More Sports:

July 28, 2022

Who should start and close for Sixers this season?

Sixers NBA
Harris-Embiid-Maxey-Thybulle_020522_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

What should the Sixers' starting line up look like when the 2022-23 season tips off?

The Sixers won't play a meaningful basketball game until mid-to-late October, and the Eagles' training camp is underway as we speak, so I may be one of 25 people in the Philadelphia area thinking about the local basketball team. But the age-old question of "Who starts and finishes?" isn't going to answer itself, so I'll take a stab at that today, months before Sixers training camp begins.

Before we get started, let me just say it outright — no, there's no merit to playing Tyrese Maxey in a super-sub role. He is better suited to play off of the stars than to lead second unit lineups by himself, and we don't need to entertain the discussion further. For all seven of you who have that in your head, banish the thought.

The "best player" fifth starter: PJ Tucker

The biggest reason this headline is even a question is a product of how people feel about the Tucker/Harris combination. I wrote it before, but I'll say it again: I am not personally worried about the 3/4 spots in Philadelphia's starting lineup. Tucker is going to take the toughest assignment on the other team in most cases, and Harris will be left to defend the second-most dangerous wing on the other team. In the vast majority of matchups, that is fine, and he showed during last season's stretch run that he has made real strides on the defensive end over the last few years.

Reservations about Harris being a full-time small forward are understandable, though some of those past issues were team-based problems and not necessarily all about him. Harris did not work as a small forward for a lot of his career, but he especially didn't work there on a team with a point guard who refused to shoot and a power forward who is actually a center. Josh Richardson has been a useful three-and-D type guy on most teams he has played for, but he had too much ballhandling responsibility in Philadelphia as a result of, at least in part, Simmons' limitations as a lead guard. Poor offense often prevented a talented defensive group from even having a chance to get stops — when their opponent was pulling the ball out of the basket, the team had excellent flashes.

This Sixers group makes much more sense on paper and is outright better on offense than the 2019-20 Sixers. Harden is far superior as the lead ballhandler compared to Ben Simmons. Tyrese Maxey is a more dangerous secondary ballhandler in the backcourt than Richardson was. Tucker slides right into a role as a corner shooter who will toughen up their defense. On top of all of that, Embiid is undeniably a better player than he was a few years ago, with more ways to hurt you. There's better synergy with the ballhandlers, better passing out of the post, and more nuance to his game off-the-bounce. Harris may not be thrilled to spend most of his time as a secondary figure on offense, but he is more than capable of filling in the blanks, someone who steps up as a scorer when they need it and switches across like-sized players on the other end.

It's worth a reminder — Harris had success guarding players ranging from DeMar DeRozan to Karl-Anthony Towns to Pascal Siakam in games following the All-Star break. You don't want him defending sleeker wings/big guards, a la Jimmy Butler, but Philadelphia's issues against those types are as much about the backcourt as anything else. Between Harden and Maxey, the Sixers have to account for mental and physical deficiencies on the defensive end most of the time. Putting a "true wing" in the lineup as the fifth starter won't change that.

Really, this is just about having Tucker on the floor. The Sixers didn't bring him in to be an infrequent bench player. He's a versatile, impactful player who they'll want to have on the floor as much as possible as long as they don't overtax him before the playoffs. He does the little things on defense that add up to stops, makes hustle plays on the other end, and consistently adds value to whatever lineup he's a part of. 

Tucker's greatest defensive strength likely lies in knowing exactly how, where, and when to do something on defense, even if he has to cheat away from a useful offensive player to do so. Individual man defense is important, but building a good team defense hinges on understanding one another and moving seamlessly as a unit, not every guy on the floor being prime Scottie Pippen. In that regard, Tucker is the best connective tissue player they have on the roster.

Resilience has not been Philadelphia's strong suit over the last half-decade or so of basketball, and while Tucker can't provide that on his own, he's a guy who tends to bring that quality out of people. It's hard not to follow the example he sets.

The "clean fit" fifth starter: Danuel House Jr.

Don't love how it all pans out with Tucker in the starting/closing lineup? Fine, then House is your guy if you want a more "natural" fit. 

House's shooting value is all about keeping it simple and getting to spots. He is a location and relocation shooter rather than a movement shooter, someone whose first job is to get to the spot his playmakers needs him to be in. Spacing is a topic Doc Rivers has harped on repeatedly over the last two years, so it's no surprise that he was one of the people happy to get House in the room. A lot of his time will ultimately be spent in the corners, but House has shown comfort as a shooter out of ball screens, and the Sixers will likely be able to run some of the 1-4 actions they ran with Harden and (for example) Georges Niang for House next season. The left corner, left-wing, and trail spot have been his best bets for most of his career, though that flipped last season.

House is not a stopper, but he's a competent, competitive option against a variety of players from 2-4. House has enough athleticism to stick with small-ish wings, enough size/strength to deal with bigger wings, and he's sturdy enough to hold up against burlier forwards if he must. You probably don't want him tracking smaller, quicker guards too often, but you wouldn't expect him to spend much time on those types of players if they can help it, and that responsibility would ultimately fall to somebody like Maxey (for better or for worse) in this sort of configuration.

Adding on to the defensive positives, House has been a helpful defender in multiple scheme contexts. In Houston, the Rockets switched early and often, and House's aforementioned traits helped him succeed within that style of play. In Utah, House made his mark while playing for a group built around Rudy Gobert in drop coverage, a style Sixers fans are familiar with. He may have to play both in Philadelphia, though that versatility may ultimately end up being a better reason to bring him off of the bench as a player who will help tie different groups together.

If you're asking me, I just don't think House is good enough at any single thing to justify putting him in the lineup over other options. Tucker is a better option against the big wings they'd struggle to guard without him, while Thybulle is a better option against smaller, quicker players even if the offense is a mess. I don't place as much value on the idea of Tobias Harris exclusively playing "the four" because that's too rigid a way of looking at positions. The Sixers have more than enough self-creation from their core four guys, so even if there was an advantage to be gained by starting House over Tucker on that front (I don't think there is), there would be diminishing returns at a certain point.

I think the good news for the Sixers as it pertains to House is that he's a reasonable option to play in big spots, a guy who can hit an open shot on one end and hold up against different matchups on the other. There's no need to offense/defense sub him if he's rolling late in the game, and if Tucker misses time or the Sixers are simply conservative with his minutes early in the season, House does enough to complete a sensible lineup.

The continuity option: Matisse Thybulle

When Harden was brought over from the Brooklyn Nets, we had this same conversation about who to throw into the starting lineup, just with different players for the fifth spot. Thybulle was one of those candidates, and up until his vaccination status threw a wrench in his playoff plans, Thybulle was the entrenched starter. Following the break, Thybulle started every game but one for Philadelphia prior to ceding his spot to Danny Green at the start of the playoffs.

That starting five with Thybulle posted terrific numbers, even if they came during a period where a lot of teams are shifting into a lower gear to save some juice for the playoffs. Philadelphia outscored opponents by 20.3 points per 100 possessions with the Embiid-Harris-Thybulle-Maxey-Harden lineup on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, posting strong numbers on both ends (83rd percentile offense, 82nd percentile defense). Maybe you believe Thybulle returns this year and finally figures it out on offense. I'm not there, but I'm unlikely to convince you otherwise if so.

His All-Defense nod is acknowledged, though I think he has moved into the overrated category on that end of the floor. He has one of the highest defensive ceilings in the league, but his gambling and tendency to foul were more problematic in the lead perimeter role last season than they were with Ben Simmons around to take any/all assignments. Thybulle's best moments last year, like his virtuoso performance against Steph Curry in primetime, were up there with the best efforts of any defender in the league. But the Sixers need a level of consistency he isn't always able to offer while dealing with the opponent's best player every single night.

But it all comes down to the jumper. If Thybulle was just an average shooter from the corners that teams showed respect to, there wouldn't be much debate about his place in the team's future. Couple the disrespect teams show him as a shooter with his total inability to beat guys off of the dribble and you have a player who frequently bogs down the offense just by being on the floor. Bad offense leaves you defending in transition more often than any team would like, so Thybulle's best traits can be hidden by his own inability to help Philadelphia on the other end of the floor. And even if the Sixers post good numbers in the regular season in Thybulle lineups, there will be looming concerns about how real and playoff applicable those numbers are.

An optimist would look at the year ahead and note that Thybulle has extra justification to put in the work this summer and deliver his best offensive season yet. Thybulle has his next contract to play for, and a season of competent, consistent offense combined with his defensive upside would command a nice chunk of change in free agency, either here or elsewhere. Harden managed to find some synergy with Thybulle last season as well, with the Sixers using him as a dunker spot attacker and occasional screen-and-roll threat. His poor playoff run should not cause anyone to write him off entirely, even though I'm a skeptic of his in general.

I just look at what the Sixers have done and what they need and think the writing is on the wall that he'll have a smaller role unless he takes a big step forward. The head coach has already shown he'll bury him if/when he doesn't have it, and their depth puts them in a position to do so more often this season.

Let's get weird: De'Anthony Melton

If you're asking me for the least likely path Philadelphia could take, it's this one. Technically, it keeps Harris at the four, which seems to be a major goal for a lot of people talking about the team this summer. But I'm not sure moving Melton into this spot provides enough benefits to overlook the downsides.

Philadelphia playing with three guards simultaneously — three good ones, at that — is something I hope we see a lot this season. They've rarely had enough competent guard play to field a normal starting lineup, and Melton being able to offer some self-creation without totally ruining your defensive integrity is a big deal. Melton has been one of the league's most disruptive defenders in passing lanes, and putting him with the starters would allow you to get some of the best of both worlds with good shooting, strong defense, and just enough creative juice.

On offense, I could see the argument going either way. The starters are not in as desperate need of creation skills, so they can get by with more of a big, burly wing/forward who is relegated to a standstill role as a shooter. You don't necessarily want Melton in a situation where he's being asked to create constantly, though, as he can overextend himself when you give him too much leeway to run the offense. Finding that balance will be key for Melton this year.

Broadly speaking, I like Melton a lot more as a bench guy mostly because I think he's better-equipped to defend the 1-2 part of his "can switch 1-3" claim. Having him defend big wings is not a disaster scenario in short bursts, but if you put him in with the starters, it does feel like you're going to ask him to check legit wings on full-time basis. That's a tough ask even with the big wingspan for his height. Spreading your two-way talent across different lineups will make them better, and Melton will have a big role to play this year regardless.

Again, the best news for Philly is that this style of lineup feels viable now, even if it's only on occasion and dependent on the opponent. They're a more flexible, versatile team than they've been in a while, and that matters in the biggest moments of every season.


Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports

Videos