Sixers: 3 Questions that need to be answered before the Playoffs

The Sixers are slated to leave Philly for the Disney bubble in the coming weeks, and they’ll enter as one of the biggest unknowns in the NBA. They’re really the only team who could be knocked out in the first round or make a run to the Finals and I wouldn’t be surprised by either outcome. I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling.

Before the season was put on hold the team had a lot of questions they needed to answer before the playoffs, and that hasn’t changed for the eight “seeding” games on the schedule. The Sixers playoff rotation is pretty much up in the air beyond the starting lineup (even that’s not really set in stone) and Brett Brown will want to use these final eight games to find real answers.

Will Al Horford be limited to backup center minutes only, or will he continue to get run at the four next to Embiid?

I understand there are fans out there who joke that the Sixers should leave Al back in Philly when they head to Orlando—and I get it—but the current Horford slander misses the point. Whine about the contract if you want, it’s a bad one, but Horford was ultimately added for one banner reason: in last years playoff series against the Raptors, the Sixers were outscored by a jaw-dropping 108 points in just 99 minutes with Embiid on the bench, as opposed to +89 in the 237 minutes with him on the floor. I’ll say that again, -108 in just 99 minutes; that’s on average -16 points in just 14 minutes per game (a Lebron-level drop-off).

Sixers fans have gotten a lot of mileage out of the whole, “man, if that quadruple doink doesn’t go in, it coulda been us,” routine, and while that may be true, I can assure you if the team had a backup big-man half as competent as Horford they would’ve been in the Finals instead of Toronto. That’s the bigger WHAT IF. As long as Al excels as the backup center (which he has) not only will he continue to see the floor, but he’ll be an integral part of any success the team has in Orlando.

The only question we should be asking in regard to Horford is whether or not Brett Brown will continue to play him alongside Embiid. Lineups with both on the floor, while solid defensively, have been mostly terrible. Here’s how each combination has performed:

Net +/- (per 100 poss.)
Embiid & Horford-1.4
Embiid NO Horford+8.6
Horford NO Embiid+4.8
Neither on floor-11.5

Both players also see a sizable dip in shooting with the other on the floor:

Together (FG%-3pFG%)Alone (FG%-3pFG%)

Both of these tables are pretty eye-opening. You could make the argument that there’s more than enough data to make this decision, and if the eight seeding games don’t produce better results for the Horford-Embiid pairing then Brett would be wise to limit Horford’s minutes at the four as much as possible.

Which wing(s) can/will play big minutes off the bench in the playoffs?

A lot of the Sixers playoff success will be determined by the contributions they get from their bench, particularly on the perimeter.

  • Is Thybulle able to play big minutes as a rookie?
  • Will his defense outweigh him being a ‘zero’ on offense?
  • Is Brett comfortable with GRIII playing big minutes despite just 12 games with the team?
  • Is Korkmaz’s ability to space the floor worth him being a black hole on defense?
  • Is Burks too ball dominant to justify minutes beyond a spark plug?

These are all questions the coaching staff will need to navigate, and without obvious answers it’ll be up to Brett to piece together the ideal rotation.

I realize Korkmaz has somewhat of a cult following in the fan base, but he’s the type of player opponents will target on defense in the playoffs (similar to a Bellineli) and for that reason he likely won’t see the floor more than short bursts at a time. While Brett has suggested in the past that Kork could play big minutes if they need him to, I hope that won’t be the case.

Thybulle is on the other end of the spectrum—no offense, all defense. Admittedly that’s the end of the spectrum you want to be on in the playoffs. Mattisse has been an elite defender for a rookie, and for a team that’s light on perimeter defense outside of Ben Simmons you can expect to see plenty of Thybulle in the playoffs—assuming he isn’t a total deer-in-headlights on offense.

GRIII is the real wildcard for me. He averaged 32 minutes a night in the Warriors starting lineup before being traded, and he was generally the top wing-stopper on Golden State. Obviously he wasn’t brought here to fill that same role, but he definitely wasn’t added to watch Furkan and Mattisse eat up playoff minutes ahead of him. He’s more seasoned than both players, and he’s the only two-way wing on the bench—I expect GRIII to get consistent minutes in Disney.

Is Embiid in shape?

Joel’s legs have faded in each of the last two postseasons, so it’s fair to say this was going to be a storyline without the layoff. Factor in the break and the relative inability of the organization to hold him accountable and it’s fair to wonder if Joel will show up to training camp out of shape.

We can discuss rotations, Horford, Milton, Brett Brown, and a whole host of other things, but Embiid is the biggest variable in our playoff success. The NBA is about superstars, and if the Sixers want to truly contend in the bubble they’ll need Joel to be at his peak in shape and performance.

If he shows up to training camp and then Orlando somewhat out of shape then you can write off the Sixers. There’s really no reason to elaborate on that.

The Sixers were a wildcard to begin with, and the circumstances surrounding the restart raise the level of uncertainty even more. Like I said earlier, neither a first round exit nor a Finals run would be all that surprising, but we’ll have a stronger feel for what they’re made of by the end of the initial eight seeding games.

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