The Sixers own first place in the East at the mid-way point of the season, and while there’s a sense of accomplishment that goes along with this mostly-meaningless feat, that lead hangs by just a half-game thread over the surging Nets, and heading into the second half it’s become clear that the Sixers are another starter-level piece away from being a real contender.
The media and fan base generally emphasize a need to bolster the bench (backup PG, stretch big, another 3-and-D wing) and while that’s certainly fair, emphasizing depth somewhat misunderstands the factors behind winning in the NBA playoffs. Depth matters in the regular season, sure, but history tells us it doesn’t have a lick of value in the postseason or Finals.
To be clear, the idea that a team is only as strong as it’s weakest link(s) still applies in this league, but only up to that fifth/sixth player in a rotation—anything beyond that is futile. A useful exercise for judging “contenders” vs one another is simplifying their rosters down to the five (or six) players who would be on the floor to close out a playoff game. If that seems like an oversimplification, it’s not—it strikes at the heart of what actually matters in the NBA playoffs: top-end talent, and closing time.
A few years ago Jonathon Tjarks of The Ringer took a critical look at the sort of players Championship rosters are composed of, concluding that:
“Elite teams need offensive threats at every position. The playoffs have shown that it’s too easy to game-plan pure 3-and-D players out of a series . . . There’s an opportunity cost to starting a player who doesn’t threaten a defense [off the dribble] because it creates a spot in the lineup for the opponent to hide a weaker defender . . . Conversely, having offensive threats at every position allows a team to punch above its weight.”
Tjarks goes on to add:
“The importance of every player on the floor magnifies as the level of competition increases . . . The standard to be a starter on a championship team, much less a dynasty, is incredibly high.” Ultimately concluding, “[In order] to stay on the floor against the best, you have to be able to put the ball on the floor against the best.”
This is why I say the Sixers need to add another “real piece” to truly be a contender. Embiid, Ben, and Tobias are a strong 1-2-3, even for the playoffs, but beyond that is dicey (I’ve never heard of a Finals champion with a Shake Milton or Seth Curry as their fourth best player). In the context of the ‘Best 5’ framework, Morey needs to add someone who can be that fourth piece on the roster—a player with two-way value and the ability to threaten a defense in multiple ways (somewhere in between Tobias and Danny Green in terms of skillset and value).
The idea that the Sixers only ever needed (and still only need) the right mix of role players around Embiid and Simmons to contend has been flawed from the start. Adding two-way players with dynamic offensive skillsets is the name of the game in the NBA playoffs, and no amount of role players, 3-and-D wings, stretch bigs, or backup ball-handlers can substitute for that value when it matters most.
Tjarks cites examples relevant to 2018 (when the piece was published) such as Iguodala, JR Smith, and George Hill as players who, “don’t have huge offensive roles, [but] they all had the skill to be primary options earlier in their careers,” and thus still had that ability when forced to contribute beyond their defined role on Golden State and Cleveland.
On the flip side, he offers Morey’s Rockets and that year’s Sixers (2018) as examples of teams being schemed out of the playoffs because of a lack of dynamic offensive skillsets around their stars—citing Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green, PJ Tucker, and Robert Covington as coveted 3-and-D players who were either schemed into abysmal shooting numbers or schemed off the floor altogether.
To provide an example of this concept in action, this past offseason the Milwaukee Bucks made a point to shed depth that they had built up over the past few seasons with the express desire of adding more top-end talent for the playoffs (ultimately trading for Jrue Holiday). While they won’t win as many games in the regular season because of this, you can be sure they’re better equipped for a playoff run with a real-piece like Holiday as opposed to a cast of role players who become obsolete at certain levels of the postseason.
All of this is suffice to say, the Sixers don’t actually have a depth problem, they have a talent problem. This roster is pretty clearly short one starter-level piece, and they’ve been forced to play Shake Milton and Seth Curry 30 minutes a night to compensate for that hole in the starting lineup—two players who would otherwise comfortably fill the team’s bench needs.
While I do believe Shake will find his shot eventually (only 31% from three on the year), he doesn’t cut it as a primary ball-handler/facilitator, and he doesn’t have enough of a defensive impact to provide any real two-way value. Anything more than 16-24 minutes a night in the playoffs would be concerning (though he remains firmly in that rotation).
As far as Seth Curry goes, he falls in the same category of obvious role player who the Sixers are asking way too much from. He continues to shoot at a high-clip, and the spacing he provides on the floor is evident, but he’s a prime candidate to be targeted on the defensive end of the floor, and his playoff minutes will likely be limited because of that.
Out of the rest of the roster, Danny Green is the only option who can confidently stay on the floor in the playoffs given he’s the only reliable two-way player beyond Ben, Joel, and Tobias; but his one-dimensional offensive skillset (stationary shooter) puts him in the mold of the previously discussed 3-and-D skillset that can be easily schemed into playoff irrelevancy. I won’t knock Danny’s playoff pedigree, but he’s more befitting of that fifth, if not sixth or seventh spot in the pecking order of a championship rotation.
I understand if haggling over the 4th, 5th or 6th best player on a roster sounds frivolous given that Embiid, Simmons, and Harris will have the biggest influence on whether or not this team wins or loses; but rather than looking at it as, “this or that player could swing a Finals series as our 4th best player,” view it as, “adding a 4th (and possibly 5th) best player is what will allow Joel-Ben-Tobias to have the opportunity to deliver in the Finals.” Adding a legitimate fourth piece isn’t the deciding-variable in the formula of winning the NBA Finals, it’s a prerequisite.