The Sixers move to lock up Joel Embiid to a longterm deal was no surprise. (Read the details of all the injury protections in his new deal here.) You don’t go this long trusting the process to then abandon it. Sure, the timing was a little premature, especially given he’s only played 31 games over three seasons, as many (read: me) thought the team would wait until after this season to give Embiid the max deal he coveted, leaving some room for negotiations should he suffer a similar fate as last year. As the last three years.
Alas, the center is the cornerstone of the franchise now. And with Ben Simmons looking every bit as dynamic in preseason as fans expected — imagine when he develops an NBA-caliber jumper — the young Sixers core looks rock solid for years to come.
There’s just one thing left to figure out…who’s going to play with them? We get our first glimpse Wednesday night, as Embiid and Simmons will take the floor against Brooklyn together for the first time. Ever.
As Brett Brown tinkers with his lineup in the early part of the season, who starts, who comes off the bench and who’s in the game in crunch time will be scrutinized like it never has before in his tenure. So let’s get a head start, by trying to figure out who will be on the court when. Brown has some tough decisions to make in the next few months, and if he makes them well (and everyone stays healthy), he will hopefully still be around to really reap the benefits of all he’s built.
The Process – Now
How this team looks in Game 1 will be very different from Game 50 or Game 82. Or even next season and beyond. For now, here’s how the season could start.
Let’s assume the Sixers are the NBA’s newest iteration of positionless basketball, so other than Embiid at center, the starting lineup to start the season will probably look like this:
- Embiid, Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless.
Bayless has been something of a forgotten member of the team since his wrist injury kept him out of all but three games last season. While Markelle Fultz should be an obvious choice for that final spot in the starting lineup, Bayless can provide a veteran presence on the floor along with Redick that can give Fultz a chance to work his way into the lineup. And Simmons can run the point, with Bayless playing off the ball in a way Fultz will need to learn.
Dario Saric will be the sixth man this year, with Simmons taking a starting role. Of course, Fultz is going to get as much time as Brett Brown can give him, so expect him to play a ton early, just maybe not with the starting lineup.
And this is where it gets tough.
Who backs up Embiid? Given he’ll surely be limited with minutes early in the season, expect Jahlil Okafor to get some meaningful time at center with the first unit. No, Brown won’t dare try the debacle of playing Embiid and Okafor together. Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes — in that order, I’d suspect — will get minutes as well, mostly with the second unit. That said, at 6-9, Johnson is more of a traditional power forward and in his two seasons in Boston he started 153 games. Even at 30 years old, he didn’t sign with the Sixers to be sitting behind Okafor and Holmes and only playing eight minutes per game.
Nik Stauskas will likely back up Redick, with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot adding some spark off the bench as well.
And speaking of spark, T.J. McConnell provided that in spades last season, running the point most of the year while Bayless and Simmons sat out. Are there any minutes for him? And what about Justin Anderson, the guy most likely to spell Covington at the small forward position to give some energy, defensive intensity and do-everything-but-nothing-well gusto every team needs?
If you’re counting, we’ve named 14 players and haven’t gotten to Furkan Korkmaz, the rookie who will probably spend much of the season in the D-League, barring injury. Think of him like TLC was last year. So is this the second unit:
- Okafor, Saric, Stauskas, TLC, Fultz.
That’s not great, as not one of those players can defend much at all.
- Okafor, Johnson, Saric, Stauskas, Fultz.
Maybe that’s a little better, but nobody other than Stauskas can shoot.
- Okafor, Saric, TLC, Anderson, Fultz.
Hmm… How about this:
- Holmes, Saric, Stauskas, Fultz, McConnell.
This is impossible. Most NBA teams run 10 deep in a regular rotation. The Sixers, given Embiid’s situation, will probably roll 11 or 12. So something (read: someone) has to give.
End of game:
Fun fact: There are 3,936 minutes in an NBA regular season (barring overtime) and last season the Sixers had 10 guys play over 1,000 minutes. Joel Embiid wasn’t one of them.
The Golden State Warriors had just nine players with more than 1,000 minutes last regular season. Four players averaged better than 32 minutes per game, while just six more averaged more than 20 minutes. In all, the Warriors won the title with nine guys averaging 15 or more minutes.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost in the Finals to the Warriors, had just eight players with more than 1,000 minutes (though Kyle Korver came over in a trade and played 1,700 total). Three players logged more than 30 minutes per game, while nine guys averaged 20-plus minutes. The Cavs had a total of 13 guys getting 15-plus minutes, but that included three they traded for, and accounts for just 41 games from J.R. Smith and 60 from Kevin Love.
The Boston Celtics only had 15 guys play all year, with 10 playing more than 1,200 minutes. They won 53 games with five guys averaging more than 30 minutes and two more — including Johnson — logging just over 20 per game. In all, 10 guys averaged 15 or more minutes last season.
Point is: Good teams don’t play a lot of guys, especially when they’re healthy.
There might be long stretches where Stauskas or TLC don’t play at all, or get five or six minutes to show they have a hot hand before getting a meaningful second-half run with the second unit. Note: This is a good problem to have, but it’s definitely going to be a problem.
And so is figuring out who will be on the court at the end of games. If healthy and out of foul trouble, Embiid is a lock to be on the floor. Simmons will be out there as well, and Redick should be on the floor to get open looks when Simmons slashes to the bucket. With both Embiid and Simmons on the court, floor spacing will be paramount on offense. Redick provides that.
The other two spots are going to be fascinating. Honestly, this kind of stuff keeps me up at night, so imagine what it’s doing to Brown and his staff.
Covington should be on the floor as a late-game lockdown defender, but if Simmons can develop into that type of two-way player the Sixers hope, does it make Covington expandable on that end of the floor? Though he has been known to hit cold stretches, his ability to shoot, plus his defense, makes Covington vital late in games.
So could the Sixers just try to outsize teams and go with:
- Embiid, Simmons, Covington, Redick, Saric.
Will Fultz develop quickly enough to warrant time late in the fourth quarter, and Brown runs:
- Embiid, Simmons, Covington, Redick, Fultz.
Or does T.J. McConnell continue to show his value in big spots like he did so often last season and Brown runs:
- Embiid, Simmons, Covington, Redick, McConnell.
The problem is McConnell can’t shoot, so if Simmons is handling the ball, there’s no reason to have McConnell on the court other than his scrappy defense. My guess is some combination of the three lineups above, depending on opponent and score. There’s a chance Redick could sit with the Sixers winning, too, going with:
- Embiid, Simmons, Covington, Saric, McConnell.
And let’s not forget that Embiid is not going to be playing 82 games, so there’s a chance the Sixers could be in a late-game tussle with this lineup on the court, too:
- Johnson, Simmons, Covington, Redick, Bayless.
Wouldn’t that be an odd mix of players?
Brown is going to have a few dozen games to figure this out before people really start chirping why Fultz isn’t on the court late in the fourth quarter. And by then, he’ll have to be. Which gives the Sixers a lineup of:
- Embiid, Simmons, Covington, Redick, Fultz, with Saric the first guy off the bench, both to start and finish.
Is that lineup good enough to win, say, 42 games? Is that a playoff team?
The Process – The Future
Now that Embiid has his monster contract, the Sixers need to put a plan in place to build around him. As Jake Pavorsky wrote at NJ.com, locking up Covington is next:
Their next move is likely to lock up Robert Covington, who shares the same agent as Embiid. The Sixers can begin to renegotiate his contract starting on Nov. 15, the three-year anniversary of the original contract he signed with Philadelphia. There’s a good chance he could eat up nearly half of that available $40 million for next year.
Remember last year when the Sixers looked at Nerlens Noel’s pending free agency a year before Embiid’s and two years before Okafor’s and realized something had to give? Well, Okafor’s still here, but if Embiid can stay on the floor, Holmes has totally made Okafor expendable, so he has to get traded at some point this year, especially with the Sixers bringing other bigs — Emeka Okafor and Kris Humphries — into camp. Still, the only time it makes sense for Okafor to be on the floor is when Embiid is out. That hopefully won’t be enough time to warrant keeping him on the team.
But the interesting issue could come in a few years when the Sixers have to give another max deal to one of their young stars. Will Simmons deserve it, or will Fultz? And will the Sixers be able to plan for the future with them, plus Embiid, plus Covington, plus re-sign Saric and bring in a marquee free agent like, gulp, LeBron James?
Don’t laugh. LeBron’s going somewhere next season, and while all signs point to the West Coast, he is close with Simmons and would instantly turn this Sixers roster into title contenders. Trust the future, I guess.
Also remember that the Warriors were terrible, made some savvy moves won a title, then won another with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala and still, somehow managed to keep all of them again this year.
Maybe the Sixers won’t need LeBron next year. Maybe, like the Warriors, they just need smart roster management and time to build this young team into a contender. Oh, and Kevin Durant.