The arrival of James Harden has significantly elevated the Philadelphia 76ers’ status as true title contenders. Following Monday night’s 121-106 win in Chicago, the Sixers are now 5-0 when Harden takes the court with the club. Still, the roster isn’t without fault. The most highly-publicized area of weakness is backup center, where DeAndre Jordan got the latest nod on Monday. However, another depth issue is at the wing position.
Harden and almost-big-three-official Tyrese Maxey have the point guard position locked down, and obviously share the backcourt with the starting group. Then, aside from Matisse Thybulle, who will be a mainstay due to his elite defensive prowess, the Sixers don’t really know what they have on the perimeter.
For the longest time, Furkan Korkmaz was the first guy off the bench, a fact that irritated Sixers fans more and more with every clanged jumper. Currently, Korkmaz is shooting a career-worst 29.0 percent from three, and 38.9 percent from the field overall, a mark only above his rookie season when he barely played. When Furkan perplexingly drew the start in place of a resting Harden Saturday night in Miami, and flamed out again (1-of-5 from the field for two points), it appeared to be a last straw for head coach Doc Rivers. Korkmaz did not appear in Monday’s game against the Bulls.
So what other options does Doc Rivers have? One decision could be playing Thybulle even more minutes. His playing time in the past has been limited to the low-to-mid-twenties due to his offensive limitations, and how they bog things down on that end of the court. But playing alongside Harden has made Matisse a more effective part of the offense, with Harden’s elite passing ability enabling Thybulle to contribute more as a cutter and roller. Here’s Thybulle after scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting against the Bulls:
“Yeah, I mean I rolled a lot this game ... it’s just something that opens up, the way teams play James [Harden] is pretty unique and how they want to blitz him or force him right or whatever. They throw a lot of things at him and my goal essentially is to force a switch or get his guy off of him and by doing a short roll it allows to create space and through that he kind of does what he does.”
Danny Green is obviously in the mix. He’s still a solid defender at 34 years of age, and has the quick-trigger release that helps support the team’s stars as a catch-and-shoot release valve offensively. However, his health is ever a question mark. Green’s departure from the Atlanta series with a calf injury was an under-discussed factor in the team’s upset loss to the Hawks. He has been on a minutes restriction for the bulk of this season with hamstring and hip injuries. Monday, Green left the game against the Bulls with a lacerated finger. A failure to plan for a life without Danny Green available is planning to fail.
A curveball lineup we’ve seen a fair bit is Tobias Harris and Georges Niang at the two forward positions alongside a traditional center. Niang has been an exemplary offseason acquisition at a $3.3 million price tag this season, shooting 40.1 percent from three on a career-high 5.0 attempts per game. Maximizing Niang’s minutes in non-traditional lineups makes perfect sense, as he is another player that seems to fit hand-in-glove on the court alongside the Beard. Harden has assisted on eight of Niang’s 14 made three-pointers in James’ five games with the Sixers. Here was what Niang had to say after Monday’s win on playing with Harden:
“I can’t say that it’s like anyone I have ever played with. I mean, I’m sure if I really sat back and thought about it guys that I’ve watched, but when I’m out there on the court the fact that he draws so much attention as a scorer and then he just has an ability to make quick passes or no-look passes and hit me right on the hands. I mean, it’s like a dream come true. My job is pretty simple after that and he just does such a good job of reading the game and letting the game come to him and not forcing anything. I am excited that he is on our side.”
That big forward combination might only be accessible in certain matchups, however, as quicker opposing wings could leave them roasted, toasted, and burnt to a crisp. The Sixers will need other more traditional wing options at their disposal. Enter Shake Milton and Isaiah Joe.
Seemingly a Rivers favorite ever since scoring a career-high 39 points against Doc’s Clippers back in 2020, Shake has had a down year in his fourth NBA season. His two-point and three-point percentages (47.9 percent and 29.5 percent, respectively) are well below his marks from the last two seasons, and he missed a large chunk of the season with ankle and back injuries. Still, Milton has strung together a few solid performances of late, and received first-quarter minutes on Monday. I’d imagine Doc will give him every chance to maintain his spot; he spoke on Shake’s tough year after the Cleveland game Friday night:
“It’s a shame, we were talking in one of our coaches’ meetings … he was playing better than everybody in training camp. He played unbelievable, had an unbelievable four or five days, and then I think the day before the first preseason game he steps on someone’s ankle and he’s out three weeks or four weeks. He comes back, he gets COVID. He comes back, he hurts his back. He’s just had one of those years. But as we told him, the year hasn’t started yet. The real stuff is just beginning and you have a chance to have a terrific ending. That’s what’s going to be big for him.”
The more intriguing option for many Sixers fans, though, is the team’s 2020 second-round pick Isaiah Joe. Joe has the profile of someone you want in the lineup (quick release, no compunction about letting it fly, range out to the Main Line), but the results haven’t quite followed this season (33.1 percent from three). Still, those shooting numbers are on a small sample size of 118 attempts, and when your previous option hasn’t worked out, why not open up the mystery box? Doc was asked postgame Monday about replacing Korkmaz in the rotation with Joe:
“Well, he’s just been working and Furk’s been up and down. I just thought, it’s time to give Isaiah a shot.”
(The opening bars of Lose Yourself ring throughout the arena.)
Rivers set the stage over the weekend for the latest quiet tournament:
“And again, we’re going to need one of those guys — [Shake], Danny, Furk and Isaiah — two of those four by the end of it. Two of those four are going to have to really come through for us.”
As the conclusion of the regular season draws near, we’ll see who seizes the opportunity and best supports the Sixers in their push for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.