While their top-end talent will largely determine the Sixers’ ceiling, the new-look bench could help significantly raise their floor.