April 05, 2019
Long before the Sixers had a collection of high-end talent, depth was an issue in Philadelphia. When Robert Covington went cold in the playoffs last May, the Sixers may have been able to survive against Boston if they had another credible two-way wing to put on the floor. Instead, their big lineup adjustment was inserting T.J. McConnell into the starting lineup, and they were sent home in five games.
Other additions to the roster have been more significant, but James Ennis had finally given the Sixers those reliable minutes at backup wing over the last month. Bad news: he reaggravated a quad contusion in Wednesday's game against Atlanta, and the Sixers announced Thursday evening that he will be reevaluated in two weeks.
Using the most optimistic timeline, that would put Ennis on track to play in, at the earliest, Game 4 of Philadelphia's first-round series, assuming one travel day in between the home and road switch and one day off between the games otherwise. This is, as Brett Brown noted before Thursday's loss to Milwaukee, a bit of a problem.
"The James thing threw me off," Brown said when asked about the certainty of his playoff rotation. "It really threw me off."
And that was before we learned how long Ennis would be out. Ennis will be gone for a couple of weeks and presumably have to jump right back into the mix after a layoff, which means it might get dicey even when he is available again. So what happens now?
I wrote an article earlier this week assessing Brown's assertion that their young wings (Shake Milton, Zhaire Smith) wouldn't factor into the playoff rotation, and I firmly believe in the work I showed there. But all it took is one injury for me to change my tune. They don't really have another choice.
The weird thing is that Brown has gone out of his way to verbalize that the team doesn't view Shake Milton as an option. Brown's has noted Milton is not eligible for the playoffs so many times that it became a running joke in the media room Thursday night as if anyone could possibly not know at this point.
But here's the thing — Brown can say that as many times as he wants. The fact of the matter is that Shake Milton is currently their first wing off of the bench, and it would be absolute malpractice not to convert his contract to a real deal before the season ends.
The Sixers would have to cut one of their other rostered players to convert Milton's contract, but they have some easy options. They just signed a fifth center this week, and I think they could probably afford to let one go. Failing that, Furkan Korkmaz's option was already declined and while he has started shooting before games recently, you would be asking a flawed wing coming off of knee surgery to play his first game since February 12 in a playoff setting. That's what the kids call "big yikes" these days.
Milton comes with all of the same drawbacks he did earlier this week, all the rookie limitations, and yes, the same promising signs on offense. The Sixers would not be thrilled about having to commit to a deal with him before they want to. But this is a team that still ultimately believes it can compete for a Finals appearance this year. That being the case, you have to cover all your bases. There's no justification for keeping him in street clothes so you can spend roster spots on guys who are hurt or that you have no interest in playing.
To that end — if Jonathon Simmons was a credible option — he would have been given some sort of chance recently, particularly last night with the Sixers stretched thin. Instead, Brown played Milton and Smith. If that's your first instinct against an East contender, to the observer it says that Simmons is not in your plans. That's the correct decision as far as I'm concerned, but you have to make the corresponding moves to support that.
Insane as it is and as much as I dismissed it, again, this freaking week, the Sixers may end up needing Smith to play a role in the playoffs after all. It may be a small and temporary one, but it's a role all the same.
To Smith's credit, he did not look completely out of place in the game against Milwaukee on Thursday. That was the first time we've seen him play against a team of that caliber, and while he had to be guided by teammates a bit on the offensive end of the floor, he ultimately showed one important quality for a young guy — an absence of fear.
"I thought Zhaire, for not playing much basketball, actually did some nice things on the court," Brown said after the game. "So can you continue to give him minutes and see maybe what do we have in him? Because you're not looking for somebody to come in and play a huge amount of minutes."
The lowlights were there, certainly, with Smith's blown layup on a fast break in the fourth quarter proving to be one of the game's critical plays. Giannis Antetokounmpo turned him away at the rim emphatically in the first half. But on defense, there were things he can hang his hat on.
One thing I feel comfortable saying: he's going to compete on defense, and he has the athleticism to keep up with guys. The second possession here ends with Giannis scoring over Embiid, but it's Smith's work to fight through a screen I want you to pay attention to:
There are little things within that clip that matter more than you'd think. At the moment Simmons sinks to allow Smith to get around the Lopez screen on the first possession, you could hear him barking at his more accomplished teammate as he flew across the floor: "Watch out, watch out, watch out!" The rookie knows where he needs to be and how he's going to get there, and he's making sure his teammates are in sync with what he wants to do.
Yes, he was a little hyperactive at times and he picked up some cheap fouls. I would be worried about him in an extended role in the regular season, let alone the playoffs. But the guys in the locker room believe in him, and he may yet have a chance to earn that spot.
"We trust all our teammates, and I love Zhaire's energy. I thought he actually played great tonight. When he had minutes the other night, he played great too," JJ Redick said on Thursday. "We have all the confidence in the world in him."
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