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July 29, 2019

What will Sixers' rotation look like to start next season? A way too early look

Sixers NBA
021519-BrettBrown-USAToday Brad Penner/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown.

The Sixers are months away from playing any meaningful basketball, but arguments about the rotation are already being created in the minds of people across the Delaware Valley. And for the first time in a while, the Sixers actually have real decisions to make behind their stars, with their bench balanced with young upside and reliable role players.

It's a long time before we'll know what this group will look like together, but waiting until September/October to discuss the rotation would be boring as heck. So let's look at some things that will impact the available minutes and then an assortment of lineups the Sixers could run out this fall.  

• THE MAIN VARIABLES •

Who is the backup point guard?

This is a question that is not going to be answered by the time the season starts. There will be a player who gets the early minutes, sure, but the opening months of the season will be a fact-finding mission as much as anything else.

If I had to guess from this far out, Raul Neto is probably the favorite to earn this job out of the gate, as he fits the mold of the steady hand Brett Brown has prioritized off of the bench in the past. The best word to describe him would be "solid," and he's a guy you can trust to be in the right spots on both ends and keep the offense humming.

The question will be if a game manager type is actually Brown's preference or it was driven by necessity — Brown loved T.J. McConnell while he had him, though he didn't necessarily have an abundance of choices there. That comp might not be faie to Neto in any case, as he's a much better and more willing shooter than McConnell has proven to be.

Trey Burke is a better option in lineups where the Sixers need more self-creation, and given the skill sets of their young wings, it may end up that Burke wins the job over the long run. 

Will Kyle O'Quinn play in games involving both Joel Embiid and Al Horford?

In an ideal world, the answer here would be yes but the context would be O'Quinn playing mop-up duty after the Sixers' starters blow out opponents. We all know that's probably not going to happen very often, though.

If we build out a rotation where Embiid is checking out around (roughly) the eight-minute mark of quarters and checking back in around the four-minute mark, that puts him at 32 minutes per game, dependent on stoppages. In theory, Horford could sit from the four-minute mark of the first and third quarters until the eight-minute mark of the second and fourth quarters, playing 32 minutes on his own, those eight-minute bursts split between power forward and center.

One problem here — that would actually represent an uptick of several minutes per game for Horford over last year, and as he ages you definitely want to make sure you're preserving his legs for the playoffs and the long-term.

That's not necessarily a dealbreaker, though. While Horford's presence allows Philly to rest Embiid more next season, the inverse is also true. Would Horford and/or the Sixers' sports science team (whenever they're assembled, anyway) be able to live with that increase if it's paired with built-in rest throughout the year?

My fake rotation will involve the 32-minute plan listed above, though my instinct tells me that will ebb and flow throughout the year.

How does the wing rotation shake out?

Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle have to get minutes this year. The Sixers are no longer in a position where they can look at the future and count on luring a star to fill in the blanks around their young stars. They are locked into a core financially, and that makes internal development more important than ever.

Both players have a lot to prove, however, and James Ennis already showed he can do exactly what the Sixers need from their wing role players down the stretch last season. The defensive upside for Smith and Thybulle is considerable, but young players are mistake-prone while they adjust to the speed and reads in an NBA game and both come to the table with questions about their shots.

One of Brown's biggest challenges this season is determining how to balance the development of Philadelphia's young players vs. trying to win as many games as possible during the regular season. The Sixers proved capable of winning road playoff games in 2018, but they were much, much better on their home floor all throughout last year. With their eyes on the Eastern Conference crown, the fight for seeding at the top of the East is more important than ever. Are they willing to take hits early in the hope of developing playoff-ready contributors down the line? 

Brown has had a tendency to skew toward veterans here when given the opportunity, but the defensive focus of both Smith and Thybulle will aid them some here.

Will these things in mind, some thoughts on lineups you might see this season, based on substitution patterns from last season, developmental needs, player fit, and more. Keep in mind that this is just a broad-strokes outline, and in-game variables like hot shooting, defensive lapses, etc. will obviously dictate decisions on a game-to-game basis.

• SUB PATTERNS •

Starters: Embiid—Horford—Harris—Richardson—Simmons

This one is pretty obvious and doesn't require more commentary.

8:00 mark of the 1st: Horford—Scott—Ennis—Richardson—Simmons

The first big decision here, in my opinion, is whether to leave Harris in or attach him to Embiid's minutes. Last season, Harris' minutes were yanked back and forth, though they were mostly attached to Simmons' rather than Embiid's. That had as much to do with developing the Embiid-Butler two-man game as it did anything else.

With Harris committing to the franchise long-term, I think it is in the best interest of the team to pair Embiid and Harris in their lineup combinations. There are two primary reasons why I'd go this route:

  1. The vast majority of the time, Embiid-led lineups will come in the minutes Simmons hits the bench. When Simmons is off the floor, the Sixers need to make up for the perimeter creation they're losing in one form or another. The most straightforward way to do that is to keep Harris attached to Embiid.
  2. The Sixers need to continue developing Simmons' self-creation and scoring instincts so that when the playoffs roll around they aren't just sticking him in the dunker's spot. In his current form, the easiest way to do that is to put reliable shooters around him who will minimize his shooting issue for the time being.  

Long-term, you may see one (or both) of the young wings crack this group if they flash shooting potential. Early on, though, I'd expect Brown to turn to the guys he knows and trusts.

4:00 mark of the 1st: Embiid—Harris—Ennis—Smith—Neto

My concern with this group would be perimeter creation, as Neto isn't necessarily someone you want to ask to create for himself all that often. Looking at it on paper, it's why I'd be fairly bullish on Burke heading into the season, as the Sixers may end up needing what he brings more than the steady hand of Neto.

I'm also slotting Smith in here ahead of Thybulle strictly based off of his familiarity with the program. His edge in minutes played over Thybulle is minimal, but he has at least had more time to absorb team terminology and gain an understanding of what the Sixers want from him. I also think Smith is a better bet to create for himself, which gives him a leg up.

Start 2nd: Embiid—Harris—Thybulle—Smith—Neto

This is a lineup I would be most concerned about heading into the season, though this also assumes that the Sixers are going to absolutely play both young wings every night. I doubt that will be the case in practice, and I think there will be some DNP-CD's in the future of both Smith and Thybulle as the team brings them along slowly.

The shooting might not be there for this group, and there's an argument to be made that the Sixers should be trying to make life easiest for Embiid, the clear-cut franchise player, rather than Simmons. But because we have years of evidence that Embiid can prop up lineups basically on his own, sneaking in development around him while optimizing lineups elsewhere might be the best way to consistently win minutes regardless of the lineup.

8:00 mark of the 2nd: Horford—Scott—Thybulle—Richardson—Simmons

As long as Scott doesn't get picked on too much in pick-and-roll situations, I like the defensive potential of this group a lot, with the three-man combo of Simmons-Richardson-Thybulle threatening to blow up a lot of plays and get out on the break. Scott as a three-point outlet and Horford as a trailer will make them tough to match in transition.

If Thybulle shoots, it's also a potentially dangerous team who can space the floor around Simmons in a halfcourt setting, though you're going to be asking a lot out of Simmons and Richardson creating, as you are with a lot of the bench lineups.

"Closing" lineup, 4:00 and in: Embiid—Horford—Harris—Richardson—Simmons

Again, no mystery to this one.

How will this change in the second half of games?

The bookends for each half will, obviously, remain the same. I think the area to monitor closely will be the period in the second half from the 4:00 mark of the third quarter until the 4:00 mark of the fourth quarter. 

To circle back to the question about wings up top, I would expect Brown to lean toward his more experienced players in the second half of games early in the season, much to the chagrin of fans who want the young guys to play early and often. It takes time for them to earn trust and get those minutes, rare exceptions like Landry Shamet aside, and the Sixers have enough depth that they can credibly force the young guys to fight for those minutes.

(The schedule will impact this, too. Against teams that are rebuilding or not equipped to win, expect to see more of the young players in both halves.)

So that means the above plan is not a one-to-one translation for an entire game. I certainly don't expect the Sixers will have five players who play 32 minutes each and five players who play 16 minutes each, because the sport is too chaotic and the decisions are more complex than that. Expect extra minutes for Simmons and Harris, which will eat into time for guys down the totem pole.

But since we're still a couple of months away from the start of training camp, this is a best guess at how the Sixers could line things up initially to get the best out of the group right now and continue building toward a brighter future.


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