April 02, 2019
Healthy or banged up, pre-Butler trade or post-Harris trade, there has been one essential truth about the Sixers — they have a terrible bench, one that has hurt them time and time again against contenders and bottom feeders alike. The natural response to watching them barf up leads all year is to search for new answers because we've seen just about all there is to see from their holdover bench pieces.
At the close of the G-League season, the Sixers received reinforcements from their affiliate in Delaware, most notably Zhaire Smith and Shake Milton. And while some fans held onto visions all year of Smith locking down primary ballhandlers, or even Milton adding some shooting to the guard rotation, Brett Brown has made it clear that they won't be anywhere close to a playoff rotation.
"I don't see those guys factoring into postseason play. I don't. It's no disrespect to them, what we have is kind of what you have," Brown said late last week. "Playoff rotations historically don't increase, they decrease, and so I'm always trying to find eight-and-a-half, nine players, that you can spin around based on what the game tells you to do."
While Brown conceded there would be opportunities for someone like Jonah Bolden depending on the matchup, that declaration on their young guards was not received well. Why not give new blood a chance when the old blood has proven ineffective?
Let's explore that question a bit.
Anyone who has watched Milton would concede that he's a clean fit for the Sixers offensively. On a team of ball-dominant stars who need shooting around them, a utility man like Milton is a perfect match.
"He doesn't force feed stuff on the game, he takes what the game gives him and plays with ease," Brown told reporters at a recent practice. "There's a pace and a smoothness and a fluidity to his game that enables him to look very much under control."
Milton has made an impression on some of those stars during his time with the big club this season, catching the eye of one veteran in particular. Jimmy Butler, in contrast to his reputation as a difficult teammate, has taken a liking to Milton and was the first guy to check in on the young man when he broke his hand earlier this season.
For Butler, the respect for his young teammate comes from a shared love of the grind.
"I just wanted to let him know that you're going to come back and have your opportunity, and I think he has shined," Butler told reporters. "You can tell he was working when he was down there [in Delaware], doing what he was supposed to be doing. I'm glad to have him around, he works incredibly hard."
Hard work does not always beget results, but Milton's offensive refinement is a testament to the man hours he has put in. In a recent game against the Orlando Magic, Milton flashed a little bit of everything from the offensive toolbox, putting in work on and off the ball.
Milton's claim on a spot in the rotation rests on how you value T.J. McConnell, not just in general but within the structure of this Sixers team. It has become harder to envision an offensive fit for McConnell with how the team rotates these days — he has proven a terrible fit alongside Ben Simmons, and while the numbers are much better in lineups built around Jimmy Butler, he still cuts into ballhandling reps that should go to better players because he's not all that useful on offense otherwise.
Replace McConnell's minutes with a chance for Milton, and you have a bigger, more athletic body who can make shots all over the floor and play for long stretches without the ball in his hands. There is a lot to work with here, in theory.
This starts with the most boring part: his contract. As a two-way player, Milton is not eligible for the playoffs unless the Sixers come to an agreement with him on a real contract before the regular season ends. That doesn't seem likely — they would have to cut someone else to make this happen and effectively shaving a year off of his future contract on a playoff Hail Mary seems a little silly, if you believe he has worthwhile talent.
But the more pressing issue is that this is a larger gamble than it is made out to be. Milton has played 182 total minutes this season, a lot of them in garbage time, and has yet to prove he can be a reliable option in the regular season, let alone against better teams in the playoffs.
Milton's production, like that of any young player, is erratic. He was an absolute mess in Philadelphia's blowout loss to the Mavericks on Monday, a -10 in 17 minutes who didn't hit a single shot from the floor.
It's on nights like these where Milton's defensive errors are far more noticeable. You can live with guys when they get torched on defense but make it up on the other end (also known as the JJ Redick corollary). Milton's problem is that his instincts are still not there, and you can't afford to have players drifting into la la land on possessions in the playoffs.
this is... not going to cut it pic.twitter.com/ZxtAsRsLCf— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) March 25, 2019
Even when he is in position, I think people believe his physical tools are more impactful defensively than they actually are:
(The help behind him isn't great here, in fairness to the young man, but unfortunately, that's going to be a teamwide problem whenever Joel Embiid is not on the floor.)
With a team as ready to win as the Sixers are, I don't blame the coaching staff for choosing a steady, if underwhelming backup over a rookie who might completely crumble in the spotlight.
In fact, the numbers paint an interesting picture if we compare them from different time periods. Prior to the Tobias Harris trade, the Sixers were worse on defense with McConnell on the floor than without him. But since the Harris trade, with McConnell's individual play cratering and everyone hoping for a replacement, the Sixers have actually performed better on defense when he's out there than when he's not:
|Time period||TJ on-court (ORTG/DRTG)||TJ off court|
|Pre-Harris trade||107.6/108.5 (—0.9 NET)||110.3/104.6 (+5.7 NET)|
|Post-Harris trade||106.7/104.1 (+2.6 NET)||110/107.9 (+2.1 NET)|
How is this the case? There is something to be said for simply being in the right place at the right time. The Sixers added more talent at the trade deadline, but they also added a lot of newness and uncertainty. It's here where McConnell's assuredness within the defensive structure is important. He may get torched as an individual defender, as we saw happen to Milton above, but there are far fewer possessions where he wanders off into no man's land.
A developed version of Milton would be a big help to this Sixers team. But he simply doesn't have enough experience or polish to be a contributor on a playoff team, and the Sixers already have enough challenges to juggle without adding more uncertainty on defense.
If things had gone according to plan for Zhaire Smith this season, of course he would be considered for the playoff rotation. But with everything we know right now, it is absolutely the right thing to do for the team to ask him to sit the bench when the games matter.
Let's set aside the broken foot and his horrific allergic reaction from earlier this season and remember one thing — Smith was effectively making the transition from playing college power forward to more of a two-guard role. This would have been tricky no matter how healthy he was this year, with Smith having to figure out his place in the Sixers' offense, to say nothing of the learning curve for a rookie NBA defender.
At least in Milton's case, he was able to spend early parts of the season practicing and playing with the Sixers. Those opportunities to play were rare, but they were real all the same. Meanwhile, Smith was laid up in the hospital for an extended period, and once he got out of there he had to focus on putting weight back on before ever worrying about basketball.
You could see this when you watched him play early rehab minutes for the Delaware Blue Coats. He was raw when the Sixers drafted him, and he remains raw now. That applies to basically any player of a comparable age if you put them in his shoes.
Playing in a playoff game means you have to be confident stepping into jumpers, decisive with your defensive reads, unflappable in the face of pressure, comfortable taking someone off of the dribble if that's what the defense is giving you. Smith may check all of those boxes one day, but I think you'd be hard pressed to say he is any of those things right now.
A full offseason will be great for his development, and next year in training camp I think you'll start to see the outline of a player who can help this team win down the road. But asking him to participate in the playoffs is an insane ask at this juncture, and it's not something that has any realistic chance of happening.
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