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February 18, 2019

Major Sixers storylines to watch heading out of the All-Star break

Now that All-Star weekend has wrapped up, there's nothing left to think about but real basketball. The trade deadline has passed, most rosters have settled, and the trick for each NBA team is to hit another gear heading into mid-April.

That's an especially difficult task for the Sixers, who have one of the league's most talented teams but one of the hardest situations to manage. Elton Brand's work at the trade deadline put a lot of pressure on this group to come together over the next two months, and they may be the most interesting team in the league to monitor post-All-Star break.

At 37-21, the Sixers are currently in a dead heat with the Celtics and one game back of the third-place Pacers, and they would play Boston in a 4/5 series in the first round if the season ended today. So while they have this period to tinker and figure things out, there's also a lot riding on how well they perform over the next two months. The Nets are no joke, but the Sixers would take homecourt advantage against a team like Brooklyn 10/10 times before heading to Boston right out of the chute.

As we all gear up for this stretch run, here are some points of intrigue I'll be monitoring.

What is Jimmy Butler's role in the team?

This is, for my money, the most important question to be answered about the Sixers down the stretch. It has ramifications for their present-day rotation and potential implications for what happens in free agency this summer.

Philadelphia has said all the right things about wanting to keep together a core four this summer, and the only way that's going to be possible is by shelling out big bucks to bring back Butler and Tobias Harris in free agency. But Butler will have other suitors, no doubt, and it will be up to the Sixers to make this situation desirable enough to prompt him to stay.

That's likely going to mean making sure Butler continues to feel empowered within Philadelphia's structure. Does that mean feeding him more chances to run pick-and-rolls? Will letting him play backup point guard make him happy? Yes, Butler wants to win, as he's quick to remind you, but any star player with an ego (that he has earned, by the way) wants to feel like an integral piece, not just a sidekick in the Joel Embiid experience.

Set aside those long-term concerns and you still have a question of critical importance to this season. Embiid may be the crown jewel of this team, but he is not suited to dominate every matchup the Sixers will see in the playoffs. Butler's ability to expose bigs on switches and attack out of pick-and-rolls will be even more important against teams like the Celtics and Raptors, who have done a great job of making life difficult for Philadelphia's All-Star big man.

Brett Brown has toyed with Butler at point guard for small stretches, but turning to him as Ben Simmons' full-time backup would be a different level of commitment. The Sixers traded for Butler to shift the way teams defend them, but they've since added another perimeter player who will take touches out of his hands. Can they maximize everybody before mid-April?

How do the Sixers play against the Milwaukee Bucks?

The story of Philadelphia's struggles against top Eastern Conference teams has been beaten to death. Forget that the Sixers have beaten six of the West's eight playoff teams, including the Golden State Warriors, they can't get over the hump against the Celtics and Raptors.

Quietly, however, we know almost nothing about what the Sixers will look like against the East's best team this season. Philadelphia's only matchup with Milwaukee feels like it was played years ago, with their loss coming pre-Butler trade in the second half of a back-to-back. Consider this: Markelle Fultz played 27 minutes and started in that game, and Dario Saric was Philly's third-leading scorer.

Unlike with Boston and Toronto, there is no tortured history with these teams in recent years. They've split the season series each of the past two seasons, and between Milwaukee's offseason coaching change and Philadelphia's roster turnover, you can basically throw any previous meeting between the two teams out.

The Bucks deserve to be treated as the East favorites with how well they've played this season, but they have questions left to answer in the playoffs, with this group having not won a playoff series together yet. Will Brook Lopez and/or Nikola Mirotic get exposed defensively in the playoffs? Going the other way, can the Bucks expose Philadelphia's defense by forcing Embiid to defend out to the three-point line?

There are three games left between these two before the year is over. We'll learn a lot from them. 

What does Ben Simmons' jumper look like?

Simmons' recent three-point jumper was the talk of the internet for good reason. But his commitment to putting up jumpers has gone far beyond that shot against the Lakers, with Simmons taking more and more shots from the mid-post area over the last month or so.

Brett Brown told reporters following their recent win over the Lakers that player and coach have discussed Simmons' next step extensively in recent weeks.

"He and I spoke about this notion for a little bit in the past 24 hours," Brown said. "What's going to happen in the [final] third of the season? How do we better help you prepare for the playoffs [and] what's coming?...we have a window of 27 or whatever amount of games left, and I'd like to try some of this stuff prior to the All-Star break, and take off with it in the final third."

The real question here is whether they'll design looks for Simmons to shoot out of. The bulk of his jumpers have come on fadeaway looks with a defender on his back, which are shots defenses will live with even from a great shooter. If we only see Simmons take jumpers on those plays, the same concerns will exist heading into a potential playoff series with Boston.

Philadelphia has one of the league's lightest schedules to close out the season. There's no better time to force Simmons out of his comfort zone and firing up shots within the flow of a game. This should be demanded, but we'll see if that happens in practice.

Who wins the backup center job?

Boban Marjanovic is getting every opportunity to take the backup center minutes and run with them at the moment. That might be a mistake, and the Sixers are in need of a potential backup plan for the moment when his well-known deficiencies come back to haunt the team.

That means the team needs to give Jonah Bolden an earnest chance to play down the stretch, and play against good teams at that. No one is going to learn much from Boban dominating a crappy team like the Knicks, nor would we glean much information from Bolden showing out against subpar competition. But Brown owes it to himself and the team to see if Bolden can make the defensive reads necessary to hold up against elite teams on the back end.

Removing Bolden from the rotation entirely does not seem to be the smart move. The Sixers need to protect themselves against the likely outcome where teams exploit Boban's lack of foot speed, but they also would benefit from getting Bolden reps in high-pressure situations. This team will need cheap production behind their stars moving forward, and anything that can be done to expedite growth from their young guys (without hurting the team, of course) should be pursued.

Both these sample sizes are extremely limited, so take it with a grain of salt, but the lineup numbers are not especially close so far, using data from Cleaning the Glass (which filters out "garbage time" possessions):

Lineup PTS/100 possessions PTS allowed/100 
 Boban at center (104 possessions) 112.5125.5 
 Bolden at center (209 possessions) 122.0123.9 

Again, heavy emphasis on how little information we have; those possession counts are roughly one full game and two full games, respectively. Situationally, Boban can be a major asset on the offensive end. But consider this — once Philadelphia goes to the bench, their offense will be built around two different styles, Embiid in the post or Simmons pushing the pace. Bolden is the better stylistic fit with the latter group quite easily. 

The Sixers have a lot more to learn about themselves between now and mid-April than the average team with Finals aspirations.

Will Zhaire Smith make his Sixers debut?

This answer feels like a firm no for me at this point, at least in a meaningful context. Everything I've heard about Smith has been positive over the last month or so, with the rookie putting in serious work to get back in fighting shape. He has regularly been put through two-a-days, and all signs have been good regarding his recovery from a foot injury and an emergency procedure for an allergic reaction.

But being out of competitive basketball for a long time is challenging for seasoned vets, let alone a kid who hasn't played a minute of NBA basketball. And Smith was a long-term project to begin with, a guy who played a lot of power forward in college who is now being asked to be more of a guard/wing type. His shot is a work in progress, and defense is always a struggle for young guys, even ones with gifts like Smith.

Getting Smith up and running at the G-League level is the first step, and it would be fantastic if the Sixers could get him any sort of NBA reps before the regular season is over. The first time this kid sees an open lane and throws down one of his customary putback dunks, the Wells Fargo Center is going to go ballistic.

Just temper your expectations for this season. A return of any kind would be a good story and a fun wrinkle down the stretch. But trusting him in a playoff game is a whole different story, and even though Smith is a good theoretical fit with this team moving forward, don't expect major contributions this season.

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