The Sixers’ 2021-22 ended for a variety of reasons. From James Harden’s passive struggles, to Joel Embiid’s two significant postseason injuries, to general lacklustre effort in Games 5 and 6 against the Heat. There were multiple factors at play. If the Sixers simply had a healthy Embiid and Danny Green didn’t get injured at the start of Game 6, maybe things would have been different.
Either way, improvements need to be made this offseason. And one simple issue with the team’s roster that has to be addressed is the lack of depth. Specifically, the complete lack of wing depth.
Green going down with what ended up being a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee in Game 6 against Miami felt like such a nail in the coffin for the Sixers’ season because it left them with no other reliable wings to fall back on. Even with a few ice-cold games in the playoffs, Green still shot 40.8 percent from three overall in the postseason on high volume (6.3 attempts in 26.6 minutes per game). He also provides disciplined defense, even if his lateral quickness isn’t nearly what it used to be.
No other options could be relied upon. Matisse Thybulle was the Sixers’ fifth starter for the majority of the regular season, but his flaws were on full display in the playoffs. Apart from some spells of somewhat sharper cutting this year, he made no offensive improvements. Playoff defenses can ignore him completely. And despite being an incredibly talented defender and making the All-Defensive Second Team yet again this year, he wasn’t quite as effective this season. He wasn’t as good in a lead on-ball stopper role after the departure of Ben Simmons, and still had moments of overly aggressive gambling and reaching/fouling that need to be reduced by this stage of his career. Especially when, yet again, those same flaws are heightened in the playoffs.
Offensive rating is a team statistic and there are always different factors to consider, particularly in a smaller sample of playoff minutes. That said, it’s also no accident that the Sixers’ offensive rating fell from 115.7 with Thybulle off the floor this postseason to just 106.2 with him.
The Sixers are in a tough spot now. Unfortunately, Green is out of the picture. Even if he stays in Philly, he could be out most of, if not all, next season. Unless Thybulle magically turns into a league-average shooter over one summer (he won’t), he isn’t solving the Sixers’ wing issues come playoff time. Furkan Korkmaz has made various improvements at both ends of the floor through his career, but had a down year in 2021-22, primarily due to cooling off significantly from three (28.9 percent). Even if he rediscovers his quality three-point shooting from 2019-20 and 2020-21 (39 percent on 8.6 attempts per 36 minutes), he isn’t a go-to playoff option with his defensive weaknesses.
Plus, with so few wings, the Sixers have minimal lineup and defensive versatility. They typically have to use a center. They can’t maintain adequate rebounding and size on the perimeter when they use three-guard lineups and their relatively small wing options. They don’t have the personnel to use very switchable defensive groups, either (which has always been Harden’s preferred style of defense, too). In fact, according to some of BBall Index’s defensive metrics, the Sixers rank 28th in defensive positional versatility. This comes as no surprise after watching them deal with the above issues over the last year.
And it’s not just that the Sixers’ wing rotation generally needs strengthening. It’s the main weakness in comparison to other areas of their roster.
Their lead guard play is already taken care of with James Harden (who has said “I’ll be here” when asked about his 2022-23 player option and potentially entering free agency) and Tyrese Maxey. Much has been made of Harden’s athletic decline and the way he ended the playoffs, so I won’t dive into that now. However, with the benefit of having a full offseason and more time to be further removed from his hamstring injury, it’s not hard to see a path to him improving somewhat next season.
And as for Maxey? Well, he’s improved at a remarkable pace since entering the NBA, most notably hitting 42.7 percent of his threes this year and becoming a legitimate pull-up threat from beyond the arc. With his growth so far and relentless work ethic, he’s likely going to be even better in 2022-23.
Ultimately, Maxey and Harden can be staggered and continue to lead the offense alongside Embiid. All things considered, adding more perimeter creation isn’t the Sixers’ biggest area of need.
As for the Sixers’ backup center spot, Paul Reed and Charles Bassey should be trusted to handle those duties moving forward. Reed did about as well as you could ask for when he finally stepped into the backup center role at the end of the regular season and through the playoffs. A few understandable mistakes and high-foul games aside, he was pretty solid with his energy, mobility defending on the perimeter, switching, work on the boards, and finishing in the paint.
Lots more good stuff from Paul Reed yesterday. 25 points (12/14 FG), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, 1 block in 20 minutes -- showing his athleticism, activity and energy at both ends of the floor.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) April 11, 2022
He should clearly be the Sixers' backup center right now. pic.twitter.com/eD84pBi5N9
Bassey had minimal chances to play for the Sixers this year and was also out late in the regular season and for some of the playoffs due to a shoulder injury. Nevertheless, when he did take to the court, he had solid flashes of play with his rebounding and rim protection. Using Bassey as the team’s larger, stronger backup center option makes sense given his upside and low cost.
So, how can the Sixers improve their wing situation?
For starters, they can see what kind of internal development they can find. When he’s had chances to play, Isaiah Joe has shown real promise with his impressive shooting skillset and smart, competitive defense. I’m sure that given the chance to play remotely consistent minutes, Joe’s three-point percentage will trend up based on his obvious skill and track record dating back to college. If there’s a young Sixer who can step up into a rotation role next season, it’s Joe.
Can the Sixers get anything from Jaden Springer for some much-needed athleticism at both ends of the floor? Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice touched on the team’s belief in Springer in a new article this week:
Elsewhere in young depth musings, the team was satisfied with progress shown by 2021 first-round pick Jaden Springer throughout his time in the G-League, and there is hope that the year of experience will have him ready to compete for a rotation job in training camp.
It will be possible to believe that when (if) Doc Rivers actually plays him.
Then there’s the Sixers’ first-round pick in this year’s draft. For all the reasons mentioned above regarding their lead guard play and young backup bigs, looking for a talented wing prospect should be the sole focus if they keep the pick. Players like Jalen Williams, E.J. Liddell, and Tari Eason (if they’re lucky enough for him to fall) are all intriguing potential targets. That is, unless the Sixers trade the pick in a move to (ideally) acquire a veteran wing.
Beyond the draft, the Sixers need to focus on finding whatever wing depth they can in free agency. There are legitimately helpful options who could be available in their limited budget of the mid-level exception (either the taxpayer’s MLE of around $6.1 million, or the full MLE of around $10.1 million if they manage to create enough cap space) and minimum contracts. LB’s Jackson Frank has analyzed in depth some of the targets who could address some of Philly’s weaknesses, such as as Caleb and Cody Martin, Wesley Matthews and Gary Harris.
It’s also been rumored that the Sixers are interested in star hunting this summer. This is looking even more unlikely than it was a few weeks ago, though. Based on all recent reports, it seems likely that stars such as Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine will stay put with their current teams. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, following the departure of Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, Donovan Mitchell is “unsettled, unnerved and wondering what it means for the franchise’s future.” But for now at least, Mitchell isn’t asking for a trade or reportedly available. And even if Mitchell does truly become up for grabs, the Sixers are still extremely limited on trade assets if Maxey is untouchable, which is a completely understandable approach (in most circumstances) and one that LB’s Paul Hudrick has reported the team is sticking with.
Of course, it’s always helpful to add more scoring punch — even more so if Harden doesn’t improve his burst or scoring off the dribble at all. But even if the Sixers were able to land another star guard, they’d only make their roster even more top heavy, both in terms of talent and salary. They wouldn’t address any weaknesses regarding their depth or two-way wing play, and they’d be adding another negative defender to the rotation who could be targeted in the playoffs, all while making it harder to fill out a deep roster over the coming years by placing more emphasis on big names and big salaries.
To secure better depth around their stars, improve their defensive versatility and lineup options, and potentially find a more reliable two-way player as their fifth starter, finding more wings has to be the top priority for the Sixers this offseason.