Sixers: What might the Playoff Rotation look like?

The NBA season is set to resume play in a “bubble” in Disney World—imagine reading that back in December—and while the July 31 start date is still a while away (52 days to be exact) it’s not too early to contemplate the Sixers playoff rotation.

Item #1: Move Shake to the starting lineup?

Shake Milton started the final 16 games before the shutdown, and his performance combined with the less than ideal fit of Al Horford with the starting five has fans and pundits building a consensus around Shake replacing Al in the starting lineup. I’m pro-Horford despite his dip in productivity—he’s built for the playoffs, and I fully expect him to find his shot when the games matter—but the amount of spacing that Shake creates for the lineup is overwhelming.

In a league that’s gone small and values shooting, this move is too obvious even for the most ardent Horford-truthers. Over the 16 game stretch of starts prior to the shutdown he was averaging 28 minutes a night, shooting 53.9% from the field, 50% from three, averaging 14.1 points on 9.5 shots (67.2% true shooting) for an eye-popping offensive rating of 128 (unsustainable but impressive).

Beyond the obvious fit, it allows Tobias to slide down to the four spot where he’s better suited on both ends of the floor. There seems to be a strong consensus around this idea, and you would think Brett wouldn’t hesitate to make the change given that he already trusted Shake at point in Simmons’ absence, but this is the same guy who kept Milton buried on the bench for Raul Neto, Trey Burke, and the like, so you never know.

In my opinion Shake belongs in the starting lineup, and I think that’s what Brett will ultimately decide to do.

Item #2: Thybulle vs. Korkmaz as the first (and main) wing off the bench

The truth is there isn’t enough consistent minutes for both players—Brett’s rotation will likely be a nine-man group that cuts down to a tight eight (maybe seven) as the stakes are raised. Obviously Horford and Scott are locked into safe bench roles as tweener-bigs, and it’s hard to imagine Brett not using Glen Robinson III to spell Simmons as the wing-stopper when he heads to the bench. GRIII is still an unknown to some fans, but’s he’s a better version of James Ennis, who somehow logged 21 minutes a night in last year’s playoffs.

That leaves enough wing minutes off the bench for one of Korkmaz and Thybulle, and there’s a reasonable debate to be had over which player deserves the first opportunity (though that player will have a short leash).

To me, it’s clearly Thybulle. Defense is king in the playoffs, and with opposing offenses sharking for a matchup to exploit in the half court, Korkmaz playing heavy minutes is blood in the water. If you want to understand how NBA teams will attack Furkan in the playoffs pay attention to how he was targeted in crunch time of regular season games. As the season wore on and Korkmaz began to log more minutes in critical moments, opposing offenses began to seek him out for a mismatch that almost always ended in an easy bucket. He’s unplayable at the end of games.

If Thybulle is fully healed from his ankle injury and able to replicate his first half shooting (31/67, 46% from three) then there’s no way he cedes this role to Korkmaz.

Given the clear offense/defense dynamic that Korkmaz/Thybulle and GRIII/Alec Burks presents, Brett can afford to be situational with his rotations, which means all four players will likely see the floor at some point in the playoffs for the Sixers. I’ll dive more into those nuances below.


Mock Playoff Rotation

Here’s a detailed mock-up of what the Sixers rotation could look like to start the playoffs in Disney:

(Note: players are listed by position they would defend on the floor—i.e. Simmons is listed at the three-spot because he’ll mainly defend the opposing team’s #1 wing scorer, but we know he’s the lead ball-handler on offense)

Q1/3 12:00 (starting lineup)

Josh Richardson
Shake Milton
Ben Simmons
Tobias Harris
Joel Embiid

Q1/3 6:00

Horford —> Embiid

Thybulle —> Milton

Josh Richardson
Matisse Thybulle
Ben Simmons
Tobias Harris
Al Horford

Long, quick, switchable defense—Richardson at the point of attack, Simmons on the #1 wing-scorer, Thybulle on the remaining wing player; throw in Horford’s valuable combination of stout post defense and switchability and this unit speaks for itself.

While they’ve spent a lot of time staggering Richardson and Simmons, with J-Rich underwhelming as an initiator and Milton emerging as a solid second unit ball-handler they no longer need to split the two.

Q1/3 4:00

Scott —> Harris

Josh Richardson
Matisse Thybulle
Ben Simmons
Mike Scott
Al Horford

Harris is able to get some rest before rejoining Embiid and the second unit to begin the second (and fourth) quarter.

Scott adds more catch-and-shoot ability to a lineup that wants to spread things around Simmons sans Embiid.

Q1/3 2:00

Milton —> Richardson

GRIII —> Simmons

Embiid —> Horford

Shake Milton
Matisse Thybulle
Glen Robinson III
Mike Scott
Joel Embiid

Embiid and Milton return as the duo running the offense, GRIII takes over for Ben as wing-stopper, and Thybulle slides over to defend the point.

Milton and Scott are the team’s top spot-up three point shooters so it’s logical to make sure they’re both on the floor with Embiid’s in his “non-starting” lineups.

Q2/4 12:00

Harris —> Thybulle

Shake Milton
Glen Robinson III
Tobias Harris
Mike Scott
Joel Embiid

Harris re-enters to work the two-man game with Embiid, flanked by a couple spot-up shooters.

What gives me pause in this lineup is Milton having to defend the lead guard and Harris having to defend the three or two spot (neither situation is ideal).

Q2/4 8:00

Richardson —> Milton

Thybulle —> GRIII

Simmons —> Scott

Horford —> Embiid

Josh Richardson
Matisse Thybulle
Ben Simmons
Tobias Harris
Al Horford

Line change! Harris stays in the game and is joined by the defense-first unit of Simmons, Richardson, Horford, & Thybulle.

Q2/4 6:00

Scott —> Harris

Josh Richardson
Matisse Thybulle
Ben Simmons
Mike Scott
Al Horford

Harris will need a little air before he finishes out the first and second half, and Scott adds a spot-up, quick-trigger shooter to a lineup that will feature a lot of Simmons working downhill looking to kick-out.

Q2/4 4:00 (5:30)

Milton —> Thybulle

Embiid —> Horford

Harris —> Scott

Josh Richardson
Shake Milton
Ben Simmons
Tobias Harris
Joel Embiid

This final substitution mainly pertains to the first half. Embiid and Harris will likely check back in closer to the 5:30 mark when it occurs in the fourth quarter, and the final spot on the floor will likely be a toss up between Milton and Horford.

Shake might start in the playoffs, but there’s a scenario where Horford is used here and there to close out games. The most likely scenario is that Brett plays the matchups late, using Milton when he needs spacing and quickness on D, and Horford when he needs size and experience under pressure.


Here’s the minutes breakdown in this rotation:

  • Richardson 36
  • Simmons 36
  • Harris 36
  • Embiid 32
  • Milton 32
    • Thybulle 20
    • Scott 20
    • Horford 16
    • GRIII 12

Horford is a prime candidate to scoop up more minutes if he plays well, and Thybulle’s 20 are the least set in stone of any player listed. Like I mentioned earlier, if the Sixers move deeper in the playoffs they’ll tighten their rotation and play their stars closer to 40 minutes a night, but we can tackle that if we get there.

Here are my final three observations for a potential Sixers playoff rotation:

Shake’s leash should be short

Shake was playing out of his mind before the shutdown, but 32 minutes a night in the playoffs for a player with just 879 career minutes is better written in pencil than ink. If he starts to crack under the pressure of the playoffs then Brett should be prepared for a quick pivot back to Al Horford.

At the end of the day, the 5-man lineup of Ben—J-Rich—Harris—Horford—Embiid logged 244 minutes together and posted a 97.1 defensive rating (3rd in NBA among all 5-man lineups with 200+ min) with an offensive rating rating of 105.6 (+8.5 net). Horford has 120 games of playoff experience, he’s a 5 X All-Star, 13 year vet—let’s not overthink this. There isn’t a team in the East who can put five basketball players as good as that five on the floor. If Shake is playing well, great! If he’s struggling even a touch then this decision isn’t remotely difficult—turn back to Horford.

What about Alec Burks?

Burks can score the rock, there’s no doubt about that, but he’s a little too ball dominant and weak on defense to warrant heavy minutes. Instead, he’ll likely operate as more of a jolt of offense off the bench. If, for example, the team is coming off a weak effort on offense and start slow in the following game then we’ll likely see Burks subbed in with Embiid at the end of the first quarter to milk the only semi-threatening pick-and-roll combo on the team.

Where does Furkan factor in this scenario?

The Korkmaz situation is weird. I’m sure there are some out there who believe he’ll play a big role in the playoffs, and they could be right. But he’s more likely to see the court in small doses where they can control his touches and try to steal a run on offense and sub him out before he can be exposed on defense (think 2-minute runs here and there). I like Korkmaz but any scenario where we have to rely on him for close to 20 minutes a night means something probably went wrong.


We can try to predict Brett’s rotation all we want, but the reality is it’ll largely come down to which players are in the best shape and shooting well in the initial 8 games in Orlando. The circumstances surrounding these playoffs are so unique it would be ridiculous to the think anyone has a feel for how the teams and players will respond. For now, however, this nine-man rotation feels right, with Brett going defense-heavy around his two stars.

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