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October 03, 2019

Sixers mailbag: The battle at backup point, crunch-time offense, bench strength, and more

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With training camp coming to a close for the Sixers on this wonderful Friday, there's no better time to dive back into the Sixers mailbag. We can't answer whether Ben Simmons will be a better shooter this season or not, but there are plenty of subplots to watch throughout the preseason, including the backup point guard battle, what the state of the bench is, and a whole lot more.

As always, you're free to submit any questions you may have through email, Twitter, or perhaps even by carrier pigeon if you can manage to find one of those and figure out my address.

Without further adieu... 

In Philadelphia Eagles world, there is a fake honor known as "The Na Brown Award," named after the former wide receiver who had a prolific training camp when he burst on the scene alongside Donovan McNabb. The general idea behind the "award" is to give it to a player who comes in with low expectations and minimal track record and then dominates chatter during the preseason.

If there were an equivalent for the Na Brown Award in Sixers parlance, Burke would be the runaway favorite right now. Ben Simmons lauded him for "killing" on the first day of camp, and Burke absolutely brings a dimension the Sixers have been missing basically since Lou Williams left town. 

(That designation is also a little unfair to Burke. He was a terrific college player who shook off a tough start to his pro career to persevere as an instant offense guy, and parts of the fanbase were definitely excited to see him arrive in Philly. Not exactly an unknown.)

But I think (in fact, I know) this battle is far from over. Brown has said as much when the topic has come up at camp, insisting both guys are going to get their chances in the first third of the season. That applies to most of the roster beyond their top six or seven, and Brown's plan is to play 10, perhaps 11 players in the rotation early in the season to try out different combinations with a new-look team.

If you're asking who I'd put my money on, Neto fits the mold I believe Brown tends to like at the backup point guard spot, as a solid, dependable figure who will get the team into their sets on offense and not make many mistakes on defense. His highs are not as high as Burkes, but overall he's probably a less volatile option. That being said, the Sixers may need more dynamism if the backup is on the floor with their young wings, who at this stage don't project well as offensive initiators.

Having a competition at all is good news for the Sixers either way.

I've expanded on this at greater length before, and if you'd like to read more detailed articles on this question, I would suggest reading my thoughts on rotation projections from the summer, as well as my recent piece about the Embiid/Horford combo.

Here's the short version: with the way Brown tends to sub, I think you're going to end up seeing the Embiid/Horford pairing on the floor together for about one-third of the game. That's not insignificant, and it will absolutely be part of the lineup we see on the floor when the Sixers are in crunch time.

Brown has hinted that there may be some changes to his usual patterns this season, so it's hard to say for sure, but I suspect we're going to be seeing a lot of these two together.

I don't think either guy is well-positioned to make an impact this season, though I will say Milton's performance at Summer League is souring my perception a little more than it should. My expectation was that he should dominate there and he was fairly underwhelming, which doesn't bode well for a second-year player hoping to make the jump into the rotation for a Finals contender.

Milton is probably in a better position because the guard picture is a little muddier, whereas Bolden will have to beat out a ton of entrenched guys to even get spot minutes. 

Early on, I don't think you're going to see any deviations from the starting group of Embiid-Horford-Harris-Richardson-Simmons. The Sixers have invested a lot to bring this group together, and Brown is going to give them every opportunity he can to work out the kinks when the stakes are lower during the regular season.

The play call is more interesting because there's not a straightforward answer. In the playoffs last season, you wanted to get your two best players (Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler) involved, and the easy answer was to put them in a pick-and-roll together. Is Tobias Harris dynamic enough to just swap him in for Butler there? I'm not sure. Josh Richardson is probably better as a secondary action/release valve rather than the initiator, Horford is probably best served as a screener to get someone else free, and Simmons has documented issues in these situations.

This is an area where Simmons' limitations really matter, because in an ideal world you would love to just let Embiid and Simmons play a two-man game. Simmons has the speed to blow by guys and get to the basket, which would take coverage away from Embiid, but he has to prove to opponents they can't leave him on the perimeter in these situations.

I do think it's worth noting this isn't necessarily going to be a play call team late in games, because they never really have been under Brown. The question is really about who is initiating and from where, and with the Sixers making tweaks in their floor spots this season, we need some proof of concept for their endgame offense. Long term, I think this needs to be a combined effort from their young pillars, and only one of those guys is equipped to handle the responsibility right now.

More related reading! If you have the time, check out what I wrote on this subject last week when I discussed Redick's absence at length as part of our preview series.

As for what we are hearing at camp, Embiid has already begun to incorporate Josh Richardson into some of these same looks, and he sees advantages Richardson brings to the table Redick did not. 

"Josh brings something different than JJ," Embiid said on the opening day of camp. "[He's] more athletic than JJ, especially when it comes to back-cutting and me throwing lobs or him just turning the corner and attacking the defender. I think in that sense, he can do that better than JJ."

Let's be frank, the Sixers are not going to outright replace what they lost in Redick, one of the elite shooters in the history of the sport. It's more about what Embiid is getting at in that quote, and the focus will be taking advantage of a different set of strengths and making it work. Philadelphia no longer has a shooter who can hit from all angles, so they will emphasize finding players on their best floor spots and leveraging their increased size and athleticism.

I'm cautiously optimistic about this group. The Sixers know they have two guys (Mike Scott and James Ennis) who can be trusted to play in big spots because they already stepped up during last year's playoff run. The "backup center problem" that doomed them last season will basically not exist by the time the playoffs arrive, provided both Embiid and Horford are healthy by then. Richardson can potentially play some backup point guard in the playoffs, maintaining their defensive toughness for all 48 minutes.

All you need, then, is for two or three players to emerge from this group as contributors: Trey Burke, Raul Neto, Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle, Kyle O'Quinn, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and Jonah Bolden. The reviews about Thybulle have been excellent through the first few days of camp, the guard situation looks decent, O'Quinn will be a steady hand in the regular season when he's called into action, and don't forget Smith, who could be the most intriguing guy of the bunch if his shot comes through.

But let's play devil's advocate. If the rookies both struggle to shoot, it will amplify concerns that already exist for the top of the roster and threaten to bring the offense to a screeching halt. The Sixers are not going to go to a nine-man rotation until the playoffs, most likely, so they need to get consistent production from a bunch of guys with very little NBA experience. That's a dicey proposition.

The Sixers hope this is the group they can go to war with in May and June, but I wouldn't be stunned if there needs to be some slight tinkering before they get there.

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