Little has gone according to plan for the Philadelphia 76ers. Yet another eventful offseason was supposed to bring the franchise closer to championship glory. But Philly only played in fits and starts before the season stopped. Brett Brown didn’t have many moves left to make to transform their cramped offense.
However, they may have found a solution by making another change to their lineup. Could the latest shakeup save their disappointing season?
The 76ers’ struggles are predictable but surprising
This was supposed to finally be the year the Sixers became a true title contender. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid had another year of learning how to make the most of their mismatched talents. Philly essentially traded Jimmy Butler for the ascending Josh Richardson and Al Horford, weakening one of their rivals and adding a proven playoff star in the process.
They seemed to build a team perfect for going against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason. For a team that was bounces away from knocking out the eventual champions, this seemed more than enough to push them over the top in the Eastern Conference.
Philadelphia fell well short of those expectations. The same shooting and spacing problems plaguing them the previous two seasons once again held them back. All of the questions about how this team would fare on offense were answered in the worst possible way.
Simmons, to the increasing annoyance of teammates, still won’t shoot any sort of jump shot. Embiid’s conditioning and health are still not where they should be. Horford is only months into a four-year, $109 million contract and is already showing signs of being washed. Richardson only shot 32% from three and can’t be trusted as a shot creator.
Tobias Harris is the most anonymous player with a max contract. To make matters worse, Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat were one of the bigger surprises, and even Markelle Fultz showed signs of revival with the Orlando Magic. The Sixers went into quarantine as the sixth seed — 14 games behind the Bucks — with little hope on the horizon.
A change to the lineup might open up their offense
Since traveling to Orlando to participate in the bubble season/playoffs/NBA stimulus package, the Sixers have run out a new lineup in a bid to get their offense going. They’ve moved Simmons to the power forward position and put Shake Milton in the starting lineup. Head coach Brett Brown explained the decision to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
As incredible as Simmons is as a playmaker, his total lack of an outside game is one of the main reasons for the team’s struggles in the half-court. His deficiencies force Embiid to stay outside more than he should considering his greatness in the post.
The Sixers had chances to add backcourt talent to the roster in the past – they could’ve gone after Malcolm Brogdon or D’Angelo Russell last summer, for example – both Simmons and the franchise’s entrenched notions of his game kept them from doing so. Fortunately for them, they may have developed a lead guard within their own locker room.
Shake Milton was a second-round draft pick from the 2018 draft, and right before the season was suspended, he emerged as a legitimate option for Philadelphia, the main highlight being a 39-point showing against the Los Angeles Clippers where he tied a league record for the most consecutive three-pointers made in a row with 13.
He’s only played in 52 games in his entire career, but the early signs are promising. His per 36 numbers are excellent: 18 points, four rebounds, and four assists with great efficiency. His three-point percentage of 45% will obviously go down with more shots, but he appears to offer everything the team has been missing from its guards.
Adding another ballhandler to the starting lineup could unlock another level for the team and for Simmons individually. He could use his special athleticism to beak opposing big men down the floor and create a ton of havoc in transition. Once the game slows down, he could offer a lot as a screener barreling to the rim to score, create, or open up space for other players.
As enticing as that potential is, I did have to write “could” twice in that last paragraph for a reason. All of this is dependent on Milton living up to a recently established standard, Simmons committing to being a real screen and roll man (something he hasn’t always done in the past), and if this new starting five can create some chemistry before the latter end of the playoffs. It could work, but a lot of effort has to be put in order to make it happen.
Philadelphia will still be the underdog in the late playoffs
The talent on the Sixers means that they still have a high ceiling in spite of their chaotic season. But they’ll still enter the playoffs as an underdog against the Eastern Conference’s best teams.
The current standings do line up well for them. They’re currently set up to play the Celtics, who they beat in three of four meetings this season. Horford may not add much in Philly. But taking him from Boston means they have a real size advantage inside against them. They’re one of the few teams with multiple players who can guard Jayson Tatum.
But even if they won that series, they’d still be in a dogfight to get out of the Eastern Conference. Losing to the Raptors or the Bucks or even the Heat wouldn’t be a great surprise. But this is a team that had title aspirations before the season started. If they’re eliminated before the Conference Finals, then the season will be judged as a failure.
The previous version of the team had very little chance of amking it that far. Maybe this lineup will be the one that fixes their biggest flaws.