Sixers analysis

Examining the many rotation questions ahead for Nurse and the Sixers 

Rotation minutes are certainly up for grabs.

NBC Universal, Inc.

The Sixers have 28 regular-season games to go and many unknowns left to sort through.

The status of reigning MVP Joel Embiid’s left knee is the most important variable. But with the Sixers about to return from the All-Star break, who’s got a spot in the team’s Embiid-less rotation?

Head coach Nick Nurse seemed to suggest last Wednesday that Tobias Harris (left hip impingement), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine stress response), and Nicolas Batum (left hamstring strain) are on track to return soon. All three players were partial participants in the Sixers’ final practice before the break. Robert Covington hasn’t played since Dec. 30 because of a left knee injury. 

“I think we’re going to get upwards of four, five guys back after the All-Star break at practice on Tuesday, so I think that’ll give me a chance to look at it a little bit and see how it all plays out,” Nurse said. “I think you’ve got a pretty good group there. Tyrese (Maxey) and Buddy (Hield), Nico and Tobias and Joel. And then you’ve got to figure out where everybody else goes. 

“Melt’s still in there. (Kyle Lowry) is in there now for sure. Kelly (Oubre) is still in there for sure. So if we get everybody back and healthy, we should have options to play a little big, a little small. We’ve got a lot more shooting on the floor, too.” 

Nurse didn’t name Paul Reed, but the big man had a nice pre-All-Star stretch and is clearly a significant part of the Sixers’ rotation picture. He’s averaged 13.8 points, 10 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over his past four games. 

Way back when everyone was available, the Sixers’ first-choice starting five was the NBA’s best statistically. The unit of Maxey, Melton, Batum, Harris and Embiid had a plus-33.3 net rating in 467 non-garbage time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s the highest net rating this season of any five-man group with at least 200 possessions together.

Adding Hield obviously changes which lineups will now be the Sixers’ best when healthy (or healthier, anyway). He’s already having a swell time alongside Maxey and enhancing the Sixers’ offense with elite outside shooting, shrewd and constant motion, and habitually quick decision-making. 

The Sixers suddenly have five guards who are 6-foot-4 or under in Hield, Maxey, Melton, Lowry and Cameron Payne. They all have tools to counteract their relative lack of height — Melton’s length and instincts, Lowry’s strength and smarts — but Nurse will need to keep that reality in mind.

Of course, in situations where Nurse is on the fence about whether to use Lowry in a smaller lineup, we imagine the pair’s deep mutual trust from their Raptors years may very well sway Nurse to play the 37-year-old point guard. 

The 35-year-old Batum had expanded Nurse’s viable lineup options as a guard-almost-anyone defender and sharp passer who’s shot 46.7 percent from three-point range as a Sixer. Meanwhile, Harris’ three-point volume (3.6 attempts per 36 minutes) and efficiency (34.6 percent) have both dipped this year. In an ideal Sixers world where the Maxey-Embiid duo thrives during the playoffs, a good chunk of their forwards’ value will likely come down to taking and making open long-range shots. 

Backup frontcourt minutes remain up for grabs. Mo Bamba’s had the occasional highlight, but he’s been unable to string together positive games. KJ Martin and Ricky Council IV helped their cases heading into the break with physical, up-for-everything defense and some scoring around the rim. The Sixers also plan to sign Darius Bazley to a 10-day contract. 

“Just looking at the roster, I think there is some opportunity there for both (Council) and KJ,” Nurse said. “Now things have kind of shifted the other direction where we’ve got lots of ones and twos — maybe not as many four type of guys. Obviously we’ve got Tobias there, but then who’s going to be the backup four? I think there’s a legitimate case for either one of those guys. 

“I think they both played very hard and certainly played like they weren’t afraid. They competed and they made some plays. They’re on the glass, they’re finishing, they’re taking rhythm shots when they come. … I think they both, athletically, showed they can hang. Compete level, showed they can hang. So we’ll see how it all plays out.”

Contact Us