January 30, 2019
For a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on national television, there was very little juice for Tuesday's Sixers win. When LeBron James is on the shelf and joined by a couple of the best young players L.A. has, it's hard to get too jazzed up for a battle against Ivan Zubac and Brandon Ingram.
But the Sixers found a way to build some intrigue of their into the game with a simple tweak to the rotation. With an eye toward the playoffs, Brett Brown featured Jimmy Butler at point guard more on Tuesday night, which will have numerous repercussions if it continues down the stretch this season.
Let's take a look at some early returns on the experiment and some potential downsides of placing Butler in that position.
If this were the only benefit of featuring Butler at the point, it would be enough to justify trying this for a while. As Brett Brown has said numerous times over the last month, Philadelphia's success will come on the shoulders of these two guys in the playoffs.
That means the Sixers need to get them in looks that keep both guys happy. Embiid and Butler have been in a somewhat uneasy truce as they try to figure out how and when to seize the reins while coexisting with another high-usage player, and this lineup basically forces the pair to work together in pursuit of better chemistry.
With Butler running the show, the Sixers featured a ton of pick-and-roll against the Lakers on Tuesday night. While the plays didn't always finish with Butler or Embiid shooting/scoring, the duo showed how far they can tilt the court when they work together.
Corey Brewer misses the shot that set created in the above clip, but it's exactly the sort of decision-making you want to force. The Lakers converge on Butler, Lance Stephenson has to prevent Embiid from making a wide-open catch from the top of the perimeter, and Svi Mykhailuk is forced to choose between allowing Brewer to shoot a wide-open three or leaving JJ Redick open in the left corner.
Brewer is probably the guy you least want getting the eventual shot here, but that's a product of roster-building and not a commentary on the play itself. This is what basketball is all about on a fundamental level — create mismatches with your talent, and reap the rewards wherever they come. If not for Mike Muscala being fouled on this third-quarter play, Embiid has a wide-open look on the perimeter, Redick presumably as a backup plan. Not bad.
Philadelphia kept creating choices like this for Los Angeles when they ran pick-and-rolls, and the seeds for success are very obviously there.
The major downside of this arrangement right now is that it puts a lot of pressure on Simmons to carry lineups he is not necessarily equipped to carry.
Simmons is an incredible talent, but Philadelphia's rotation beyond their starting group is fairly terrible, and it's especially barren in the shot creation department. Brett Brown's fascination with playing T.J. McConnell alongside Simmons has the Sixers amplifying their floor spacing problem, as we touched on in a story last week.
If it were just about pure spacing, the Sixers might be able to survive out of these looks. But with Simmons' ability to score in isolation minimal at this point, the Sixers have very little scoring juice in lineups like these. They are easy to defend unless the Sixers can get out in transition.
Brown did not do the team any favors by trying to let a McConnell/Redick/Brewer/Simmons/Muscala group play through an ugly run on Tuesday, with L.A. eventually ripping off a 15-0 run. But there are limited options for him to turn to in order to build a competent two-way team without two parts of the big three, and the Sixers will have to live with that until they get reinforcements.
For those of you who haven't followed Butler's career all that closely, point guard may actually be his preferred position.
Way back in his Chicago days, Butler expressed this belief to pretty much anyone who would listen, as he tried to work through some weirdness with post-injury Derrick Rose.
First off, I think I am a point guard. So I’ve done a heck of a lot of ball screen work, ball handling, getting into the paint and still handling, floaters, all that stuff point guards do. If I get a chance, high pick and roll more. I want some triple doubles. I’ve got to get my handle right so I can pass and get it to guys where they can make shots. I told [Former Bulls coach] Fred [Hoiberg]. You ask what position I play, I say point guard.
Half the battle of making this trio work is making sure all three guys are content with their roles. That was clearly not the case when Butler raised concerns to Brown during a December film session, making requests similar to the one you see quoted above.
Brown can be slow to change, but he is certainly not stubborn enough to tell a star player it's his way or the highway. Getting Butler involved this way empowers him, and helps establish a baseline of trust and respect between the head coach and his free agent to be.
The Embiid/Butler partnership is absolutely worth investing in for Philadelphia. But it will come at a cost for a two-man pairing that has worked tremendously for the Sixers so far, and one that has particular importance for the third member of their big three.
With Embiid off the floor, lineups built around the Simmons/Butler combo have been good so far, outscoring opponents by almost seven points per 100 possessions. Offensively, it has been average to below average, but on defense, their team metrics have been elite at around 102 points given up per 100 possessions. That's a big deal if the Sixers can make it happen without Embiid on the floor.
Maintaining defensive toughness without the big man out there is one of Philadelphia's biggest challenges as currently constructed. That the Sixers have mostly done so with the Simmons/Butler pairing out there is actually pretty remarkable, given the surrounding personnel and especially Mike Muscala's presence as the center replacement.
I'd question whether those lineup numbers are sustainable against playoff-caliber competition, and Philadelphia is in the market for a rim protector for obvious reasons. But Embiid can buoy a defense basically on his own, so separating a good tandem like this comes with some pain.
Beyond the numbers, Philadelphia's biggest challenge this season and beyond is establishing an identity that they can weaponize in the moments that matter, not just against undermanned opponents in the regular season.
From my view, a Sixers team built around Embiid and Simmons should be a matchup other teams dread seeing on the calendar. Embiid is big and physical and dominates the paint on either side of the court, and the plan should be to do everything possible to lean into bully ball.
Philadelphia's poor wing depth has made it tough to do this, but by sliding Butler down to point guard, you're able to lean into your size advantage even without your 6-foot-10 point guard on the floor. In theory, you can fill the wings with athletes and defenders and throw your weight around at both ends, while still maintaining the same skill level most teams are aiming for when they go smaller.
Small-ball teams and lineups have thrived in recent years predominantly because there haven't been proper answers to them. That should not (and I believe does not) worry the Sixers, who have the proper overlap of skill and size to play with anyone in the league when they're healthy.
At the end of the day, basketball is still a sport where the goal hangs 10 feet in the air. The bigger you can play without being punished for it, the better.
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