Without The King in the East, the Sixers are vying for their case to sit atop the throne.
What happens when there’s no longer a known force at the top? Those underneath for years, yearning for a chance at success, begin to race to become the next mainstay atop those they failed with. LeBron James’ move to the Western Conference has pushed forward an open four-team sprint to the top of a vacant throne. A recurring race that has been won by one man for eight years. With him gone, the Sixers stand among some of the top contenders to take the crown.
New to the race, the Sixers aren’t yet favorites in a top-heavy conference. While they have sprung forward their own timeline with an expectation-breaking 2017-18 season, they start this season a step behind the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. An argument can be made that Philadelphia is just behind the two, but in reality, the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers are following in stride.
It’s the reason why Brett Brown’s “star-hunting” campaign was voiced so loudly. The Sixers brass seems to understand that bolsterization is needed to keep up with Joneses, or in this case, the Ainges. With a big swing and a miss this past summer, the surface-level focus shifted to the progression of Markelle Fultz, and his work with personal trainer turned Philadelphia folk lore Drew Hanlen.
But while the eyes of most shifted towards the embattled prospect, Brown got to work on retooling a bench that lacked experience. In last year’s buyout season, the Sixers brought in veteran bench reinforcements Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to push them through the playoffs, which proved to be key in the Miami series. With their departure, Philadelphia was left with inexperience.
Sixers spent the summer using draft assets to build a bench
The 2018 NBA Draft played a large part in the recoup efforts for the Sixers. Trading the rights to Mikal Bridges to the Phoenix Suns for defensive wing prospect Zhaire Smith and the Suns’ unprotected 2021 first-round pick seemed to align with the same ideology that has followed the team through the entire rebuild. They acquired a key wing player while nabbing another future asset. They’d go on to draft outside shooter Landry Shamet later in the round.
With a plethora of second round picks, Brown decided to take a chance on the once highly-touted prospect Shake Milton. Picks that were meant to bolster the bench, Brown was hardly satisfied. He sent a 2021 second-round pick and the right to swap 2022 second-rounders to the Nuggets for veteran forward Wilson Chandler.
According to The BBall Index’s Player Evaluation tool, Chandler ranked as a C+ perimeter shooter, as well as a B- playmaker compared to wings who played 1,000+ minutes last season. As a reference, Ilyasova ranked as a C perimeter shooter and an F playmaker when using the same comparative filters.
Chandler, who is on an expiring contract, gives Brown offensive versatility in the front-court. It was a two-tiered move: one where new GM Elton Brand can use as a trade filler in a potential mid-season move, but also a potential impact player for Brown to use in key bench situations. While Chandler is set to miss the early part of the season due to a hamstring injury, the thought process shows the sense of urgency for the Sixers to become a more well-rounded team in a conference where Toronto and Boston showcase a frightening 10-man rotation.
Beyond the starting lineup to go beyond the arc
Brown returned to scour the remainder of the market after falling short of a big catch. His next move would come with a trade that sent high-energy forward Justin Anderson to Atlanta for stretch big Mike Muscala. The same trade would also send struggling young guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to Oklahoma City.
The agile big man is so quick to get into shooting position after the screen, and elevates on his jumper at a greater level than most shooting bigs. Muscala’s shooting stroke is quick, short, and uses good wrist action all without wasted motion.
The Bucknell product also likes to lull defenders to sleep with perimeter stare downs, before getting his quick shot off. For catch and shoot players, having a go-to move to create more space for the shot is incredibly important. Much like J.J. Redick’s side step into a three, this little hesitation keeps defenders arms down just before Muscala starts his shooting motion. This pause and shoot is so uncommon from a 7-footer, and shows his uniqueness, as well as his value, to this Sixers team.
Muscala’s role as a pick-and-pop big off the bench will pay dividends for a youthful team. Last season, when compared to pick-and-pop bigs who played 1,500+ minutes, Muscala saw a C grade as a perimeter shooter for a lackluster Atlanta Hawks team. With an improved unit around him, expect Muscala to open up an offense that has seen stagnation without core players in-game.
The two veteran pickups are there to again guide and tighten up a bench that will still have gaps in experience. Smith’s eventual debut to the Sixers will hopefully provide another defensive anchor to a team that was 5th best in the league last year in terms of DPOE last season.
The Sixers found success on the defensive side of the ball thanks to Joel Embiid’s presence in the post and the invaluable play of Robert Covington on the wing. What set the team over the edge was Ben Simmons’ narrative breaking perimeter defense. This was aided by the schematics of Brett Brown’s “switchy” defense.
The same defensive scheme that will look to lockdown bench units, and test the will of a unit mixed with veterans and youth. The same defensive scheme that will possibly place Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup.
The big question surrounding the Sixers rotation would be who Fultz would knock out of the starting lineup. Would it be Dario Saric, who at times in the regular season took over games offensively? Or J.J. Redick, who flourished in his first season with Philadelphia? When compared to shooting guards who played more than 1,500 minutes last season, Redick was an A perimeter shooter and also secured an A grade in off-ball movement.
Saric, while giving the Sixers offensive versatility, is a an odd case when it comes to matching up defensively. Teams tend to attack him with smaller, more athletic forwards, causing a break in an otherwise strong defense. Redick in the starting lineup would push Simmons to front court defense, where he was in the 78th percentile for interior defense compared to point forwards playing more than 1,500 minutes. There’s more defensive versatility with Saric out, and the starting lineup adds an elite shooter in Redick.
But the beauty of the situation for Brown is that either way, he will have a high-impact scorer coming off the bench. Sure, Saric has struggled historically when not in the starting lineup, but he will garner defensive attention. Redick can heat up with one simple moment, providing outside shooting with an improved bench that, all of a sudden, can light it up from beyond the arc. Brown is seemingly going to cater to Saric’s mentality, as he has had Redick off the bench for this past preseason.
Dario Saric career stats in games started vs. games started off the bench
Starts (109 games): 15.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.7 apg, shooting 44.3%
Bench (50 games): 10.5 ppg, 5.72 rpg, 1.7 apg, shooting 39.8%
— georgey ?? (@georgeythegreek) September 30, 2018
The Sixers will attempt to separate themselves from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, and Victor Oladipo’s Indiana Pacers, while also proving they can maintain the deep team play of Boston and Toronto. Sixers don’t have as talented of a bench as the top two, but Brett Brown’s vision was to bring in rotation players that complement the rest of the roster.
He’s done so, and in his efforts, he could see this Sixers team firmly place themselves as the team to beat in the East for years to come. Off the backbone of Embiid and Simmons is where Philadelphia will live or die, but their revamped bench is what could push them to new limits.