We’ve done plenty of looking back while the NBA season has been suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic. With the NBA’s Board of Governors approving a return-to-play format Thursday, we can now look ahead.
With eight regular-season games on the docket in the owners-approved plan, Brett Brown would have a short amount of time to answer several questions. One of the bigger ones will be about what he does with his playoff rotation.
Going into the 2019-20 season, the Sixers’ gargantuan starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford was supposed to play “smash mouth offense and bully ball defense," according to Brown. Because of injuries and a clunky fit, that hasn’t come to fruition.
Though Brown brought Horford off the bench for three games, the head coach has been insistent on wanting to give the Embiid-Horford pairing a chance to work. He’ll have serious work to do if he wants to make that happen before the team reaches the playoffs.
A more likely scenario would seem to be the offensive fit proving to be too awkward and Brown moving in a different direction. In that case, Shake Milton may be the team’s best option as the fifth starter. Filling in for Simmons, Milton had an outstanding run as the team’s starting point guard. Adding him to the mix would give the Sixers another ball handler and shooter in the starting five.
Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and rookie Matisse Thybulle could also be candidates. If Brown is searching for more of a veteran presence, Robinson could be a solution. Korkmaz, Thybulle and veteran Alec Burks all seem to be better options off the bench.
It’s not an easy thing to ask a five-time All-Star to come off your bench for the playoffs, but Brown may be left with little recourse.
Horford could prove to be a valuable sixth man. Brown likened Horford’s situation to that of Manu Ginobili’s in San Antonio. Ginobili, a two-time All-Star, was still a huge part of the Spurs’ run of dominance as an elite sixth man.
Arguably the Sixers’ finest hour was a win over the Clippers before the All-Star break. On that night, Embiid and Simmons clicked more than ever before, mostly with Horford on the bench. Horford did help close out the game and put a lid on L.A. defensively in an impressive win.
Beyond Horford, Brown has something he didn’t have during last season’s playoffs: Options.
Throughout the 2019 playoff run, Mike Scott and James Ennis were the only reliable reserves. Ennis is gone and Scott has been inconsistent. That’s part of what prompted GM Elton Brand to make the move to acquire Robinson and Burks from the Warriors.
Basically, Brown is looking at three veterans and three young players. Robinson and Burks lack playoff experience but have much more NBA experience than Korkmaz, Thybulle and Milton.
Though he's struggled since arriving, Robinson has had an excellent shooting season and is a solid defender. Burks is instant offense off the bench and provides another ball handler and shot creator. Korkmaz has had an improbable bounce-back season and allows the team to run its “JJ Redick” package. Thybulle has proven to be a disruptive — albeit at times a little reckless — defender.
You also can't forget about Scott. He was beginning to come on before the season was suspended. He brings toughness and has hit big shots in the past, two important things in playoff basketball.
Brown likes to play 10 guys in his rotation during the regular season. He said back in February that he'd like for that number to go down to nine for the postseason. Well all know Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Richardson and Horford will play big minutes. That leaves four spots and six players vying for them.
If nothing else, the bench “tournament” over the last eight regular-season games could provide drama for a team that never seems to be lacking in that department.
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