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April 17, 2023

There's a key collaboration behind Sixers' evolving bench

Ask the average Sixers fan why they've repeatedly flamed out of the second round over the last few years, and you'll likely get a handful of different answers. Ben Simmons was dead weight. Joel Embiid is never healthy. The head coach didn't make good enough (or simply enough) adjustments. One thing most can agree on — Philadelphia's failure to look like a professional basketball team with Embiid on the bench was near the top of that list.

Philadelphia has made progress toward a solution this season, if only because they've had James Harden captain that second unit. Staggering their two stars has been a feature for the Sixers during their stretch run, an obvious but important change that Doc Rivers finally made as the Sixers headed toward the playoffs. On Saturday, Harden revealed more to his partnership than meets the eye, noting that his voice has carried weight with Rivers as they've tried to find groups that work.

"Doc and myself just on the same page in the sense of, who's out there, who's going to be playing on the court, and what we're trying to accomplish," Harden said Saturday. "I think that group with [DeAnthony Melton], [Jalen McDaniels], Georges [Niang], and [Paul] Reed, we get it. Defensively, we have to get stops, and then offensively as much space as we can, then I'll do all the work and guys just be ready to shoot, make plays and finish. Tonight was a great example of that."

Trying to find the happy medium between getting stops and getting buckets has been the biggest challenge for Embiid-less lineups this season. Small lineups with P.J. Tucker at center have only been used in spurts because Philadelphia has proven almost completely unable to defend in that look. 

A quick glance at this current bench lineup's success in the regular season is a reality check of a similar nature — with just 44 possessions played together, that group got outscored by 37.6 points per 100 possessions, an unspeakably bad number. Their offense in that limited sample was excellent, nearly equal to the best team offense in the league this season, but they would have been about as good defensively if they simply put cardboard cutouts of each player on the floor. 

But on paper, this group appears to have the ingredients to walk and chew gum simultaneously. Harden is the engine, Niang is the marksman, Melton and McDaniels are two-way guys on the wing, and Reed is there for finishing and rebounding. Clearly, the Sixers haven't been scared off by failure within a limited window of time together, and we're going to see what these guys have to offer in the playoffs.

Three of those pieces are sort of "new" to the configuration, but Harden and Niang found almost instant chemistry last season, with the bench shooter gifted an avalanche of open threes after screening for Harden. Unsurprisingly, Niang has been one of Harden's biggest vocal boosters on the team.

"James doesn't get enough credit for how much winning means to him. He's had a ton of personal accolades, and since he's been here has just been solely bought in on what can I do to get this team over the hump? From taking a pay cut, to not scoring as much. I think he has the assist title this year, when you have a guy who went from having a scoring title to be like, okay, I can really pass and get everyone else involved to help the team...when you have an unselfish guy do that and do whatever it takes to win, I think it's no surprise that he's tried to build that relationship with everybody. He knows that's what's going to help get us over the top."

Finding other things that worked around that starting point has been the challenge, though perhaps none have been bigger than the addition of Reed.

If you watch Harden running these units, you can see almost immediately how demanding (and borderline impatient) he is for mistakes and misreads on offense. If the spacing is off, if a screen comes from the wrong angle at the wrong time, if a teammate simply isn't on the same page with Harden, he lets them know immediately, eyes bugging out and arms waiving and choice works being delivered in their direction. And Reed, for whatever his strengths are as a glass crasher and switch defender, has been a frequent target of Harden's scorn.

That contributed at least somewhat to Montrezl Harrell getting minutes over Reed early in the season, Rivers said to reporters at practice on Sunday.

"Early in the year, James wanted no one else on the floor but Trez, because he felt he's the better offensive player," Rivers said. "We were trying to convince him that you need defense too with that group. I think Paul in particular has kind of grown James' confidence. That's important for James to be able to trust he could pass it to him and finish and that Paul will make the right play. That's what James had a major concern with."

(A quick bit of editorializing: this makes for a good story on behalf of the coaching staff, and there's some truth to it, though I think it's a stretch to say Harrell playing 57 games was all due to Harden's preferences.)

Reed has endeared himself to Sixers fans with his trademark hard work and activity — not to mention some hilarious moves and quotes — but his assessment of his own performances provides insight into where he's growing on the mental side of the game. Following an excellent Game 1, Reed made note of some mistakes he made, specifically calling out failures as a communicator and on X-outs (a common defensive rotation where players swap assignments by crossing over and creating an invisible X). 

The Melton/McDaniels component is a bit more straightforward. Both are versatile two-way players who the Sixers can use in a variety of ways, hitting pressure points on offense while switching everything on defense. Multiple Sixers staffers (including Rivers) highlighted this late-game bucket for Reed as an example of the value McDaniels brings, with the big wing able to coast past Seth Curry out of a screen before dropping it off for a Reed layup.

"I think adding Jalen with James, we have a defensive group on the floor with James that's still scoring now. Before, we had a bunch of offensive guys on the floor and if we didn't score, we got mauled on the other end."

For the Sixers, the hope is that this success can be lasting, as the lineups around Harden on the bench take a more consistent form. They've only barely won the Embiid-less minutes with Harden on the floor this year, but given the potency of their top combo, barely winning would be enough.

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