If there’s one thing Sixers fans have learned about Doc Rivers in recent years, it’s that he loves himself a bench-heavy lineup.
Aside from his famed three starting lineups, the Sixers’ most-used five-man unit this season features Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Montrezl Harrell. Those hockey-style full lineup changes should be a relic of the past once the playoffs arrive, but unlike predecessor Brett Brown, Rivers seems to believe in pairing his stars’ minutes as much as possible rather than staggering them.
This isn’t just a regular-season thing, either. The Sixers’ third-most-used lineup in the 2020-21 playoffs featured Milton, Thybulle, George Hill, Tobias Harris and Dwight Howard. They also played a Maxey-Hill-Thybulle-Harris-Howard unit for 16 minutes, the sixth-most of any five-man lineup in that playoff run.
The 10 or so minutes per game that Joel Embiid spends off the floor in the playoffs could swing the outcome of a game, if not an entire series. Thankfully, the Sixers’ trade-deadline move and a few rotation changes have made a bench-heavy lineup far more palatable than it’s been in past years.
At the trade deadline, the Sixers shipped out Thybulle and the Charlotte Hornets’ 2023 second-round pick for Jalen McDaniels and a pair of future second-rounders. While many Sixers fans fixated on (and fumed about) the luxury-tax implications of that move, it had a tangible on-court benefit as well.
“Some of it was just we think Jalen can really help, and some of it was the challenges of what’s to come, which are the wars in the playoffs,” team president Daryl Morey told reporters after the trade deadline. “We think Jalen will be someone who can be easier for Doc to keep on the floor at tough times in the playoffs.”
McDaniels is shooting only 27.3 percent from three-point range as a Sixer and 31.9 percent on the season, although there’s slight room for optimism there. He knocked down 38.0 percent of his three-point attempts last season (albeit on low volume), whereas Thybulle shot 30.1 percent from deep in 2020-21 and 31.3 percent in 2021-22 on similar volume.
Even if McDaniels’ three-point shot doesn’t come around this season and opponents give him the Thybulle treatment on offense—aka, sag off him when he’s spotting up along the perimeter—he’s proved capable of making an impact in other areas offensively. McDaniels is hauling offensive rebounds on 7.5 percent of the team’s misses when he’s on the floor, which ranks in the 94th percentile among players at his position leaguewide.
He’s also coming up with huge putback dunks on some of those offensive boards, as the Milwaukee Bucks can attest.
Swapping Thybulle for McDaniels has made the Sixers’ bench more potent offensively. The Sixers averaged 116.0 points per 100 possessions this season with Thybulle on the floor without Joel Embiid—and got outscored by 2.4 points per 100 possessions—while they’re averaging 123.6 per 100 and are outscoring opponents by 11.3 per 100 with McDaniels on the floor and Embiid off.
McDaniels isn’t the only reason for the bench unit’s recent success, though. The decision to shift Tyrese Maxey back into the starting lineup is arguably the biggest catalyst.
Maxey is a potent three-level scorer, but he’s nowhere near the level of facilitator that James Harden is. The Sixers have been outscored by 0.4 points per 100 possessions in the 370 minutes they’ve played this season with Maxey on the floor and both Harden and Embiid off. But by putting Maxey back with the starters, the Sixers can now trot out Harden with the reserves more frequently.
In the 247 minutes in which Harden has played without either Maxey or Embiid alongside him, the Sixers are still outscoring opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions. The Sixers have played lineups featuring Harden and McDaniels for only 214 possessions thus far, but they’re a plus-7.6 with that duo on the floor. Harden has already racked up 10 assists on McDaniels’ 28 made field-goal attempts with the Sixers to date, which suggests the two have quickly established some chemistry with one another.
Turning Harden into the playmaking maestro of the second unit isn’t only benefiting McDaniels, though. Paul Reed has also quieted concerns about the Sixers’ backup center situation for the time being, as Liberty Ballers’ Sean Kennedy noted Monday.
When the Sixers signed Dewayne Dedmon on the buyout market, it seemed like Reed’s chances of cracking the rotation were between slim and nil. But Reed supplanted Montrezl Harrell as Embiid’s primary backup after the trade deadline and hasn’t looked back since. Over the past 12 games, Reed has averaged a tidy 5.1 points on 57.4 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 0.6 steals in only 12.7 minutes per game.
“I feel like the more time I get on the court, the better I build chemistry with my teammates,” Reed told reporters after Sunday’s blowout win over the Washington Wizards. “The more comfortable I get with knowing what they need from me, and the more comfortable they are with me on the court as well. They know what I’m going to do when I get the ball. I know what they are going to do, so it’s kind of like after building this chemistry, it’s easier to go out and play.”
It’s fair to read those comments and fume that Rivers played Harrell—who had no realistic shot of being a positive playoff contributor—ahead of Reed for most of the season. But at least Rivers came to his senses in February this year instead of April, like he did last season when he finally dusted Reed off shortly before the playoffs began. (Who could ever forget the Paul Reed Victory Tour Game?)
Lineups with all three of Harden, Reed and McDaniels have outscored opponents by 6.0 points per 100 possessions, albeit in only a 93-possession sample size. They’re averaging a meteoric 129.0 points per 100 possessions with that trio on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile leaguewide, although their defense hasn’t been as sturdy (123.1 points per 100 possessions allowed). Still, “surround Harden with athletic defenders in the second unit” seems to be a far more viable strategy than anything else the Sixers have tried with their reserves this year.
If the Harden-plus-bench unit can maintain its recent momentum, the Sixers might have solved one of their biggest potential Achilles’ heels. Beyond their newfound resilience, that’s among the reasons to be more bullish on their title chances relative to the past few years.