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April 02, 2021

Sixers mailbag: Future star trades, playoff lineups, and George Hill's role

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George-Hill_040221_usat Seth Wenig/USA TODAY Sports

New Sixers guard George Hill should be joining the team soon.

Fresh off of a 4-2 road trip, the Sixers are set to get their best player and MVP candidate back from injury. It’s not often you can praise a team for a stretch where they lost ground in the standings, but after mostly holding the fort without Joel Embiid, the Sixers are primed for a strong final push.

There’s no better time to go to the mailbag, answering a few of your most pressing questions as the Sixers return home to Philadelphia. Let’s get to some questions.

Prior to the Kyle Lowry sweepstakes opening in earnest, the Sixers were sending signals they would likely be having a quiet deadline focused on depth. One big reason, which came up in various conversations prior to the deadline, is that the sort of stars who could change your team were simply not available at the deadline.

At the moment, Bradley Beal is the guy most of the league is watching. He has committed to the Wizards at every possible opportunity, but most of the league is expecting the guy averaging 30+ points a game on a perennial loser to seek greener pastures. If and when he hits the market, and this summer is a reasonable time for that to happen, Beal will be in the sweet spot — ultra-productive and in the midst of his prime (he turns 28 in late June), a guy who can help you compete now and long into the future, health permitting.

Regardless of whether Beal is available or not, star trades for Philadelphia moving forward hinge on what this group looks like in the playoffs this season. If the Sixers prove to be a real title threat and Ben Simmons' limitations as an initiator don't come back to bite them in the playoffs, they'll likely keep rolling along and search for more cursory upgrades on the fringes, with the knowledge that the core players will probably continue winning lots of games and developing further. If they don't, well...

I know at least half of the fanbase has memory-holed it by now, but the front office was ready to send Ben Simmons packing if it meant they could bring in an older, better player in James Harden who they believed offered a material upgrade to their title chances. You could argue that Harden-esque players don't become available that often, and fewer still have a stated desire to potentially join the Sixers, but the bottom line is this — all the talk of keeping the current group together and competing long-term didn't matter when a big fish was available. If Rockets ownership didn't have a personal beef with Morey, Harden might even be a Sixers player right now.

I'm not saying they would move Simmons for Beal specifically, or even that it would take that sort of move to acquire Beal, who has a player option on his deal after next year that will help him control his fate. But once a player of Simmons' caliber is available "for the right deal," it opens up a lot of opportunities that we might not be able to see yet.

Going to say yes, though I don't feel ultra confident in the answer. He's probably not currently valuable enough to fetch much in a trade on his own, so he's more valuable to the Sixers than most other teams.

If the Celtics and Heat were the best versions of themselves, maybe. Maybe Miami goes to another level between now and the postseason as they get healthier and ramp up their defense, but Boston has been a flat-out mess at times this year and they certainly are not a team to be feared heading into the playoffs. They’re two games below .500 as of the time I am writing this!

Yes, the wing combo the Celtics put on the floor is dangerous, but Kemba Walker has been a shell of himself this season, neutering how dangerous Boston is with their perimeter attack. That's before we mention how easy of a time Joel Embiid would have against the current version of Boston's frontcourt — with Daniel Theis sent packing at the deadline, the Celtics will be throwing the Tristan Thompson/Robert Williams/Mo Wagner/Luke Kornet combo platter at Embiid, all of whom he is capable of putting through the rim in the post.

Do the Sixers have any predetermined reason to fear the Heat? Ben Simmons can credibly defend Jimmy Butler, they're more "zone-proof" than they were last season with all the shooters in the current lineup, they have the superior big, and Miami's big trade deadline acquisition, Victor Oladipo, has not been the same guy since returning from a ruptured quad tendon suffered in early 2019.

On a similar note...

Avoiding the Bucks and especially the Nets as long as possible should be the goal heading into the playoffs, and that means they need to push for the No. 1 seed. People have fair questions about Brooklyn's ability to defend, and they have Embiid-centric concerns that would make any matchup with Philly problematic. But the Nets have been on an absolute tear *without* Kevin Durant, and they'll only get more dangerous when they add one of the greatest individual scorers of all-time to the offensive juggernaut they have with James Harden leading the way.

Here's the caveat — there is certainly a line the Sixers should be wary of when it comes to pushing their players in games that don't *really* matter. They don't necessarily have to actively sit guys if they're healthy enough to play, but there should be eyes all over the minutes count for their best players, particularly Embiid, who is going to ultimately decide whether they compete for a title or not.

I just don't believe in taking your foot off of the gas completely. Rest days for guys that are nursing bumps, bruises, or late-season fatigue? Absolutely. End of the day, seeding doesn't matter if you allow a small-to-medium-sized issue turns catastrophic because of a lack of rest.

George Hill is not joining a team that has crushed teams with their starting group and walking into the starting lineup after being out for multiple months due to surgery. If a star-level player had been acquired in those same circumstances, that would be a different story, but I would be pretty surprised if they pulled that card right away. *Maybe* that happens eventually, but I'm dubious there too, given what we know about Doc Rivers' broader coaching philosophy — if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

That being said, the most interesting subplot between now and the end of the season is whether Hill supplants Seth Curry in the closing lineup for Philadelphia. Rivers and Daryl Morey have made a point to mention they'd like to avoid offense-defense subs in end-game situations, and the only guy in the closing lineup who is in question on that front is Curry, a small and targetable defender whose case rests solely on his shooting ability.

There's going to be a trade-off there in some form or fashion. Hill is a high-level shooter, but he's reluctant to let shots go in a similar fashion to Curry, and Curry is a more dangerous ball-handler at this stage of their careers.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to see the new guy actually suit up for the Sixers before I get too bold with my predictions. Having a credible choice to make is positive on its own.

I don't feel great about most Simmons-Thybulle lineups, even with their potential to wreak havoc defensively, though admittedly the problem is made way worse when they share the floor with a paint-bound center. Embiid is not that, so in theory it could work well enough.

I'd much rather see the smaller version to see if they can execute a switch-everything defense as a gadget look to throw at teams when the chips are down. They've downsized out of necessity recently, and I'd like to see them do so in a way that maintains the offensive advantages of small ball without drowning completely on defense. This is a reasonable path to getting there.

What you see is often what you get with Doc Rivers. If he's playing all-bench groups in the regular season, there's a decent chance he's going to do it when the playoffs roll around. For better or worse, Rivers is a coach who believes in consistency and doing what got you there, which is something he actually shares in common with the head coach he replaced in Philadelphia.

The Clippers learned the hard way how that can go south in a big moment. Reliant on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell in major bench roles last season, Rivers continued to play Harrell despite the eye test and stats painting a clear picture of how bad of an idea it was against the Nuggets in their round two loss. We have seen in-game examples of that during his first season in charge in Philadelphia, even when it was worked out to their benefit — the all-bench group was critical to their comeback win against the Jazz, flourishing in the second half after floundering in the first half.

Some bullets are going to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what works when the chips are down. Unless he has changed considerably following the Clippers exit, I wouldn't count on that being Rivers.

I don't really care about center depth as much as I care about the skill sets they have available. Depth there is overrated in the sense that if Embiid is not healthy and back in MVP form, they are drawing dead as a contender.

As we have discussed here many times over, though, I do think they could use a backup big who fits better as a complement to Ben Simmons. Perhaps that is Paul Reed, who has shown defensive flashes and is a willing enough shooter when the ball swings his way, but Rivers has mostly used him as a forward so far. During a recent Zoom call, Rivers even responded to a question about Reed's minutes by noting he has Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons in front of him on the depth chart, so I'm bearish on his chances to play much small-ball center down the stretch.

In any case, the Sixers should not be losing playoff games because they can't get 10 quality minutes out of Dwight Howard in the postseason. They have enough guys on hand to eat minutes in the regular season, especially in an increasingly small league.)

(A sidebar here: while I understand and agree the pairing with Howard has been a bad one, I'm also getting increasingly tired of hearing lineup-based excuses trotted out for Ben Simmons. The failure to make lineups work with non-spacing bigs in them is a product of *his* game and how teams defend him after years of playing the same exact way. It would be great to get somebody who could space the floor and protect the rim, but guys who can do that get paid tens of millions of dollars, get selected at the top of the draft board, and/or aren't content to play bench minutes behind Joel Embiid.)

See above, but I don't think he gets into the playoff rotation short of some sort of devastating turn of events for the roster. I wouldn't be shocked to see him get more opportunities during the regular season.

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