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November 14, 2018

Sixers demote Markelle Fultz to bench in first game with Jimmy Butler

Markelle Fultz is no longer a starter for the Sixers. After all the hemming and hawing from Brett Brown about the experiment with Fultz and Ben Simmons being driven by, "gut feel," all it took was a major addition to make it clear changes were necessary.

Now starting for your 76ers: Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler, and Joel Embiid.

According to The Athletic's Rich Hofmann, who is on the ground in Orlando for Jimmy Butler's debut, Brown claims Fultz, "has done nothing wrong" to warrant the move. But considering the composition of the team and Wilson Chandler's spot in the lineup, it seems a little disingenuous to suggest this has nothing to do with Fultz at all.

So let's run through a few quick thoughts on what this means and what it will look like.

There were a couple ways Brown could have gone with this group, but I'm not surprised he leaned toward a more conventional look with Chandler out there. The other options would have had their deficiencies — if Landry Shamet were given the nod, teams likely would have targeted he and Redick on the defensive end. If Mike Muscala was given the chance to play a more conventional stretch four, you're stretching him thin with regard to playing backup center, and still potentially opening up defensive weaknesses.

This group will be a tad light on shooting, as Chandler is a slightly below-average shooter (34.1 percent) for his career. It should be noted, however, that the shot profiles for guys like Chandler and even JJ Redick should look better than they ever have. Now that the Sixers have legitimate perimeter scorer playing alongside Joel Embiid, teams will either have to live with playing them in single coverage or shade help away from the other guys on the floor. That will benefit their spacers.

It is now on Fultz's shoulders (no pun intended) to dominate second units. The pressure of being part of the lead group is out the window, and unless we hear otherwise, the end of the "two different starting groups" era is done with.

How he adapts to this role is anyone's guess, and since the starting nod appeared to be an effort to boost his confidence in the first place, monitoring how he looks post-demotion will be a big story in the immediate term. There are two diverging ideas to consider here: Fultz will presumably play in better-fitting lineups for his skill set, but the deterioration of his free-throw form and willingness to shoot threes suggests his competition might not be the primary issue.

It is also worth noting that while this experiment is over, improvement has been made with the Fultz-Simmons-Embiid group over the last few weeks, and they had a standout opening against the Indiana Pacers last week that hinted toward a positive future. How Brown designs the second unit in general, even apart from Fultz, is a big point of intrigue.

The first wave of subs will be a big tell in how Brown wants to design his rotation. Joel Embiid will almost certainly be the first guy to hit the bench, but decisions from there are a little more complicated.

With Chandler still on a minutes restriction, per The Athletic's Derek Bodner, my guess is you'd see him leave the lineup with Embiid, leaving you with a Simmons-Redick-Butler trio to build around. My inclination would be to ramp up the shooting in these lineups, going with something like Shamet and Muscala at the bookends around this group. Spreading the floor at the other three spots allows you to get creative with the Butler-Simmons pairing, running them through pick-and-rolls with Simmons diving toward the rim.

Regardless of how the rotation shakes out, Butler's arrival will allow the Sixers to stagger their new big three, and that alone will make Brown's life easier. It should allow the head coach to play each of his stars for less minutes, leaning into their respective strengths as the situation dictates.

Who does Brown turn to as his backup center? That decision will ultimately determine where the Sixers need to plug holes with free agency moves and trade acquisitions. Muscala seems to be the best fit at the moment, offering the most offensive upside alongside non-shooters like Simmons and Fultz, but Brown has been reluctant to turn to him at the five full-time.

It does not seem like Brown is willing to commit to Muscala there, though his health has had a little to do with that. One thing that seems clear is that Amir Johnson has lost a step and is a bad fit with this group on top of that.

It is really a shame the Sixers weren't able to execute their trade for Butler without hanging on to Robert Covington, because this starting group with Covington in place of Chandler would have been a sight to behold on defense. You'd be putting three high-level perimeter defenders on the floor next to Embiid, an equation which would allow at least one of them to play as sort of a free safety, gambling in passing lanes and disrupting opponents with their length.

Alas, the Sixers will still be thrilled to have the Butler-Simmons-Embiid trio on the floor and harassing other teams. The pressure on Simmons to compete and win against an opponent's best players has now gone up, and with his offensive responsibility presumably dipping upon Butler's arrival, it will be interesting to see if he turns things up a notch on D.

Simmons is very good there already, so let's see how that changes in this new setup.

This is this probably going to be the most excited people have ever been to watch a game against the Orlando Magic in November. Tip-off is at 7:00 tonight folks, don't be late.

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