One thing we all know about Nick Nurse is that he likes to experiment.
Even before he took the Sixers job, he was a head coach known for his exotic schemes while leading the Toronto Raptors for five years. He’s also never shied away from experimenting with different lineups, seeing which players might play well off each other.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Bulls, Nurse was asked about a pair of players that haven’t gotten the opportunity to play much together: Nicolas Batum and Kelly Oubre, Jr. While the intent of the reporter was not to get Nurse to reveal his starting lineup with De’Anthony Melton out, Nurse did just that.
“Well, we’re going to see right at the start of the game tonight how well they share the floor,” Nurse said pregame. “This starting lineup, in the back of my mind, that we’re going with tonight was something that was a possibility as well. Again, it makes us just a little bit bigger and a little bit more athletic on the wing with wingspan at the two [and] three.”
And that group gave Nurse plenty to think about as the Sixers got off to a roaring start and never took their foot off the gas in a 110-97 drubbing of the Bulls.
Joel Embiid was back in the lineup after missing the last four games with an ankle sprain. As usual, the reigning MVP started alongside Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, but the veterans Batum and Oubre were added to the mix. With both players missing significant time since Batum arrived from the Clippers, we really haven’t seen them on the floor much together.
In fact, even after last night, that five-man lineup has only played 29 minutes together this season. Small sample size cold water notwithstanding, they’ve posted a net rating of 16.8, per PBP Stats. The duo of Batum and Oubre has played 59 minutes together. The net rating of that pairing: 21.5.
The starting unit got off to a blistering start against Chicago, building the Sixers a 28-8 lead before the first sub. Shooting the lights out certainly helped (the Sixers shot 66.7% from the field and 63.6% from three), but there was plenty to like from the starters.
“I’ve actually been really wanting to play with Nico,” Oubre said postgame. “His IQ and the things he brings to the game are second to none. He’s a veteran player. A lot of times, I look at him and I calm down myself. But it was really good to have him out there, because he makes the right play at all times and he’s a great basketball player.
“But yeah, we hadn’t played together yet, so it was really fun and we got the win. I don’t know about the future, about the lineups. That’s above my pay grade, but we’re going to just continue to do what we do.”
Embiid admitted postgame that he had to shake off a little rust. His teammates allowed him to do that, but the big fella was excellent in making sure they were all involved. In his return to the lineup, Embiid posted a triple-double with 31 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Five of those assists came in the first quarter.
Oubre’s red-hot opening period helped that cause. The 27-year-old wing scored 13 of his 16 points in the first, shooting 4-of-5 from the field and 3-of-4 from three. Batum’s numbers weren’t as gaudy but he wasn’t any less impactful. The 35-year-old provided sound two-way play by being a connective piece on offense and defending the dangerous Coby White on the other end.
It truly is a complementary pairing. Oubre is athletic and plays 100 mph. On offense he’s looking to score and on defense he’s looking to get his hands on the ball. Batum is smooth and methodical. He seems to always make the right decision offensively and is consistently in the right spot defensively.
Really, their personalities even match that.
“He’s 16 years in. I’m 28. I don’t know how old he is; we’re not going to talk about that,” Oubre said with a smile. “He never seems rattled. He always seems to know two plays ahead, and you can definitely lean on that as a veteran leader. But he’s quiet, too. I’m very energetic. …
“Knowing that there’s a guy who I can lean on and kind of calm myself … I think that’s him. I can’t go to [Patrick Beverley], because we’re both going to be yelling at everybody and just raging out. (Smiles.) But yeah, Nico’s just very poised and even-keeled.”
The Sixers have been starving for veteran wing depth basically since the Embiid era started. Suddenly they have a glut of them with Batum, Oubre, Robert Covington and Danuel House, Jr. Covington and House have both played well this year, but don’t even consistently crack Nurse’s rotation.
In a league where wing depth can make or break a team, the Sixers are finally up to snuff.
“Those guys are interchangeable, so they can guard different matchups,” Tyrese Maxey said. “Kelly can guard DeMar [DeRozan], and then Kelly can guard Coby White, you know what I’m saying? So that was good for us as well. And those guys spaced the floor and shot the ball well. They were good for us tonight.”
It’s early. There is a lot of season left and Daryl Morey likely has a move or two up his sleeve ahead of the trade deadline.
But it’s not hard to foresee how a lineup featuring Batum and Oubre can serve the Sixers well come playoff time. A big part of what helped the Denver Nuggets win a championship — aside from Nikola Jokic going supernova — was their size. When you look at a team like the Boston Celtics, who feature two elite wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the trio of Batum, Oubre and Harris could be integral.
With all that said, the Sixers’ starting unit with Melton actually has the best net rating in the NBA — yes, even better than Boston’s vaunted starting group. While a lot of successful teams pick a starting lineup and stick with it, there are plenty of examples of teams that have success mixing and matching. Just look at what the Celtics did against the Sixers by starting both Al Horford and Robert Williams III in the postseason. That adjustment changed the series.
Nurse isn’t thinking that far ahead, but he’s not going to be afraid to tinker and learn things during the regular season.
“Not that. I don’t think I really start thinking about that at all,” Nurse said of a potential playoff matchup with Boston. “As I mentioned before the game, I was kind of curious. I’ve been always kind of thinking that Kelly bumping to two and Nic at the three could be a possibility. And you don’t usually do that stuff, especially when your team’s playing well. You’ve got to wait for the moment when (your hand’s forced) to do it, and then you get your chance to evaluate it. Then you kind of keep it in your toolbox for possibilities, depending on how games are going and on matchups.”
It’s a new and exciting look, but the proper perspective is important.
“It’s still January,” Batum said. “We have a lot of basketball to play before that happens — if that happens — so we can’t focus on that yet.”