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November 05, 2018

The Sixers' refusal to play smaller is holding the team back

Sixers NBA
110518-MarkelleFultz-USAToday Catalina Fragoso/USA Today

Brooklyn Nets forward Rodions Kurucs (00) passes the ball against Philadelphia guards Furkan Korkmaz (30) and Markelle Fultz (20) in the fourth quarter at Barclays Center.

At first glance, Philadelphia's loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night was a product of poor ball security and fatigue, with the Sixers eventually wilting on the second night of a back-to-back. Their whopping 27 turnovers certainly didn't help.

But with 17 turnovers at halftime alone, the Sixers were down just four points to Brooklyn on Sunday night, with many of their cough-ups on the evening coming on offensive fouls or plays that ultimately turned into dead balls. Those are plays that can be recovered from, provided you play defense on the other end.

The bigger issue, from what I can tell, stems from a usage of personnel that Brett Brown has shown is his norm rather than an early-season blip. As the rest of the league goes smaller and more athletic, the Sixers have remained more traditional in structure. Brown helped usher in a more modern style of play, attacking the rim and the three-point line even when the franchise had no shooting. That is a good thing.

What probably can't hold is his insistence on playing more "traditional" fours in the lineup at the volume he plays them. While it sounds strange to suggest the team should go smaller when their best player is an oversized center, it is essential to maintaining the defensive identity they carved out during last year's 52-win campaign.

It removes the players who should be fazed out of the rotation

A lot of digital ink was spilled in the great Amir Johnson vs. Richaun Holmes debate of 2017-18. Without sparking that argument once again, I still see the merit in trusting Johnson over Holmes, the latter of whom has some of the most maddening awareness lapses of any big man in the league.

But the case to play Johnson this season has become a lot tougher to make, both because of his own limitations and the different options the Sixers have to replace him.

In Mike Muscala, the Sixers have a frontcourt player who theoretically can play either the four or five, and Brown has played up this flexibility whenever asked what his role will be this season. Conceptually, it seems pretty clear he should be a five in this version of the NBA — his foot speed and shooting are both legitimate within the context of playing center, but fall short of what you'd want to see from a modern forward.

When the Sixers go to their bench, they have to make a decision about what sort of team they want to be. Given the personnel and how heavy they're leaning on non-shooters like Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, the answer seems to be clear: put as much shooting on the floor as you can around the guards, mitigating their weaknesses as much as possible.

While that's not an ideal thing to say about players who were drafted with an expectation of being foundational pieces, it is the reality the Sixers face at the moment. Barring franchise-altering trades, it's something they are simply going to have to work around.

For all the defensive savvy he brings to the table, Johnson does not help toward the goal of making things easier on offense, and his aging leaves him in trouble on defense more often than he should be. No hard feelings, but the Sixers should be presenting Muscala with every opportunity to take the backup five job and run with it.

It makes defending the important areas of the court easier

So far, Muscala at the four has actually produced decent results by the numbers. According to Cleaning The Glass, lineups with Muscala as a nominal power forward have outscored opponents by just a hair (0.8 points) per 100 possession, good for the 55th percentile of all five-man groupings in the league.

But there are clear limitations when you play what is effectively two centers together when he shares the floor with either of Embiid or Johnson. Brooklyn is short on high-end talent, but they have a lot of decent athletes on the wing who can put it on the floor and make you work. They are also unafraid to let it fly from the perimeter.

A dual-big lineup against that sort of opponent often leaves you scrambling, struggling to contest threes on the perimeter or losing a foot race as guys torch switches to get to the rim. Muscala is clearly athletic and aware enough to make a game effort of it, but the Sixers were hurt by both sides of that coin against Brooklyn on Sunday whenever they had two bigs on the floor.

If not for Embiid's work on the back end to contest blow-bys, it could have been even worse. And a lot of these plays weren't necessarily bad attempts at defense by Muscala! This is just about understanding his place in the league in 2018. He's center-sized and plays with the defensive instincts of a center. It's not ultra complicated.

The more perimeter players you put on the floor, the easier it is to protect the three-point line. Philadelphia's perimeter defense tends to allow a lot of drives to the rim, relying on Embiid to clean things up at the rim. More teams than ever are going to attempt to drag him out to the perimeter and neutralize his defensive strengths, and the Sixers should be trying to put as much length and athleticism as they can around him anyway.

Even when these looks are working, the process does not seem sound.

It turns shooting deficiencies into unique lineup wrinkles

It is difficult to build a team around Simmons, no doubt, particularly when the team's franchise player is a big man who does his best work in the painted area. However, the Sixers are squandering a unique opportunity to build funky and unorthodox lineups with Simmons on the team, and there are creative ways to unleash him that could unlock new levels for this team.

We briefly saw a lineup with Dario Saric at center and Simmons at the four against the Clippers last Thursday, but Brown has yet to try a look with Simmons playing the nominal five on defense. There has been a ton of lamenting about the lack of ballhandling the Sixers can put on the floor at any given time, and Simmons playing spot minutes there would be one way to alleviate the problem.

Simmons is not going to be a traditional rim protector by any stretch of the imagination, but putting him there would allow you to put high-level shooting at the 2-4 spots — think Landry Shamet, JJ Redick, and Robert Covington — while still playing Markelle Fultz minutes alongside Simmons. Take out one of Shamet or Redick if you're worried about defensive limitations, and you can still sub in Wilson Chandler, a competent shooter and switchable defender on the wing.

Even if you don't want to subject Simmons to that pounding during extended minutes, it's negligent to not even try to see what you can create using one of the more unique combinations of skill and athleticism in the league. You have an outlier athlete at 6-foot-10 who doubles as one of the best passers in the league. Not toying with that, particularly when the alternative has been to play lineups that are going the way of the dinosaur, is a real shame.

There's an argument to be made that Saric getting to play there could be just as (if not more) important. He's burly enough to bang in the post with a good deal of centers, and in theory he'd have to navigate through less traffic and defend less space as a small-ball center. His shooting slump becomes less concerning when you're not treating him as an essential part of floor spacing, but rather as a "bonus" shooter in the center slot.

As others have pointed out, including Derek Bodner of The Athletic, the Sixers have already begun to cut back on the experiment of playing Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons together. Brown is quickly reverting to lineups that feel comfortable to him, trying to avoid an abundance of court time for a duo that can't shoot.

I don't necessarily disagree with that specific decision. But the aversion to experimenting across the board is an outright negative and I would argue the Sixers have move in the opposite direction if they are truly concerned with chasing long-term upside this season.

The Sixers already stared down their own limitations when an undermanned Celtics team beat them in five games last May. Striving to be the best possible version of that group, exciting as last year's late run was, is probably not going to cut it long-term. Milwaukee has risen up the conference hierarchy under Mike Budenholzer, Boston has more offensive firepower this year, and the Raptors may be the team to beat in the conference, with Toronto running roughshod over opponents even without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup.

To beat the sort of teams they need to when it counts, the Sixers need counters, curveballs, adjustments that can be made to play different styles as the moment dictates. Right now, they are the equivalent of a pitcher with a dominant fastball and not much else to fall back on. When they face a team that isn't intimidated by the high heat, things unravel.

If the goal is to be the best version of themselves in late April and May, the Sixers have to do a lot more than just give Fultz development time. Now is the time to try new things, because if you're trying to cobble it together on the fly when shit hits the fan in the playoffs, odds are it will already be too late to save the season.


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