Defining 2022-23 Sixers questions: Who will close big games?

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The 2022-23 Sixers will start their season on Sept. 27 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Before training camp begins, we’re looking at questions that will define the team’s season and ultimately determine whether the Sixers advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001. 

We've examined the following so far: 

Next up: Who will close big games? 

This question is deceptively difficult.

A solid answer is usually a hybrid between “The five best players” and “Whoever’s suited for a particular matchup.” 

The idea of both starting and finishing games with a lineup of James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker and Joel Embiid sounds just fine. Of course, it’s not a flawless unit. Perimeter defense is a major question, although both Tucker and Harris are physically strong, multi-position defenders and Embiid is very talented at both protecting the rim and sliding his feet outside of the paint. 

The Sixers’ training camp Plan A won’t always be available and effective. Embiid wants to play whenever he can, but the 28-year-old needs better luck than being struck by a garbage-time elbow that causes a concussion and orbital fracture. Tucker will turn 38 years old in May and even with his renowned grittiness and sturdiness, nothing’s guaranteed for players that age.

So, beyond the first five, who’s viable to close? 

As long as Embiid is healthy, we imagine Montrezl Harrell should not be in the mix. Harrell played 62 of his 3,196 possessions last season at power forward (excluding garbage time), per Cleaning the Glass. While head coach Doc Rivers did employ the “King Kong-Godzilla” duo of Embiid and Andre Drummond a couple of times, we assume the Sixers wont’t finish games with a non-shooter at the four as Harden and Embiid try to generate good shots. Perhaps Rivers will extend a second-half Harrell stint if the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year is in the midst of swinging momentum with a fantastic flurry of pick-and-roll buckets. But even in a world where Embiid can’t shake a horrific shooting slump, he’s the Sixers’ no-brainer No. 1 center. 

The Sixers’ other newcomers might make sense as closers in specific situations. If the Sixers aim to throw a team off its rhythm and increase the discomfort, De’Anthony Melton is a nice option. Especially on a night where the Sixers lack defensive energy and find themselves down early in the fourth quarter, inserting a guard who’s all about deflections, steals and blocks sounds appealing.

Melton shot 37.4 percent from three-point range last year on a healthy volume (8.1 attempts per 36 minutes), but the 24-year-old would be a more attractive late-game candidate if he didn’t run as hot and cold. Melton was 3 for 18 from the floor (2 for 14 from long distance) during the Grizzlies’ first-round series against the Timberwolves. He was outside of Memphis’ rotation for the last two games of the series. 

Danuel House Jr.’s defense has merited playoff minutes in the past, though his jumpers also didn’t drop at a high rate last postseason; he went 2 for 10 from three-point range in the Jazz’s Round 1 loss to the Mavs. With the rehabbing Danny Green now a Grizzly, House meets the “two-way wing” label better than any other Sixer. We’ll see how valuable that is when the playoffs come around. 

Though he certainly does not appear to be a first-choice option at the moment, Georges Niang could perhaps play clutch minutes if he’s on fire and the Sixers want a confident shooter keen on making smart plays. The same general idea is true for Furkan Korkmaz if he bounces back from a season in which he shot just 28.9 percent from long range. 

Matisse Thybulle has grown familiar with being a defensive specialist substitute in the final minutes. He appeared in 23 regular-season games post-Harden deal, started 22 of them, and only played approximately 75 total fourth-quarter minutes. Again, Rivers’ decisions on when and how to use Thybulle won’t be easy unless the All-Defensive Team wing makes significant offensive improvement — and is guarded differently as a result. 

“The No. 1 thing is he has to be dynamic defensively every night,” Rivers said in February, “because if he isn’t, then it’s hard to play him, right? It’s the same thing with an offensive player. I had Lou Williams. If Lou Williams didn’t score, why would I have him on the floor? So just look at that in reverse. And when Matisse is really effective defensively, even if they’re helping off of him, I think he gives us enough that we can still be good.”

Rivers this year might be lucky enough to have excellent starters who avoid injuries and foul trouble, adapt well to any matchup, and close games convincingly. 

That would obviously be great for the Sixers, though more realistic scenarios (and how many Rivers manages them) figure to be quite important in the postseason. 

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