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July 01, 2020

What will Sixers rotation look like in Orlando? Brett Brown says competition is open

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18_Brett_Brown_Sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown.

How exactly do you settle on a rotation for a season that resumes three-and-a-half months after it was initially suspended? Is the information from the old season still relevant, or do you have to treat the Orlando games as an entity all their own, reliant on health and fitness and mental preparation for a scenario none of these players have ever been in.

The short answer is both. But Sixers head coach Brett Brown sounds particularly open-minded about what he plans to do with the rotation, and as he has said many times in the past, the gym will speak to him.

"The rotations are the starting point. I think coming into the training camp, where I haven't seen these guys for four months, is going to be eye-opening," Brown said Wednesday. "I feel coaches are completely wired to form quick opinions, and so we've got a three-week runway before the games begin, I believe I'm different than most coaches where the three weeks are going to influence a lot. What do I see in, pick somebody, Shake [Milton] vs. Alec Burks for example?"

There are a number of rotation-based questions the team has to answer between now and early August (or mid-August at the very least), so let's take stock of a few major points a month out from the team restarting their season.

The Al Horford question

Four members of the starting lineup are, and should be, nailed in place. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris may not all fit perfectly together, but they're a great four to start with and each brings something a little different to the table. And then there's Al Horford.

While Horford has been consistently excellent for most of his career and has even shown momentary flashes during a downturn in Philly, no one can ignore how tough it has been to fit him into the team context here. As far as backups for Embiid go, there are very few better options. But his struggles while playing next to both Simmons and Embiid at the same time — struggles that will be amplified in the playoffs with fewer players in the rotation — are perhaps the story of the season.

And yet Brown seems reluctant to write him off as a significant part of their plans, and would not commit in one way or another when asked if Horford would come off the bench.

"We have learned some of the things that either don't work and in your head and heart [you say], I don't care how much time we have, that's probably going to be tough to pull off, vs. we need to do a little bit better," Brown said. "There is kind of like a team Al, and a team Joel, and you know, you figure out what that world is, and then there's the integration of the two of them. And so you start taking a deep dive on those three things, and now take some analytics and like, what do we do offensively and defensively? start to get a little bit clearer idea of what did you do well and what didn't you, and why to both."

If you're searching for an actual answer in all of that, let me offer my analysis:

jordan shrug.jpg

On a speculative note, I think Brown is trying to walk the line between acknowledging the struggles/failure of their presumed frontcourt and keeping Horford "in the boat," so to speak. Horford wasn't signed to a massive contract last offseason to play 12 minutes a night behind Embiid in the playoffs, and finding a middle ground that works for both Horford and the team is a tough needle to thread.

At the same time, Brown also did not commit to Horford rejoining the starters, or being part of the closing lineup, or take a firm stance on anything as it relates to the former Celtics center. While trusting one of their developing players in that fifth spot would be tough, especially for a coach whose fate will likely be decided by this playoff run, Brown does seem like he's leaving his options open.

How prominent will Shake Milton be?

Horford's place in the starting lineup is in question in large part because of how well Shake Milton has played in limited action this season. An early-season injury knocked him out of the rotation for a while, but opportunity came knocking for Milton in late January, and the second-year guard responded with an electric stretch of basketball.

He has hardly shown fear of the moment — Milton's first start of the year came in a Saturday night showcase game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and Milton's brand of calm helped the Sixers to one of their signature wins of the season, less than a week before a 27-point outburst against the Atlanta Hawks. Milton quickly earned the trust of Brown and delivered on the promise he'd shown as a shooter at the collegiate and G-League levels.

There's the obvious question though: how much of this is real, and how much is just a hot stretch? While Brown doesn't have any expectation that Milton will simply play at an All-Star level (at least on offense) moving forward, he has high hopes for the SMU product.

"I'm counting on him to continue on. I don't believe that what we saw is that much of an outlier," Brown said. "To think he's going to perform at that consistent level prior to the pandemic would be sort of ambitious, [but] I do think if he can capture the large majority of the form offensively and defensively...he really has a chance to come in and play a significant role in a rotation capacity in the playoffs."

"I always get nervous about relying on young guys for the NBA playoffs. Shake is no different, it's no disrespect to Shake, it's just my 20-year history in the league that it ends up a man's world, and a veteran type of environment, which he just doesn't have the luxury of years to put next to his name yet. But I'm going into this excited, I think some of the performances he had on a consistent basis can't be that far out of reach, where maybe he can produce a large portion of that again."

Milton, Brown believes, will be part of the plan both behind and alongside Ben Simmons, allowing Philadelphia's starting point guard to get some valuable rest throughout the restart but also another ballhandler to take pressure off of him on the perimeter. He brings a skillset that is common in basketball but rare for the Sixers in that he can shoot and dribble, a skill that allows him to thrive on and off of the ball.

When will it all come together?

There are two potential schools of thought when it comes to the regular-season rotation for these final eight games:

  1. Establish your rotation as early as possible and try to force-feed reps before the playoffs
  2. Use the eight games as an experimentation period, tinkering as much as time allows

It sounds like Brown wants to go with the first approach. That tracks with his valuation of the training camp period, and his desire to hit the ground running once the games begin.

"I hope to get as many of those questions out of the way in training camp," Brown said. "That is an ambitious wish that often times doesn't happen as clearly as you had hoped, but in a perfect world you'd like to go into those eight games and have some minor tweaks and rotation changes, as opposed to like game five, and oh crap, we've got something that's a little bit funky here."

"Of course I have preconceived ideas after all this time off of what training camp is going to look like, and the rotations I'm going to try to see if I'm right, and the coaching staff was right on what we talked about for however many man hours on a Zoom call, as an example. You hope what you thought would end up being true ends up being true."

In other words, there is reason to keep an eye on the group that takes the floor and starts together for that first game against Indiana after the break is over. The time for experimenting is done — it's time to go win.

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