Even before the NBA shut down back in March, Sixers fans and the league media at large were discussing the possibility of swapping Shake Milton for Al Horford in the starting lineup. Despite the amount of time Brett gave it to work, Big Al failed to fully mesh on offense with Embiid. Blame for that can be distributed between Horford’s general shooting struggles, Brett’s coaching, and even somewhat on Joel.
Of course, with Milton now in the starting that discussion is behind us, and we can pivot toward what the change means for the Sixers on the court. While a great deal of focus is being trained on how this move opens up the offense (catch-and-shoot threat, P&R ball-handling) I’m choosing to focus on how the switch improves the Sixers on defense.
Slotting Shake Milton into the starting-five means that the entire lineup is now defending their natural position, namely Tobias Harris. The simple fact is the Sixers original starting five often had players matched up out of position—Tobias isn’t a three, he’s a four who can play some three, and in today’s NBA Horford is a five who can play some four.
While they were no doubt elite on defense, they lacked a quickness on the perimeter that was always going to limit their ceiling. A team that relied on brute size to frustrate at the rim and deny passing lanes was likely to fall somewhere short of a championship-caliber defense. So while the former iteration of the defense was elite, there were clear areas for improvement.
Prior to this season there were plenty of questions focused on Tobias’ switch from primarily defending 4’s to defending the 3 (or 2’s with Ben defending the 3). In the previous two seasons he spent less than 4% of his minutes guarding the three or smaller, so there was an understandable concern that Harris would be preyed on by quicker wings who are a bigger threat to both shoot and create their own shot than 4’s typically are.
While Tobias has proved this wrong for the most part—posting a defensive rating lower than each of his past two seasons—I think the nuance that’s missed here is that it really doesn’t matter how he performed over the course of the regular season, what’s far more important is whether or not he’s capable of defending the 3 when it comes to the matchups he’ll face to win the East and eventually the Finals. While he’s generally been fine defending the 3 on the average NBA night, you’re nuts if you think Tobias can hang at this spot on the highest level—KD, Tatum, Butler types would all kill him on D in a typical playoffs.
The advantage of swapping Milton for Horford is that it allows Brett to put Tobias on the lesser of two forwards now, instead of the lesser of a 2 or 3. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Tobias advantage on defense is that he’s smaller and more athletic than most 4’s while also being strong enough to hang physically—meaning he can defend every 4 (and some 5’s), but they can’t defend him.
I understand a great deal of emphasis is being put on the amount of spacing and shooting the Milton/Horford switch gives the offense, but if you ask me, arguably the more important headline is that it allows Tobias to be the natural mismatch at the 4 that he’s always been.