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April 13, 2023

The most important Sixers rotation decisions for the playoffs

We're just two days away from the playoff opener for the 2023 Sixers, and all the cliche quotes and quips are basically out of the way at this point. The Sixers and Nets are healthy, respect one another, and ready to either take care of business or shock the world, depending on which team you're talking to.

There aren't a ton of surprises left when it comes to Philadelphia's rotation, but the Sixers have some interesting questions to answer about who to play and when. In advance of the playoffs, here are some rotational quirks I'm keeping an eye on.

Paul Reed or small ball?

The Paul Reed question basically comes down to what you think is more important — season-long numbers and body of work vs. recent form. There is no way around the fact that the Sixers have struggled to win Reed's minutes all season.

We're not talking about a small drop-off, either. Philadelphia's effectiveness plummets with Reed on the floor more than any other regular rotation player, 9.2 points worse per 100 possessions with Reed on vs. off. That's worse than the on/off splits for Montrezl Harrell (-2.0), Furkan Korkmaz (-5.1), and every player who has played meaningful minutes for Philadelphia outside of Dewayne Dedmon (whose -23.4 will be studied by future scientists). 

There is a ton of context to consider here. For one, backup center is not the position driving the success of Embiid-less lineups, so you can only pin so much blame on Reed for this problem. If we simply look at on the on-court splits, the Sixers lose Reed's minutes by about 3.2 points per 100 possessions, which isn't good but is just sort of normal bad on a team whose franchise player is a center. 

The hope, however, is in the recent numbers. Since Reed returned to a regular rotation role in early February, the Sixers have comfortably won the minutes with Reed on the floor, outscoring opponents by about 8.3 points per 100 over the last two months. While I think that certainly overstates Reed's impact and the team's success during that time period, it does coincide with the Sixers staggering their stars more frequently, and Reed holding up well as a pick-and-roll partner for Harden. Reed's offensive splits from January onward reflect that change, with the backup big man shooting 60 percent from the field or better in every month since the start of 2023.

His ability to hold up on switches may be the most important and impressive part of his evolution, though. Reed's improved defensive discipline has allowed the Sixers to use him as a 1-5 switcher situationally, and outside of some rough moments at the end of a loss to the Bulls — one in which he was subbed into the game super late in double overtime — Reed has been excellent in that role.

But the Sixers have had grand plans for Tucker since signing him, and I'd be shocked if they go back on those now. Dating back to last summer, people around the team stressed the idea of Tucker being signed in part because of his small-ball utility, factoring him into the plans behind Joel Embiid. Philadelphia has only used that look situationally in the regular season but feels certain to unleash it now, spreading the floor out around James Harden in order to give him the best chance to attack the rim and create open threes for others.

(To be clear — ultra-small lineups have been a net-loss for the Sixers this season, but Philadelphia's most played small look of Tucker/Harris/Melton/Maxey/Harden has outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100, steamrolling on offense while somehow preventing teams from scoring a ton.)

Rivers has been reluctant to trust Reed in big spots, so we'll see if the young big can earn his coach's trust for good.

Bench shooting vs. bench versatility

Georges Niang has emerged as perhaps the most frustrating of all Sixers role players this season, in part because he is one of Doc Rivers' most trusted role players. He has been on the floor long enough to swing games with his shooting, and also to get hunted mercilessly by teams who spot dead meat on the floor. Where he falls on the spectrum from night to night is a surprisingly large factor in Philadelphia's success.

In the final month or so of the season, Doc Rivers made the surprising choice to bring Danuel House Jr. back into the rotation on at least a semi-frequent basis. House had been collecting dust on the sidelines for months and played poorly during the opening stretch of the season, but he has looked like an interesting candidate for minutes in the playoffs. On the surface, House vs. Niang might not look like an actual battle, either on raw production or based on position (House is more of a 2/3 defender).

But with Jalen McDaniels joining the rotation in February, the Sixers have the ability to slide their bench guys up in the lineup to accommodate sleeker, more athletic guards and wings. The three-man combination of Reed/McDaniels/House has only played 80 minutes together so far, but the Sixers have seen terrific early results from that group, outscoring the opponent by over 10 points per 100 possessions. They're long, switchable, and can protect whatever backcourt combination is in the game from their defensive shortcomings. Next to Harden and another ballhandler — Maxey, Milton, Melton depending on matchup and minutes distribution — and you have a decent amount of creative equity without just selling out to score. They may not be able to play extended minutes, but they can buy some rest time for the other starters and perhaps change a game with pure chaos.

(Notably, House missed a pair of practices due to a foot issue this week, but he returned to the fold for Philadelphia on Thursday. The Sixers have noted it's not a serious problem.)

Rivers has to be willing to go away from Niang, however, and you could understand why he has opted to stay with his shooter through tough stretches. Niang has been pivotal in many second-half comebacks and final pushes, including their big comeback win over Milwaukee, which started as a poor shooting outing for Niang. It's tough to find that balance between keeping an important shooter confident and sticking with them too long. 

If I were a betting man, Rivers likely sticks to his guns and hopes that Niang brings enough shooting to maintain his spot in the rotation. But there are a lot of matchups, particularly in round two and beyond, where they're going to be best-served with a sleeker lineup, and we'll see if he's willing to make that call when the moment comes.

Are P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris certain closers? 

There are two guys who are absolutely nailed on in closing situations and all other important situations for Philadelphia. Tyrese Maxey is right behind that Joel Embiid/James Harden duo as the Sixers' brightest young player and most dynamic scoring threat outside of the big two. After that, things have the potential to get interesting.

In theory, Harris and Tucker should man those other spots for the entire playoff run, but Tucker has proven that's not a safe bet throughout this regular season. With his shooting coming and going, Rivers has often gone away from Tucker late in games in favor of a hot hand or a more willing outside shooter. In games that don't matter, it's easy to sell low-minute counts for Tucker as preserving him for the playoffs. When it's all on the line, we'll have a better read on the coach's trust in Tucker.

(So much of this calculus rests on tangible vs. intangible value, as the Sixers have often talked up Tucker's impact on defense despite the numbers not exactly matching the rhetoric. Do his communication, grit, and selflessness win out in a playoff format? That has been the case in the past.)

Harris is a more interesting case, as it's a tougher "political" decision to limit reps for a guy making significant money and who ultimately has a more varied skill set than potential replacements. He has often been one of their best options against top perimeter players, including in their recent battle with the Boston Celtics, and bumping Tucker out of a closing group would be done in part because Harris can slide cleanly into the four spot on both ends of the floor. Still, the allure of quicker, more athletic lineups will not fade, and the Sixers don't really reap any benefits of playing bigger on a broader level — they're an inconsistent and often poor rebounding team, which is an area Harris makes no noticeable impact on. 

De'Anthony Melton figures to play a prominent role in one way or another for Philadelphia, so why not in the closing group? Three-guard lineup numbers are only slightly off the pace of Philadelphia's starting lineup, and they've done a better job of keeping opponents off of the offensive glass (opponents get second chances on an extra five percent of their misses vs. the starters compared to an Embiid/Harris/Melton/Maxey/Harden lineup). There's also a little-used lineup I'd like to see again at some point before this year ends: Embiid/McDaniels/Melton/Maxey/Harden posted cartoonish splits in just 50 possessions together during the regular season, and on paper, that's quite a bit of ballhandling, athleticism, and two-way impact spread across five guys.

While this sort of thing is fodder for debate but often detached from reality, we saw a real-world example of what a switch up could look like, when injuries to Harris and Tucker forced Doc Rivers to play McDaniels in crunch time during Philadelphia's 48-point fourth quarter against the Bucks. At that moment, you got a glimpse of what could happen if the Sixers are slightly less married to a single group at the end of games, even if going away from the vets feels unlikely when it counts.

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