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November 08, 2019

Mailbag: Could Sixers move one of their current starters to sixth man role?

1_AL_Horford_Sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers forward Al Horford during a game against the Boston Celtics.

There's no better time to do a mailbag than immediately after the Sixers suffer back-to-back losses. Everyone, myself included, is at their most rational and in a perfect position to judge the long-term health of the franchise in these moments.

Jokes aside, Philadelphia's 5-2 start is still one of their best opening months in recent team history, and the Sixers have shown they can beat you with or without Joel Embiid in the lineup. They've toyed with the rotation, seen ups and downs from behind the three-point line, and have won in dramatic fashion on multiple occasions already, without any of the second-half collapses fans grew accustomed to in years past. So far, so good, for the most part.

Let's dive into some reader questions, and then I will leave you to it, as this old man is celebrating a birthday today and need not spend any more time than is necessary thinking about fake trade scenarios.

A spicy one to start! Horford has been excellent to start the year and people are already thinking about kicking his butt to the bench.

I kid. This is a topic we've tossed around before, specifically when Matisse Thybulle was creating a billion turnovers in the preseason (all numbers approximate). One day, it's going to be hard to avoid moving Horford into a role with the second unit, as it will get tougher and tougher for him to hold up defending smaller players as he ages. On top of that, I agree Tobias Harris is a more natural fit at the four should the Sixers find someone who can step into a starting role on the wing.

But as most people have seen since the regular season started, Thybulle can be a great, disruptive defender at his best but he has an assortment of flaws otherwise. So who's the natural candidate to step into Horford's shoes and actually make this switch worthwhile? I would argue there isn't one on the roster. 

Were there someone who the Sixers could insert into the starting lineup without drawbacks, fine, but each guy comes with warts. The Sixers either have to play a defender who can't shoot or a shooter who can't really defend. Their offense with the starting unit is already struggling enough without making it worse, and if you go with the latter, you run the risk of compromising the group's core identity. 

If a switch like this is going to happen, the Sixers are incentivized to wait to make it anyway. This early part of the season is all about their best players getting reps together and building chemistry for when it really counts in April, May, and June. Load management is an admirable goal, but it can't come at the cost of actually building something that can withstand the pressure of the playoffs.

It's impossible to know whether this five-man group is the five-man group that will ultimately win them a title. But they are the five best players on the team by a mile, and they have to learn how to play together. That takes priority above all else at the moment.

The idea of Trey Burke was always better than who Trey Burke actually is in practice. He's a one-position defender who can't defend that position, and his style of play runs counter to everything the Sixers want to do offensively. Having expectations for a guy on a partially-guaranteed veteran's minimum contract is never wise, and that remains the case here.

However, I think the upcoming absence(s) of Ben Simmons warrants a bit of experimentation, and you might as well see what Burke can do with real rotation minutes. The worst-case scenario is that he falls flat on his face and you immediately yank him back out of the rotation in favor of guys who have already proven their worth. If he proves he can give you a spark of creativity, great, suddenly there's competition and a different option to hit teams with.

I tend to believe the former is more likely than the latter, and Neto has proven he can make an impact, but I get why people like the idea of Burke.

Sticking with backup point guards...

Is there a reason we should expect Raul Neto to be unplayable in the playoffs? One of the reasons he's a quality backup guard is that he doesn't really have any major weaknesses. He's a solid defender, a respectable shooter, he can handle, he can pass, and he's smart. That's a tough combination to make unplayable.

Yes, teams try to hunt mismatches in the playoffs with greater frequency than in the regular season, but the Sixers are as well-equipped as any team in the league to help guys recover in difficult matchups, and frankly, Neto has been one of their more capable defenders in pick-and-rolls to start the year. Besides, a role for someone like Neto would likely be small in the playoffs, so teams wouldn't even have a big window with which to exploit him if he ends up being a liability. You really just need him for 8-10 minutes tops to buy Ben Simmons some time.

As we talked about on this week's podcast, yes, the Sixers should probably live with some Richardson growing pains at the point. But I wouldn't say that necessarily has any connection to Neto being a concern for a playoff format.

I don't know if people were expecting the Sixers to run a lot of action with these two this season, but it's not like they've had a ton of time on the court together for us to judge. Even with the limited sample, we have seen the Sixers run hi-lo plays with Horford at the top of the key, including on the play that ultimately won Philly the game in Atlanta. last week.

Honestly, the bigger deal is that we still don't see a ton of Embiid/Simmons two-man game this far into their careers because of the offensive limitations of the latter. Those two should be a matchup nightmare in pick-and-rolls/pops, but without shooting in the Simmons half of the equation, it's hard to generate any kind of advantage.

Based on what we've seen so far, I think it has to be Harris, though I don't think there are a lot of good options here. Richardson is the guy they touted as potentially filling this role in training camp, though his handle is just average and his jumper has been almost completely absent to start the year. Harris' handle is decent enough but it's mostly just functional enough to create his own offense, and he's nowhere near Redick's level pulling up on the move, which was the key to keeping teams on their heels.

Truthfully, I think the Sixers need to toy with some different looks this year and see what works. He is not necessarily a fan of running it, but it would serve Embiid to be used more as a roll man, assuming they have a guard in the rotation who can partner with him on those plays. They need to get him on the move more in general instead of resorting to having him pound guys in the post all night. He's very good at it and shouldn't shy away from it, but diversity is good.

This is going to shock you, but I'm going to pick neither. If Brett Brown was afraid to coach Simmons or if Simmons wasn't willing to listen to Brown, there's no way he could have gotten him to buy into being forced off of the ball (and basically out of the offense completely) by Jimmy Butler in the playoffs last year. Was it Simmons' favorite arrangement? No, but he took on the challenge of defending Kawhi Leonard and focused on what was in his control to help the team fight the Toronto Raptors.

Does Simmons have an ego? Yes, one that he has earned to some extent. Is Brown going to throw a chair like Bobby Knight and call his players out on the carpet? No, and that style of coaching doesn't really work for long if it works at all anymore. Life is not binary.

If I had the ability to tell you this with any certainty on November 8th, 2019, I would probably be running an NBA team, not musing about one on the internet. So far, it seems Harris has followed up any praise I heap on him with a terrible game, and any criticism I offer with a breakout performance. Go figure.

Generally, I think it would be hard for a player who is an offense-only guy to be worth the contract the Sixers gave him, and it's complicated even further by the fact that Harris doesn't play with the typical mentality of a go-to scorer. With the lack of perimeter creation on the roster, the Sixers honestly need Harris to keep firing even when he's mired in slumps, but I don't know if he's wired that way. That might be useful in keeping things harmonious on a team with a lot of mouths to feed, though it's a rare situation where you might want a player to be more selfish.

As I've said in the past in multiple formats, I also think Harris living up to his contract is going to come down to whether he's an elite shooter or simply a good one. If he can be the former, it doesn't really matter whether people think he's properly paid, he will be of considerable worth to the Sixers. But since he has joined Philadelphia, he hasn't been anywhere close to that level, with a few hot streaks breaking up what has mostly been below-average shooting.

Some points in his favor — I think Harris has shown flashes of defensive improvement this season, and in terms of leading behind the scenes, he has been at the forefront of setting a tone and building bridges between a new group of players. That's hard to put a price on, and Harris' character is part of why they felt comfortable investing in him to begin with.

Let's circle back on this later, long road ahead of everyone.

Are we sure they'd be getting heavy time in the rotation? Mikal Bridges is shooting under 15 percent from three this season and was below average there as a rookie, with his role being cut into as the Suns have improved this year. Eric Paschall has been pretty great in Golden State so far, but I'd think we should wait for more than eight games to make a determination on his value.

That being said, it doesn't hurt to look closer at programs where guys are prepared to play specific, useful roles at the next level.

I'm saving this one for last because I want to be clear that I'm not the one advocating for Simmons to be traded nor do I think it is a realistic possibility. But I am a man of the people if nothing else.

The only way you trade someone like Simmons is if there is a slam-dunk fit in terms of both fit and talent that gives the Sixers a better chance to win a title over the next four years. There are very few options out there worth doing it for, even if we throw out any salary-related kinks for the sake of discussion.

A name that always jumps to mind when this topic comes up is Damian Lillard. He is as elite as it gets for point guards on offense, and Philadelphia's offensive ceiling would take a monumental leap with him in the fold. Life gets considerably easier for Joel Embiid and Al Horford on offense, and the Sixers would be able to win in basically every style of game that exists.

Setting aside that Portland isn't trading Lillard, there are still downsides to that sort of move. You're aging the team considerably and making it so that you basically have to win now, taking a big hit on the defensive end to do so. Part of the beauty of this current group is that if it goes south, you can still keep the title window open if you keep Embiid and Simmons happy, retooling around them. 

I would also be wary, frankly, of putting every egg in the Embiid basket. Yes, he's their best player. Yes, he will make or break their championship dreams. But should his body give out, Simmons gives you a strong baseline from which to work, and though the development of a jumper looks like more of an impossibility each passing day, there remains a future where Simmons turns the corner and vaults himself into MVP-level territory.

For better or worse, I think you have to ride it out with Simmons. Talk to me again after this season's playoff run, and we'll see where everyone is at.

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