If you can believe it, NBA training camp starts in a little under a week, and the Sixers have to transition quickly from remaking the team in the draft and free agency to actually starting to play basketball together. It’s a return to something resembling normalcy for all of these guys, at least as normal as a December training camp and winter start can be.
A new-look team inspires a lot of questions, none more pressing than this — what does the rotation look like for the 2020-21 Sixers? It’s something we probably won’t be able to answer for quite a bit, especially considering the moves Daryl Morey says will wait until closer to the trade deadline, but the answer to “Who makes it onto the floor?” is the first essential thing we’ll learn about the Sixers under Doc Rivers.
With that in mind, here’s a whole lot to chew on as everyone gets one last bit of R&R over Thanksgiving weekend. I expect plenty about my assumptions will be proven wrong, but it’s fun to try anyway.
Who will definitely play?
Locks: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Danny Green, Seth Curry, Dwight Howard
Strong bets: Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle
Fringe: Mike Scott, Terrance Ferguson
Outside looking in: Furkan Korkmaz, Tony Bradley, Isaiah Joe
The first six guys are pretty easy to forecast, with Howard in this group strictly because there will always be time for Embiid’s backup.
It’s trickier after that. Balancing the rotation is going to be tougher than it seems, especially with Philly landing on a rim-running center in Howard as the backup who will play the non-Embiid minutes. That’s a bigger deal than I think people realize — the Howard signing all but guarantees two non-shooters in all of the bench lineups built around Simmons (the other non-shooter) and heightens the importance for shooting at the other three spots. In many cases, that’s going to mean sacrificing some form of defensive toughness, whether it’s size, athleticism, instincts, or all three.
On the flip side, you don’t want to keep all the shooters on the floor in those Simmons-led lineups only to pull them when it’s time for Embiid to anchor the lineup himself. Perhaps you’re okay with fewer live dribbles on the floor in those Embiid looks, but then that puts the big fella in the same spot he’s been in for years, with too much to do from the post and not enough help from pick-and-roll handlers.
I think the supposed “need” some believe the Sixers have for a true backup power forward is wildly overrated. This is a wing-dominant league now, and Mike Scott is passable on the nights they need someone to eat backup minutes against more traditional fours. Simmons is 6-foot-10 and plenty capable of defending bigger guys on bench units.
Another interesting subplot — how will Rivers’ typical rotation choices change without a natural sixth man a la Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford on the roster? We haven’t seen him without a player like that on his bench in quite some time.
Finally, the below lineups feature a nine-man rotation, which is based on Rivers’ choices in years past, but I could see it being stretched to 10 with someone like Scott having a small role.
Below you will find heat maps from the good folks at NBARotations that show when Clippers and Sixers players typically appeared (or did not appear) during the 48 minutes of a game. The darker the red is, the closer they were to playing 100% of the minutes during that time period. And if you visit their site, you can even get a visualization for your own specified selection of the season, seeing how a coach’s minutes distribution changes over time.
Realistic: Seth Curry/Danny Green/Ben Simmons/Tobias Harris/Joel Embiid
There has been some insane overthinking (or perhaps underthinking) on this one, including the suggestion that Dwight Howard of all people could start next to Embiid. This offseason has been about putting a better-fitting team around their core players, and that starts with the lineup that opens the floor up for them to start the game.
Last season, Tobias Harris’ 36.7 percent mark from three was a disappointment for a group that needed him to be a lights out sharpshooter. That would still be a disappointing number for a guy they paid $180 million on the strength of his shooting/scoring, but they’re not in such a dire situation if he’s merely above average this season. Curry is one of the best shooters in the league, and Green has long been a dangerous catch-and-shoot player, his ebbs and flows notwithstanding.
There are more defensive questions for this group to answer than last year’s team, and they don’t have the positional versatility they did with last year’s starting five. Curry is a one-position defender, while Green is a very good team defender who only has the size to defend so many types of wings. You probably won’t see Simmons’ versatility shine through as much on defense this season as a result, as shifting him will have real consequences.
The Sixers will gladly take those trade-offs in order to boost the offense and make life easier on their top two. Embiid gets the best spacing he has ever played with, and in turn he might have some more work to do to anchor the back end. A fair exchange.
(An additional defensive note — I’ve seen a lot of people pushing Danny Green to the bench in their projected lineups, and I think that’s basically completely untenable for this group unless you start Maxey at the point. Most of the other options for Philly are guys who are potential targets on defense, and Thybulle is a more erratic shooter than his overall percentage suggests. You roll with Green as the stable choice until/unless someone else emerges.)
Wild card: Tyrese Maxey/Danny Green/Ben Simmons/Tobias Harris/Joel Embiid OR Milton/Green/Simmons/Harris/Embiid
There is very little chance Doc Rivers is going to start a 20-year-old on opening night for Philadelphia. Relying heavily on young players is not his thing, and in fact it’s more likely Maxey and the other young guys get buried for veteran options late in the season than it is for them to have meaningful roles come playoff time, in my opinion.
Still, there’s something to that configuration that I like. Maxey is a touch of exuberance in the starting lineup that allows Curry to slide to the bench and serve as the stabilizer for the second unit, and he was a rugged defender at the amateur level that would bring a bit more steel to that first unit. They need to figure out how far away he is from being able to hold a spot next to Embiid and Simmons, so you might as well find that out sooner than later.
The less aggressive version of that same move is to leave Milton in the starting lineup where he ended last season and bring Curry off of the bench in a super-sub role. I am less enthused by this prospect than many people are because I’m more confident in Curry’s shooting than Milton sustaining last year’s numbers, but it’s not a crazy thought.
First bench unit
Right away, you have to give some thought to how the Sixers choose to split their lineups. There’s one basic rule you should live by — one of Simmons or Embiid has to be on the floor at all times. Other than that, there’s room for interpretation all over the place, especially without a veteran guard on the bench who we can comfortably say will be Rivers’ anchor of the second unit.
The Curry-Milton backcourt is going to shoot it, and with Simmons on the floor alongside them, their concerns as individual playmakers are not as glaring. My expectation is that Rivers will continue to empower Simmons as a playmaker, regardless of where he starts possessions on the floor.
On the other side of the ball, the Thybulle-Simmons-Howard triumvirate will be able to erase a lot of defensive concerns brought on by the backcourt. Howard is much better suited to play the rim-protecting role behind Embiid than Howard was last season, freeing up the two wing defenders to get to work in passing lanes and as help defenders.
If the Sixers want to go all-in on shooting around Simmons, Thybulle is not going to be part of those lineups until he proves he’s a more consistent game-to-game shooter. Swap Milton in for Harris, bump Simmons up the defensive order, and prepare the other three guys to let it fly from deep.
Second bench unit
This is less shooting than people probably want to see around Embiid, but hear me out. The big guy with shooters around him is an effective combination, but it’s not necessarily a winning one on offense by itself. He is an elite defense all by himself against bench groups, but Philadelphia’s biggest enemy is stagnation on offense when the world revolves around Embiid.
How do you avoid that? Putting multiple ballhandlers on the floor who can get their own buckets and even bail the Sixers out on offense should Embiid dawdle with the ball in the post. Maxey will put pressure on the rim and get him some easy layups and dunks by drawing pressure, Harris will lean on him as a pick-and-pop/pick-and-roll partner, and Thybulle can be the team’s active cutter, the athlete crashing from the weakside to try to score at the rim.
Offensively, I like attaching Maxey to Simmons more than I do Embiid, but there are strategic reasons to pair him with Embiid. One major one — most second-unit guards are scoring-centric players who are going to make their money attacking teams in pick-and-rolls. Maxey is the guard best equipped to win those battles and avoid giving up the scoring barrages we’ve seen against Philly in recent seasons, and his ability to read and fight through traffic should help this group a lot.
(In seasons past, the Sixers paired Simmons-Harris more often than they did Embiid-Harris. I suspect that might be something we could see change this season, with Rivers looking to extract more out of him as an offensive weapon. That proposed switch stems from the baseline assumptions we have about the second unit — Howard is the best pick-and-roll partner for Harris among their bigs, but Simmons likely dampens the effectiveness of that set by being on the floor with them at the same time.)
Wild card: Curry/Maxey/Milton/Thybulle/Embiid
While Curry is already on record saying he’s “a perfect match” with Ben Simmons, I could easily make the case that the rotation should be juggled to have the team’s best shooter anchored to Embiid instead. And in a world where Harris continues to play alongside Simmons (which is a very real possibility), that leaves you with a lineup to build around Embiid that features neither of Simmons or Harris.
In that case, I would think long and hard about downsizing around the big fella, to the point that I would consider this three-guard look in spite of some real defensive concerns. This group would see the floor in the softest part of an opponent’s rotation, with their top star(s) usually resting during this time, easing some of the issues they would have defending the perimeter. Thybulle is out there to check whoever the top option is, but you could also swap him out for another shooter (a la Scott) if you believe Embiid can prop this group up on defense singlehandedly.
With the offense running through Embiid in the post, you have two players (Curry and Milton) who I’d consider reliable knockdown shooters to serve as perimeter outlets. All three guards are guys whose concerns as individual creators would be muted by having them attack closeouts more often than they’re trying to separate in pick-and-rolls. Save for Thybulle, the rest of the lineup could take a swing pass and confidently take a three or make a direct move to the basket.
The logic here is no different than the starting lineup. It’s a simple choice, it’s a sensible choice, it’s the right choice.
There will be a lot of talk between now and the season opener about whether this team has a “closer,” a guy who can take over games down the stretch and stave off comeback efforts from the opponent when the Sixers have a second-half lead. Unless they make a franchise-altering trade in the vein of moving for James Harden, this is a job that is going to fall on Embiid’s shoulders. So a closing lineup comes down to one very simple question — who makes his life the easiest as he goes about that task?
Give him two elite shooters, a versatile forward in Harris, and Simmons checking the opponent’s top assignment, and you have a group you can do battle with. I would venture a guess this is not who they end the year with as closers or starters, but it’s the best they have to offer right now.
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