Last week Brett Brown announced that Shake Milton would be replacing Al Horford in the starting lineup, making the long-suspected change official. While Brett is receiving plenty of praise for this move, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. Where he’ll have his hands full—and where he’ll have a chance to make a difference—is the bench.
Unlike the past few seasons the Sixers bench calculus isn’t quite clear cut—a deeper roster gives Brett more options than he’s had in the past. Will he lean toward shooting/scoring (Korkmaz, Scott, Burks) or size/defense (GRIII, Thybulle)? It’s really anyone’s guess, and while his past rotations and recent quotes in the media can offer some clue as to what he’ll do, it’s likely that these upcoming scrimmages and the eight “seeding” games will go a long way in determining his initial playoff bench.
Here’s a breakdown of where each player currently stands, and what they likely need to do to earn a role off the bench in the playoffs.
Horford is obviously a lock for the backup center minutes—anywhere from 10-18 a night depending on Embiid’s foul situation—but the bigger question is whether or not he logs time at the 4. The answer to that comes down to a) whether or not his shot is falling, and b) how he looks defending the perimeter.
Without going into too much detail on his shooting, the simple fact is that Horford’s career 37% three-point shooting slipping to a slightly below average 33.7% for this season has been a major reason for his inability to gel with Joel and Ben. This is well understood, and if his three-point shooting moves closer to his 41% playoff average he’ll find himself right back in the minutes conversation.
The bigger conversation around Horford’s lackluster campaign has to do with the regression of his perimeter defense. Al had legitimate value with Boston as a big-man capable of switching and hanging on the perimeter—in fact in last year’s playoffs he was their best answer for Giannis—but that’s changed in Philly, and it’s hard to say why. The most likely answer is age, but if the past few months of layoff allow him to tap into fresh legs again then this could be the biggest blessing of all.
Again, diagnosing the minor regression from Horford in 2020 is tricky, but I don’t think anyone should be surprised if he shows up in Orlando with an improved shooting stroke and fresh legs on defense—if that’s the case it‘ll be hard to deny him minutes at the 4.
I’m calling Matisse a lock. I can’t imagine Brett will want to keep a defensive talent like this off the floor, and the reality is there isn’t another strong option to play point-of-attack defense on the bench. If you’re choosing between a player that’s no-defense/all-offense or no-offense/all-defense I’m going with the later in the playoffs, and I suspect Brett feels the same.
If Thybulle can provide decent spot-up shooting this decision becomes a no-brainer, but that’s obviously an unknown. Through the first three months of the season he shot 31/67 (46.3%) from three, and from the beginning of January onward he shot 19/75 (25.3%). If the shot from the first half shows up to Orlando—or a shot somewhere around his 35% season average—he’ll not only be in the rotation, but he’ll likely be playing heavy minutes as well.
If the shot isn’t falling he’ll still find himself providing short doses of perimeter defense here and there—think 5-10 minutes as his floor, potentially rising to 15-20 minutes if the shot is there.
For a while Scott could be inked into these rotations but that feels like much less of a given right now. For a player who shot 40% from three from 2017-19, the 33% clip he hit on through the first four months of the year was a disappointment, but 19/40 over February and March (albeit a small sample) is evidence that he was beginning to find his stroke.
Scott has never been a high-level defender, but he has value as a tweener who can bang a little in the paint and also move loose on the perimeter. In other words his value on defense is role-versatility, and as long as he’s hitting jumpers at the rate we know he can then he’ll definitely be getting minutes off the bench.
I recently saw a suggestion that Scott had no business coming off the bench in the playoffs, and while I understand he can be underwhelming at times, he’s the best catch-and-shoot threat on the team outside of Milton. The same reason Shake is now in the starting lineup is the same reason Scott will continue to get run in the playoffs—the Sixers need as many catch-and-shoot threats around Simmons and Embiid as possible. Let’s not overthink this.
Glenn Robinson III
GRIII is the player I’m actually seeing the widest spectrum of possibilities on—I see some individuals include him as a vital piece off the bench, and I see others disregard him altogether. In my opinion it feels far more likely that he’s a major piece on this team than him being buried on the bench.
Outside of Ben Simmons the Sixers don’t have a single wing-stopper on their roster. In other words, who would you want defending a Jason Tatum when Simmons goes to the bench? Robinson is the only logical option, as his primary defensive responsibility with the Warriors was normally the opposing team’s top wing.
There’s a good chance the fan base and pundits are over-complicating things when they leave GRIII out of their possible playoff rotations—he’s literally the only three-and-D player on the team. I rip Brett Brown probably more than anyone, but even he’s not clueless enough to bench a player like GRIII in favor of a Burks or Korkmaz.
This is the quintessential ‘defense/offense’ decision that Brett will have to make each night. Like most Sixers fans, I’ve had quite the up-and-down relationship with Korkmaz. While his shooting and international flair have always been apparent, and seeing him put everything together this season and develop into a real offensive weapon was a real treat, the question lays with his defense.
The ready comparison for Sixers fans is Marco Bellineli, who logged 27 minutes a game in the 2018 playoffs. Much like Belli, Kork is a black hole on defense, so much so that it often washes out the buckets he is able to get. While I’ll say Furkan is an ever-so-slightly better defender than Bellinelli, the difference is negligible as it pertains to this conversation.
The main difference between 2018 and now is that the Sixers have legitimate options instead of Korkmaz—they didnt have much of a choice with Bellineli. While I understand Brett Brown has spoken positively of him in the past few months—even alluding to Kork playing big minutes in the playoffs—there’s a big difference between saying those things and doing it. When push comes to shove my guess is Brett goes defense over offense more often than not, leaving Furkan as an odd-man out on most nights.
Burks is the guy I think Brett would have loved to have more time with at the end of the initial regular season, and has the biggest decision to make with in the coming weeks. He can be a walking bucket, and for a team somewhat light on shooting and ball-handling it almost sounds silly to keep him buried on the bench.
The main problem with Burks is, while not a total ball-stopper, he definitely needs the rock to do his thing, and how much do we truly want him taking possession from Ben, Joel, and Tobias? The right answer is pretty much never, and for that reason I don’t think Burks sees minutes outside of being a spark plug when the team falls behind—think 2-10 minutes a night, if at all.
Defense is another problem. Burks is somewhat of a -1 who can hold his own more when he gives effort on that end of the floor, but he’s a lesser option than both GRIII and Thybulle, and if Brett doesn’t need his scoring punch I’m not sure where his value comes from.
One thing that’s clear is Brett has six solid option off the bench, and the sort of bodies that will allow him to plan his rotation by matchup and opponent play-style—the sort of flexibility he didn’t necessarily have in 2018 or ‘19. While these six will no doubt be battling for minutes up until the playoffs, there’s a good chance each of them will get their opportunity at one point or another.