February 28, 2018
Outside of the saga surrounding Markelle Fultz and the battle over Brett Brown's competence, there has been no battle fiercer than the one over the backup center minutes. Without Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor to argue over, diehard Sixers fans have directed their attention to a different battle of big-man philosophy. In one corner stands Richaun Holmes, the bouncy but erratic fan favorite, and in the other stands Amir Johnson, an uninspiring but perfectly capable defensive anchor for the second unit.
Even from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the discord makes a lot of sense. Holmes is a hell of a lot more fun to watch than Johnson, who rarely jumps higher than a math textbook in a given game. The sort of things Johnson does to provide value — set good screens, rotate a beat early to contain a drive — do not pop as much as an alley-oop dunk in transition.
The logic for playing Johnson over Holmes has been simple enough to track: play the guy who you trust to hold down the defense and let the rest take care of itself. Early in the season, this logic held up well enough, and their advanced numbers panned out as you might expect. Philadelphia's defense was worse with Holmes on the floor, but their offense was worse with Johnson. With Embiid eating most of the center minutes, it's a trade-off Brett Brown was willing to make.
But we have reached a point where Holmes being out of the rotation altogether, as he was for most of January and February, just doesn't seem to be justifiable by any measure. And the solution, frankly, may end up having nothing to do with the guy he has battled for playing time this year.
Christmas Day is just about the perfect landmark to work from when comparing the early-season Sixers against themselves. A change in Ben Simmons' approach sparked a surge in early 2018, and the Sixers have slowly but steadily progressed in the stretch since.
Johnson deserves his portion of the credit for this, however small it is. The Sixers' defense is still worse with him on the floor than it is with Embiid, but that says more about Embiid than it does Johnson. The Sixers have actually gotten better over the last couple months with Johnson on the floor, improving by almost a full point per 100 possessions since the holiday.
Solidifying the defense with Johnson on the floor has forced the Sixers to reconsider where Holmes' place on this team is, and a move to power forward was just about the only option available. Almost by dumb luck, the Sixers may have figured out the best place for Holmes moving forward.
The Sixers first busted out an Embiid-Holmes frontcourt in a national TV game against the Lakers on December 7, but until recently the combo has been used rather infrequently.
The numbers in the limited action he has played since then are staggering. Improving his numbers would have been one thing, but the Sixers are just outright crushing teams when Holmes plays power forward this season.
A change of scenery (stats via Cleaning The Glass)
|Sixers' PTS/100 poss.
|Opponent PTS/100 poss.
Keep in mind that only about 30 percent of Holmes' minutes have come at power forward this season, and that sample adds up to just over 125 total minutes played at the new position. It's a tremendously small data set to draw real conclusions on, and almost any player would benefit playing alongside an efficiency extraordinaire in Embiid.
But when the discrepancy is that large, you have to sit up and take notice. The change from center to power forward has been the difference between the Sixers being unspeakably bad on defense to an elite unit with Holmes on the floor.
The question, of course, is if playing Holmes there is beneficial to your star player as much as it is to Holmes. While you want every guy on the team to succeed in some way, ultimately it's about amplifying the strengths and talent of your franchise pillars. Making a role player look good doesn't lead to championships.
I am going to put this disclaimer in big, bold letters for effect: this is only in 93 minutes of basketball, compared to over 1400 minutes without Holmes on the floor. Now that that's out of the way, take a gander at the numbers for Embiid when Holmes is on vs. when Holmes is off, compared alongside some numbers for other combinations.
Dear god, the efficiency (numbers via NBA.com)
|Joel is in. What else is happening?
|Saric at PF (971 mins)
|Booker at PF (271 mins)
|Holmes at PF (93 mins)
|Booker off, Embiid on (634 mins)
|Holmes off, Embiid on (1409 mins)
A short summary of the table for those who aren't good with numbers: the Sixers have played like the best team in the history of the universe with Holmes next to Embiid, but more importantly, they have been significantly better in limited action than the Embiid-Booker pairing.
There is absolutely zero chance in the world those numbers for Holmes hold up under extended minutes, but that it has worked at all, let alone at this level, is a change of pace in past experiments with double big sets. The Sixers tinkered a ton with the concept over the last few seasons, but they eventually concluded it was not worth conducting anymore with Embiid pushing into superstar territory.
The numbers for Holmes suggest this should be reconsidered, and the tape supports the idea as well.
The beauty of playing Holmes alongside Embiid stems from the former's defensive issues. Flaws that can be game-breaking are hidden in the shadow of Embiid's humongous wingspan, and the same tendencies that harm Holmes as a point-of-attack defender allow him to thrive as the weakside help.
However, it's not just as simple as saying Embiid cleans up everything for Holmes. There has been legitimate progress from Holmes on the defensive end of the floor for reasons that exist outside of Embiid.
Take this possession against the Miami Heat, for example. When Holmes gets eaten up by an early screen, Embiid's size and quickness close off the driving lane, and it allows Holmes to get back in the play. But where he previously might have been caught with his pants down playing away from the ball, Holmes makes the right read to thwart the cutter, only to recover quickly and make an excellent contest without fouling at the rim.
Every piece of this play is important. Being an impactful defender in the frontcourt is multi-faceted, and it's why Johnson is a good defender despite a complete lack of verticality. Taking proper angles, snuffing plays out before they develop, and trusting your length instead of overjumping and lunging are all part of the equation. Philadelphia's coaching staff has emphasized Holmes' defensive preparation above all other things this season, from his in-game reads to the pre-game prep he does prior to tip-off.
One way to measure that improvement is by tracking his foul counts between October and February. After averaging over six fouls per 36 minutes in November — that's really hard to do, by the way — Holmes nearly cut his fouls in half by January, settling in at 3.6 and 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes in January and February respectively.
That this has come while his defensive metrics have improved is crucial. It would be easy to be a turnstile if your priority on the defensive end is simply not to foul. Instead, Holmes cutting down his fouls can be seen as a positive indicator of growth on defense.
In the spot minutes he has had a chance to play at center, Holmes is applying the same concepts guiding his improvement and using them to his advantage. As the primary backup for Embiid against the Magic last week, Holmes was asked to spend time guarding Nikola Vucevic, not an easy guy to deal with in single coverage. Holmes made him work for everything he got, and again did an excellent job of pressuring his man without overextending or fouling.
Of course, the power forward minutes have also freed him up to take more risks and show off the athleticism everyone knows he has. If his teammates funnel drivers toward him, Holmes is well-equipped to kill off plays at the rim and send his team fast breaking the other way.
Whether or not this improvement would hold up in a larger role is up for debate. But at the very least, his progress warrants a discussion about increased playing time.
The Sixers are reportedly in the process of bringing in Ersan Ilyasova, a sweet-shooting forward who they used to help accelerate Embiid's development last year. Team sources would not comment on the possibility over the last few days, but it's a move that makes sense and comes from a reliable source in Yahoo's Shams Charania.
Booker is the guy likely to be moving on as a result of the impending move, but it is Holmes whose Sixers life will be immediately impacted by Ilyasova's arrival. The fit concerns Booker brought to the table go up in smoke with Ilyasova, whose floor spacing is a boon for Embiid's post-ups. It's much harder to send a double on Embiid when you have to respect the PF's range, and Ilyasova shot a respectable 35.9 percent from three during his tenure in Philadelphia last season.
Ilyasova offers a gravity that none of the other backups at the four or five are capable of providing, even when he's not hitting shots. For that reason alone, he is the natural choice to spell Dario Saric there, whether it's to give Embiid extra space or make sure spacing doesn't dissipate altogether when they turn to bench units featuring Johnson, TJ McConnell, and led by Simmons.
Even still, Holmes' performance in limited action has warranted consideration when Brown sets his rotation. Sometimes less-than-ideal fits are offset by intangible qualities. Saric's inclusion in the starting lineup looked like a desperate attempt to get him going when the move was first made, but even before his shooting hit another level the Sixers were succeeding with him alongside their other big names. Their collective combination of size and toughness turned that group into the best five-man unit in the league.
Holmes and Saric are wildly different players, but the same intangible theory applies. He plays with a ferocity and energy that is hard not to be inspired by, and he never quits on a play. While it's true he's still probably a worse defender than Johnson in a vacuum, he's also capable of making plays his older counterpart couldn't dream of.
Those intangible qualities that have always been there are now supplemented by success from the team and individual perspectives. Whether it's getting a shot to prove he can translate this improvement to the backup center role or getting an earnest chance to battle for minutes at the four, Holmes has earned a harder look.
The Sixers are in search of any small improvements they can find coming down the stretch. They might just discover that option is already on their bench.
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