With four games left in the regular season the Sixers more or less have the number one seed and home-court advantage in the East on lock. As we wait for the playoffs (two weeks away) and for their first round opponent to be determined in next week’s play-in tournament, discussions around the Sixers potential playoff rotation are beginning to take shape.
Doc Rivers has maintained for the past few weeks that he’s willing to stick with the 10 and 11-man rotations he’s been using in the regular season through the playoffs, and as long as the team is winning I take him at his word. That being said, at the first sign of distress or as we move deeper into the postseason (likely the Conference Finals) I fully expect him to shrink his rotation down to the 7 or 8 guys who prove most reliable.
Heading into the playoffs there are some names who we can ink in pen (every-night rotation pieces), and other who are written in pencil (bubble names who are likely to be matchup/gameflow-dependent). I broke the rotation down into four distinct groups:
- The Big 3
- Every-game minutes (“inked in pen”)
- Matchup-based/gameflow minutes (“written in pencil”)
- Emergency use only
“The Big Three”—Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris
The Sixers big three is obviously set to play big minutes in the playoffs. Depending on matchup they might be able to stay under 36 MPG in that first round series, but once they run into any of the East big dogs (Nets, Bucks, Heat, Celtics) they’ll be logging 38+ minutes a night.
For the sake of conversation, Doc will have roughly 120-130 minutes to fill in around his big three in the playoffs.
Every-game “inked in pen” minutes—Danny Green, Seth Curry, George Hill, Dwight Howard
Danny Green (28-36 minutes)
You can pencil Danny in for 30+ a night in the playoffs. While trading for him wasn’t fully appreciated at the time, Green has been every bit as advertised for the Sixers—playing stellar defense and connecting from deep at over 40% (42.5% catch-and-shoot).
He’s the quintessential 3-and-D skillset, and I shouldn’t need to explain his Finals accolades to anyone (three rings speak for themself). With more playoff experience than anyone on this roster (3,700+ minutes, 226 made threes) there’s nobody better suited to battle alongside Joel, Ben, and Tobias at this point in the season. Not much else needs to be said here.
Seth Curry (20-28 minutes)
Curry might not last the entire postseason in the starting lineup, and he won’t play 30+ a night like Green, but he’s firmly in the Sixers every game rotation. The spacing he provides is immeasurable, and while he’s not as quick-trigger as we’d like, defenses respect him more than any shooter on the roster.
What will ultimately swing Curry’s minute total—the difference between him playing 10-15, and 20-30 per night—is his defense. If he’s routinely targeted in isolation (and if he’s routinely getting beat) then he’ll find his minutes limited sooner than later.
This has been a problem for him in both of his previous trips to the playoffs—he logged 20 minutes a night with Portland (‘18/19) and 28 per with Dallas (‘19/20)—and while both of those teams didn’t have the depth to bench him or limit his run, the Sixers absolutely do and will if he creates issues in their perimeter defense.
George Hill (16-24 minutes)
Hill is obviously a newcomer to the a Sixers but he’s not a stranger to big-time playoff minutes. As a prolific catch-and-shoot threat with finishing and playmaking chops, his versatile offensive skillset is exactly what the Sixers need alongside Embiid and Simmons in the playoffs.
It might seem like a leap to ink a player into the rotation who has only played 226 minutes for them this season, but we traded for Hill specifically for the playoffs, and it never really mattered what the regular season looked like for him. He and Shake Milton are the only non-big three players with versatile offensive skillsets, and unlike Shake, Hill is a plus perimeter defender.
The amount of run he gets depends on a handful of factors, but there’s a world where he replaces Curry in the starting lineup and is logging 25-30 minutes a night by the conference finals. That being said, even if he continues to play the 15-20 that he has been in the regular season, it’s a safe bet to assume he’ll be in closing lineups for the Sixers in the playoffs.
Dwight Howard (6-14 minutes)
D12 is set to continue soaking up consistent bench minutes at the five in the playoffs—on some nights that could only mean 4-6 minutes, on others that could be up to 16-18 depending on Embiid’s total.
Before the season I figured Morey would find a more athletic, versatile stretch-5 to supplement these minutes (or at least present an alternative matchup option to Dwight) but he didn’t, and truth be told Howard has done well in his limited role with the Sixers. That could very well change in the playoffs, though the alternatives for these minutes (going small with Scott or Simmons at the 5) carry their own set of problems.
Matchup/gameflow-based “written in pencil” minutes—Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey
Matisse Thybulle (12-20 minutes)
There was a time earlier in the season where I wasn’t considering Thybulle for playoff minutes at all given his inability to impact the game offensively (for a while he was a real negative on that end), but as it sits now it‘d be insane to keep his All-NBA level of defense buried on the bench come playoff time.
The Sixers may have Ben Simmons to rely on against an opponents primary perimeter scorer, and Embiid to provide elite rim protection, but they lack elite defensive options beyond those two. Danny Green is a strong defender in a number of ways, Tobias has made real leaps in on-ball defense this season, and George Hill is an experienced wing defender, but none of them can sniff Thybulle’s defensive impact.
While he’s only shooting 30.8% on catch-and-shoot threes and is still developing an understanding for how to impact an offense off-ball (nobody hurts spacing around Embiid and Ben as much as ‘Tisse) he’s been much-improved as of late from earlier in the season. His knowledge of when to cut, when to set pin-in screens the weak-side, or when to run baseline/settle in the dunker spot has grown from non-existent to passing over the course of the year. The numbers don’t necessarily support a major leap offensively, but his shot appears to be more confident, and he’s finishing around (and above) the rim with more consistency when he’s driven off the line or on dives to the basket.
Between his defensive impact dialing up to 10 in recent months, and a small but meaningful step forward on offense, Thybulle has progressed from a net-negative who would likely be forced off the floor in the playoffs, to the rare one-way role piece who can stick on the floor in big games because his impact on one end is so prolific.
Shake Milton (12-20 minutes)
As opposed to Thybulle and Korkmaz, I had Shake inked into the every-night playoff rotation at the beginning of the year and he slowly played his way out of that grouping. After a down regular season that he’ll be eager to put in the past—his three-point shooting took a dip from 43% to 35% this season—I’ll be surprised if Doc has enough confidence to give him regular minutes or any sort of leash in the playoffs.
It’s definitely possible that Doc includes him in the “inked in pen” group given his mix of shooting, finishing, and playmaking; but that’s exactly what Hill is here to provide, and Hill brings far more ability on defense than Milton does.
No matter how you look at it, there’s somebody on the roster who more reliably provides one of Shake’s offensive skills. If the Sixers need shooting, yeah, Shake can do that—but Korkmaz does that better. If the Sixers need a slasher to get in the lane and finish around the rim, yeah, Shake can do that—but Maxey does that better. And again, if they need a mix of shooting/finishing/playmaking—Hill does that better.
I’ll reiterate that it’s very possible Shake plays every night in the playoffs given his balanced offensive skillset; but between middling defense and inconsistent offensive output all season long, I’m not sure how Doc can separate him from any of Thybulle, Korkmaz, or Maxey. I’m not out on Shake by any means, but I think he’ll need to earn consistent run in the playoffs.
Furkan Korkmaz (4-12 minutes)
Another guy I counted out of the playoff rotation in the first-half of the year, Korkmaz is finally shooting up to his potential, and with his defense quietly developing from ‘black hole’ to ‘passing’ he’s a real candidate for run in the playoffs.
His skillset mirrors that of Curry a little too much to ink him in for consistent minutes, but when the matchup or game flow calls for more spacing/shooting than playmaking or defense then you can expect too see plenty of Furkan.
Tyrese Maxey (4-12 minutes)
Maxey has had natural ups and downs as a rookie, and while he won’t be a regular in the playoff rotation, nobody on the roster provides a slashing/finishing skillset similar to his. Of these four names he’ll likely get the least opportunity in the playoffs—being that he’s only 20 years old—but when Doc needs penetration or someone to push the tempo this is where he’ll turn.
Despite perhaps being out of the playoff rotation altogether a few weeks ago, Maxey has come on strong late in the season. His offensive skillset gets plenty of press (and it’ll be the reason he gets pegged for playoff minutes) but it’s his capability on defense that even allows him to be considered. Though he’s obviously a work-in-progress on that end of the floor, he has the tools to keep his man in front of him and be the occasional pest at the point of attack—if he can find a defensive groove in the playoffs it’ll go a long way in helping him see consistent minutes.
Like I said, I don’t expect Maxey to get a lot of run in the playoffs, but in the event that his shot is falling from outside Doc won’t be afraid to ride the hot hand. That’s obviously true of everyone on the bench, but almost more so for a skillset as electric as Maxey.
“Emergency use only”—Mike Scott, Anthony Tolliver, Isaiah Joe, Paul Reed
If the Sixers find themselves in a scenario where they need to “break the glass” and use one of these pieces then they’re likely scrambling for their life. It would take multiple injuries for either of Tolliver, Joe, or Reed to see meaningful action, and while Mike Scott will get a test run here or there as a small-ball 5, I’m not anticipating anything consistent to come out of that. There was a time when he had real value as a somewhat switchy perimeter big with catch-and-shoot prowess, but at this point in his career those days seem far in the past.
We can expect Doc to stay true to his word and stick with a 10 or 11-man rotation early in the playoffs, but as soon as things tighten up he’ll almost certainly shrink that rotation down to the 7-8 guys that we’re accustom to seeing in the playoffs. As much as we can try to predict what that group will look like, anything can happen at this time of year, and there’s no telling what skillsets a team will need to rely on to carry them through each series.
The good news for Sixers fans is, relative to seasons past, this roster is well-equipped with a depth of role pieces that should give Doc all the tools he needs to work around Embiid, Ben, and Tobias.