What will the 76ers' playoff rotation look like?
The 2021 NBA Playoffs are finally here, and the 76ers are primed for a deep run. As the bench minutes from the regular season condense to a select few players, who will make the cut in Doc Rivers' rotation?
The postseason is here. It's the most important brand of basketball on the planet, and yet it's also the most unique. Everything that a team accomplished during the six-month long regular season can be turned on its head in just two weeks. Veteran teams that seemed to be out of gas suddenly get new life. Upstart teams that took the league by storm can get squashed like bugs.
Philly fans know this well. In 2018 the Sixers finished the regular season with a 16-game win streak and a convincing first round series victory over the Miami Heat, only for the Boston Celtics to be their kryptonite in round two. The following year they pushed their chips in two separate times for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, making the on-court product tough to evaluate since it was changing every few weeks. And in 2019-20, the Thiccsers only seemed to exert effort once a week; the COVID-19 pandemic arguably saved them from more misery.
Even with the skepticism of recent history, this season feels different. Joel Embiid is the best player in the world more often than not, and probably would've won Most Valuable Player without a midseason knee injury. Ben Simmons very well might win Defensive Player of the Year, as he's been able to guard anyone and everyone effectively. Tobias Harris has settled into a secondary scoring role, taking just enough off of Embiid's plate to make the whole operation work. The Sixers went 49-23 overall, securing the best record in the Eastern Conference and therefore homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
Ever since that defeat to the Celtics three years ago, the front office did everything in its power to accumulate talent, rather than make the pieces fit. Butler, Embiid and Simmons needed shooting more than anything else, but Harris was too good to pass up on. When Butler and J.J. Redick, a scorer and a shooter, couldn't be retained, the front office opted to use those resources on Josh Richardson and Al Horford.
Occum's razor won the day. Lead executive Daryl Morey swapped Richardson for Seth Curry and Horford for Danny Green, opting for the simplest solution around Simmons and Embiid: shooting. The response was excellence: in 656 minutes this season, the starting lineup of Simmons, Curry, Green, Harris and Embiid outscored teams by 14 points per 100 possessions. Only three teams had quintets with at least 200 minutes and a better net rating than Philly's, and when you bump that qualifier to 300 minutes, only one lineup was superior.
Head coach Doc Rivers was strict about rotations. 656 minutes was the second-highest tally for any five-man unit, with only the Phoenix Suns' starters (Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, DeAndre Ayton) getting more time together. And with the starters logging so much time as a unit, that also meant that lineups without any starters were a staple of every game.
Can Rivers get away with that in the playoffs? Conventional thinking say no, especially since the Sixers' bench is more of a neutral than a positive. Certain players make sense for specific situations, but only a select few are universally good. Here's a look at how I think he should divvy up the minutes.
Starters: Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
There's no reason to fix something that isn't broken. This unit was downright dominant this season, and expects to do well for the next month or so too. The only teams that could really make this unit sweat are the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, and they have to beat each other up in the second round before sniffing the Sixers.
In general, this lineup is fine offensively. Embiid does most of the heavy lifting, Harris gives him a break, Simmons pushes the pace and rolls to the rim for easy buckets, and Curry and Green space the floor for them. That's been passable because of how many free points Embiid creates at the line, but two shooters really isn't enough in 2021. The Sixers as a team ranked 28th in threes attempted per 100 possessions; the only other playoff team below 18th was the New York Knicks, whose offensive plan is just to play better defense. If Embiid can't feast on his matchup, points will be a lot harder to come by.
Fortunately, offense isn't this group's calling card. Morey bet on Embiid and Simmons anchoring an elite defense when he made the aforementioned moves, and he was right to do so. The starting five held opponents to just 103.7 points per 100 possessions this season, the fourth-best figure among lineups with at least 300 minutes logged. Embiid can be the best defensive 5 in the league when fully engaged, Simmons can cover anyone 1 through 4, Green should dial it up for the playoffs, and Harris and Curry just have to be passable.
The biggest question marks are Curry and Green. The former is a bit undersized for the mismatch environment of the playoffs, so he's definitely at risk of being targeted. The latter has been awesome in the regular season, but it's clear that he's lost a few steps defensively. In a setting where guys with distinct weaknesses can get played off the floor (or make it very difficult for their own teams to succeed), these two are worth keeping an eye on. I would argue Simmons isn't completely safe either, given his well-documented struggles in the playoffs. Someone from the next group could replace one of them in a closing lineup.
Main Backups: George Hill, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Dwight Howard
Hill is the favorite of this group to close games as a battle-tested veteran whose skill set is ready-made for the playoffs. He's a long guard who defends multiple positions well, shoots well off the catch, and can run the offense in a pinch. His malleability and experience make him an intriguing fit with a group that's going for it.
Milton is in the running too. Arguably the team's second-best player last postseason, Milton's versatility on and off the ball is valuable to the Sixers. He's done everything from captain the second unit to specialize as a catch-and-shoot guy, making him an intriguing fit with Embiid and Simmons. Add in his 6'6" frame and 7'0" wingspan, and you have a viable playoff player at a position/skill set of dire need. He could get hot offensively and turn the tides of a game without hurting the defense.
Two months ago I wouldn't have put him in this tier, but Thybulle has forced my hand (and Rivers'). After being on the fringes of Coach's rotation early in the year, he's become a legitimate game-wrecker on defense. The stuff he did in a bench role this year was nasty: his 4.3 defensive box plus-minus was the highest of any player who logged at least 1000 minutes; he averaged nearly five combined steals and blocks per-36 minutes, the most "stocks" of any non-big by a longshot (both those figures via Basketball-Reference); and players only shot 37.2% from the field when guarded by him, the best mark of any player who appeared in more than 30 games. He should be the first bench wing to get a look, and if his jump shot is falling, he could very well close some playoff games this year.
Howard deserves a ton of credit for his work this year. Clearly overqualified for a bench role, he embraced the backup center role like a true professional. He anchored a bench unit that actually did pretty well on defense, played to his strengths on offense, was a leader off the court above it all. Unfortunately for him, the playoffs are a different animal. Howard is already entrenched as a backup because he can't play with Embiid, and he'll also be a tough play with Simmons because neither player can space the floor. Expect Howard to get less than 10 minutes most nights, and don't be surprised if he gets DNP'd for a more flashy 5 option.
Specialists: Mike Scott, Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz
Scott is an option at the 5 if Howard isn't cutting it, although he wouldn't be anyone's first choice. The 32 year-old journeyman is playing more like a 38 year-old these days, adding little to no value outside of shooting (which he isn't even that good at) and a veteran presence. If the Sixers need shooting from their center when Embiid sits, Scott is their guy. But otherwise, the Threegional Manager should not see the floor unless the game is out of hand.
Up until the last month or so, Scott was taking minutes from Maxey. Rivers' thought process for this choice may never come to light, but the rookie used this final stretch to make sure everyone knew he was the real deal. Maxey came into the league with excellent body control, which he used to finish through contact and his tough short-range shots from day one, but he also became a more complete player as the season went on. Over his last 15 games, Maxey shot 49.6% from the field, 35.3% on 3s and 87.5% on free throws, rates that you love to see from a guard in Philadelphia. Even more importantly, his volume shot up over that final stretch; he upped his 3-point attempts by 50%, and more than doubled his rate of trips to the charity stripe. Not only are these trends crucial for his long-term development, but they could get him minutes as soon as this weekend. The Sixers need guys who can dribble, shoot and create offense, and Maxey is undoubtedly one of those guys.
The last sentence applies to Korkmaz too...somewhat. For most of his time with the Sixers, Korkmaz has been an afterthought, a guy they think they can live without, but are happy to have around. Yet somehow, some way, he's still here, and he's still very valuable to the Sixers. His arsenal of different shots, especially from tough angles and tight windows, acts as a set of jumper cables for a Sixers offense that has trouble starting itself sometimes. The cable analogy works for him defensively too, as he compensates for his lack of size with long, wiry arms that can break up passing lanes. There are serious risks to putting him out there in the wrong matchup, but Korkmaz can be potent in the right one. Expect him to get some spot minutes when the offense needs a jolt.
Victory Cigars/Last Resorts: Anthony Tolliver, Isaiah Joe, Paul Reed
For one of these guys to come in, the game (or series) has to be in hand. Either the Sixers are up 30 or down 30. Few scenarios in the middle exist where these guys should get run.
Tolliver is basically a worse version of Scott, and I've explained my gripes with Scott getting any sort of tick. Joe flashed some nice things as a rookie, even showing he's not a complete minus as a defender, but he would definitely be a liability on this stage. And for all the love we've given Bball Paul, has a long way to go to be in a normal NBA rotation; he'd get eaten alive in the playoffs.
Joe has similar concerns to Korkmaz. Before the season no one was sure he'd get minutes at all as a rookie because of how thin he was, and he definitely didn't fully mitigate those concerns in five short months while playing pro basketball. If the Sixers need an offensive spark from a tall shooter, they won't call on Joe. Yet.
The 2020-21 76ers aren't the ideal championship contender, but they're very very good. Embiid gives them a chance to be the best team in the world every single night, and everyone else simply has to fit in. Given how easy their path will be for at least the first two rounds, and that they get to host every series they play in, and their championship aspirations become much easier to see.
All stats gathered from NBA.com unless otherwise noted.