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Should the Sixers lean into an all-offense starting lineup around Joel Embiid?

Contemplating how Philadelphia can maximize its title chances and best empower its superstar.

Philadelphia 76ers v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

After a second straight Bobby Portis jumper punctuated the Milwaukee Bucks’ 11-2 run, which pushed their lead to 53-41, the Philadelphia 76ers were floundering. Late in the second quarter, the game was seemingly slipping out of their grasp.

The offense was clunky, the defense was in disarray, the shots weren’t falling. A chance to score a notable win against the reigning champs was drifting away. Something needed to change, so they called timeout.

Out of the break, in an effort to catalyze a faltering offense, Furkan Korkmaz replaced Matisse Thybulle in the starting unit. Immediately, fireworks commenced. Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid spammed pick-and-rolls with Korkmaz and Georges Niang in the corners, and Tobias Harris in the dunker spot. Space was abundant for the team’s top-two bucket-getters.

Across a five-minute stretch, the Sixers registered 28 points and scored on each of their 12 possessions to end the half. A 12-point deficit became an eight-point advantage. By the end of a 123-120 win, Philadelphia was a plus-20 during the 20 minutes that Maxey, Korkmaz, Harris, Niang and Embiid spent together, scoring 64 points on 48 possessions.

As James Harden’s debut nears and the Sixers craft a new identity with the star guard in town, a question arises: what is this team’s optimal starting unit? Presumably, a Maxey-Harden-Thybulle-Harris-Embiid gets the first crack. But on the heels of Thursday’s game and the way the offense was humming playing four shooters around Embiid, it’s worth challenging whether that lineup is the path to a title.

*And yes, Korkmaz, despite this year’s struggles, is still a credible shooter, sitting just below 36 percent from deep for his career.*

In full transparency, the Maxey-Korkmaz-Harris-Niang-Embiid linup shot 21 of 35 from the floor (14 of 22 on twos, 7 of 13 beyond the arc). Those aren’t sustainable marks. But the film reveals the potency of Embiid plus shooters. This wasn’t a case of tough shot-making propping up the offense. Sound process led to sought-after attempts and some variance took hold. A lot of the events feel replicable, and that’s crucial.

According to Cleaning The Glass, in 500 possessions this season, the Maxey-Seth Curry-Thybulle-Harris-Embiid quintet generated a minus-12.4 net rating. That’s not to single out Thybulle, but to acknowledge perhaps his conflicting presence in the starting five extends beyond a one-game sample.

Swap in Danny Green and Philadelphia has a plus-10.8 net rating in 491 possessions. I’m not sure Green is well-equipped to handle starter’s minutes these days, but he’s absolutely someone who should be considered as a closing option.

Upgrading from Curry to Harden should help either unit. Their long-range shooting luck is also on differing ends of the spectrum (37.7 percent with Green, 32.9 percent with Thybulle), though questioning if Thybulle should start feels entirely justifiable. Just don’t read too much into samples of fewer than 260 minutes each. Focus on the film, which is most salient.

The issue with starting Thybulle and playing him 28 minutes (which he overwhelmingly has since the Dec. 11 Golden State win) is just how much he bogs down the spacing and Embiid’s game. His cutting and off-ball screening are assuredly improved from last season. But they don’t mean much if teams can entirely ignore him and prevent Embiid from catching the ball in desired areas, given he’s the one best qualified to capitalize on those traits of Thybulle’s.

Even then, recent games (Boston and Milwaukee, for instance) have illuminated how shrewd defensive teams will amplify the scope of Thybulle’s issues. These are three separate possessions from Thursday’s first quarter and his absence of average offensive utility is a primary culprit for empty trips each time:

Giannis Antentokounmpo is the NBA’s ultimate free safety, so suggesting his ability to shut down actions can be paralleled by others is disingenuous. However, Milwaukee is perhaps the gold standard out East. Plus, other playoff contenders like Boston (Robert Williams), Cleveland (Evan Mobley) and Toronto (Pascal Siakam) roster rangy big men to embody that roamer role, though to lesser degrees.

All are led by savvy defensive head coaches. In any playoff series against them, sooner or later, Thybulle’s offensive shortcomings will be exploited. Further, his defense regressed during last year’s postseason when star scorers leveraged his aggressive tendencies against him.

None of this even mentions Miami, which holds the East’s top seed and the league’s sixth-ranked defense, and is captained by genius tactician Erik Spoelstra. The Heat are smaller in the frontcourt than those other teams, but betting against their defensive creativity is unwise.

Perhaps Harden’s arrival, which inserts another plus-passer into the starting five, softens the damage of Thybulle’s offensive warts. He could be the one whirling skip passes to corner shooters when Thybulle sets pin-in screens and his man shades help on Embiid inside.

Right now, other than Embiid, nobody can regularly make skip passes, especially from the top of the key, since most Sixers ball-handlers aren’t touching the paint very often.

Harden is different. That must be acknowledged, and his presence could allow Thybulle’s versatile defense to shine without the offense overshadowing things. There will absolutely be games, matchups and series where his All-Defensive services carry wider importance than normal. Despite that, Harden’s acquisition feels like the sort of move that could shift the Embiid Era from one full of defensively slanted teams to an offensively slanted squad.

The NBA’s leading scorer is joining forces with the man who ranks second in assists per game, and they’re flanked by viable shooters and secondary scorers. Even if Harden has declined from his MVP peak, he’s still an All-Star. Embiid has never played with an All-Star guard who’s better on offense than defense*, nor has he ever been this good himself offensively. A blueprint for an offensive dynamo exists.

*Ben Simmons is very good. My comment is not shade. It is merely truth. And Jimmy Butler was not named an All-Star as a Sixer.*

Against the Bucks, once Maxey-Korkmaz-Harris-Niang-Embiid became the modus operandi, the Sixers encountered consistent success out of ball-screens. Neither Maxey nor Harris are anywhere close to the pick-and-roll maestro that Harden is, but the offense still hummed. Embiid’s scoring gravity and passing growth bend defenses like few others around the league. Thursday’s game read like a thesis on that concept, and Antetokounmpo’s decision-making grew more complicated once Thybulle exited.

The result of this lineup was a whole lot of single coverage vs. the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid, with Milwaukee hesitant to send help off of shooters. Six-foot-10, 250-pound Portis and 6-foot-10, 235-pound Serge Ibaka are certainly not prepared to slow him. At this point, though, basically anyone in single coverage against Embiid is at the whim of his elite, versatile shot-making. Everyone is a mismatch for him. That’s why he is who he is.

Anchoring four shooting/scoring threats around him exacerbates this problem for defenses. Milwaukee bore witness to it firsthand. Hot shooting isn’t entirely responsible for him scoring 27 points on 82.9 percent true shooting with this group. His caliber of looks was exquisite. All the room he had to maneuver worked beautifully.

Whether it’s Niang or Green in place of Thybulle, this type of spacing could (and should?) be the norm moving forward.

Any lineup playing heavy minutes without Thybulle is likely going to strain Embiid defensively. Yet any lineup without Thybulle will also probably simplify his offensive responsibilities. There’s a trade-off. That’s the nature of Thybulle.

Gauging how Harden alters the entire offense and Thybulle’s role in it is understandable. Maybe, he’s the skeleton key that unlocks the superlatives of the third-year wing and masks many of his flaws. Yet experimenting with different configurations around Maxey, Harden, Harris and Embiid in the starting five is vital.

To Rivers’ credit, he’s shown flexibility in closing with different lineups than whichever one begins the game. That’ll be necessary the rest of the way. There’s a lot of nuance involved in solidifying the fifth starter. While I’m wary Thybulle is the answer, it’s also not my decision and one I don’t envy making.

The Sixers are in a good spot. With the ideal fifth starter, they’ll be in a great spot. Thursday’s impressive win could be a watershed moment for the season. Or, it could be but a footnote. Regardless, it shouldn’t be ignored on discerning this team’s path toward a possible title.

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