Sixers’ lack of trustworthy closing line-up looms as playoffs near
In Doc Rivers’ first regular season game as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, he demonstrated a philosophy that has carried over throughout his tenure: adaptability with rosters. Closing. On that December night, heading into a hotly contested final against the Washington Wizards, Shake Milton got the nod alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Seth Curry.
Danny Green started the game, but Milton’s 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting and a handful of spirited defensive possessions mingling with Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal landed favor with his new head coach. Milton was excellent and the Sixers won by six. Rivers’ decision turned out to be a wise one.
Since then, Rivers has consistently mixed and matched rosters at key moments, based on who plays well and best amps up the fundamental players on the roster. While not every move has gone through, his rotations certainly aren’t stagnating (well, unless you’re a young backup center). These days it’s especially prevalent when it comes to the last member of the Philadelphia Optimal Quintet, which is pretty tenuous.
Rivers is known for having a hot hand, but what happens when he scans the bench with six minutes left and every option is lukewarm at best? Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris will close out the playoffs. Matisse Thybulle joins them as the fifth starter. But discerning whether Thybulle or someone else is best placed to finish games is probably this team’s most pressing issue and one they’ve already faced in recent weeks.
While aspects such as rebounding, transition defense and guard depth remain issues, some of them have to do with the Sixers’ lack of a reliable closest fifth. Others are only secondarily important if Philadelphia can’t establish a trustworthy pick alongside the Core Four.
Last starter is a fluid job, not because the Sixers have six or seven players to close out with on any night, but because they usually only have four, crippled by the fifth being a carousel of inconstancy.
Thybulle is having another great defensive season, but his possession-by-possession consistency doesn’t seem to come close to 2019-20, when he rightfully earned an All-Defensive nomination. Although he has frustrated a number of star goalscorers this year, his ability to do so every night seems less than his second campaign. There have been many games over the past few months where his defensive prowess hasn’t been enough to overcome offensive limitations and has seen him relegated to the spectators’ bench.
His inability to attract attention as a ground spacer routinely hampers the Sixers’ offensive intentions to long degrees. When they fought the Milwaukee Bucks last week, it stemmed from Giannis Antetokounmpo “guarding” Thybulle and playing free safety. Philadelphia’s offense slacked off when their minutes were lined up later because Milwaukee took Giannis off Thybulle.
This is not a unique case either. Smart defensive teams regularly exploit Thybulle offensively by obstructing pick-and-rolls, drives, or post-ups. Whether he retires from the game by taking too many risks or committing fouls too often, he fails to compensate on the other side and his minutes must be reduced.
His connection with Harden in ball screens as a roller and with Embiid in the dunker spot has expanded his offensive utility this season. He and the coaching staff deserve praise for this growth. But he remains a 6-foot-5, 200-pound winger posing as a big man offensively. It can only take him so far.
His lack of ball skills and mid-range touch hamper him badly. Bruce Brown’s roster has been shaken up since Harden’s arrival, but Brown’s floaty play and ability to put the ball on the deck far exceeds that of Thybulle and sets the two apart significantly.
OK, so the complications that arise from giving him the starter minutes are on display. Surely there’s an answer somewhere else, just swap it out for one of the reservists who credibly spaces the floor! Well, not so fast. Danny Green and Georges Niang are prime candidates for this move, but both tout their own shortcomings that limit their proper minutes charge.
The litany of injuries Green has unfortunately endured in recent years has pushed him out of starting caliber territory. There was a time earlier this season when he was still worthy, but a few other ills buried him. He’s just too slow, both offensively and defensively. Offensively, he pump-fakes or passes more viable than last year – at least anecdotally. This Sunday game resonates and is not an isolated incident throughout the season:
Last year, the 6-foot-6 Green probably let the 6-foot-1 Darius Garland fly. This year, he is making an ill-advised leap backwards.
He just doesn’t have the ability to handle the same long-range volume of previous seasons, which further highlighted his defensive slippage. He still has some of the best hands in the league, although he constantly gives up dribble penetration due to compromised lateral mobility and ineffective on-screen navigation. Plus, he can’t make as many plays with those deft hands, given his inability to turn that quickly.
In a short stretch against Cleveland, Green had multi-faceted defensive breakdowns, each stemming from his declining movement speed (Embiid covers it in the first clip):
To his credit, he used his sneaky hands to force a few turnovers in the second quarter. However, streaks like the ones above have been commonplace over the past few months and aren’t thwarted by high-level defensive play.
Thybulle fixes some of the perimeter defense leaks that Green poses, but remains a significantly less useful offensive option around Embiid, Harden, Harris and Maxey, so you’re back to square one. Neither player should be burdened with starting responsibilities in a team aiming for the final.
Another alternative, which also seems to be the trendiest among fans, is Niang. The former Iowa State Cyclone has been terrific as a Sixer. He’s averaging a career-high 9.2 points, shooting 39.9% from beyond the arc on more than five attempts per game and has created an assortment of scorching shooting performances to help secure wins .
All reviews of his game are made through the lens of “Can he play starter minutes?” rather than “Is he a good NBA player?” I’m skeptical of the former, while the latter is a resounding yes. And this is the case for these three players, really!
Thybulle is good, although sometimes a niche player. Green has his warts, but is still a marginal rotational wing on many good teams. Niang’s bravado, versatile off-ball shooting and quick trigger are advantages for any organization. Philadelphia’s lack of a starting wing that doesn’t particularly load one end of the floor is none of these guys’ fault. But the reality is that they are the best choices going forward this season and should be viewed from that perspective.
Anyway, back to Niang.
His shoot comes into its own alongside Harden and Embiid. He and Harden quickly established a synergistic connection in the pick-and-pops, and his quick exit on the hold pairs well with Embiid on the post kicks.
But when the jumper isn’t falling, they have a hard time promoting significant impact beyond the gravity of the shot. His 51.1 percent on 2 mark is more than two points below the league average, and his forays down the lane are generating rollercoaster results. He’s a useful ball mover, but not an incredible play binder. Despite some encouraging streaks as a physical defender of the ball, he’s a liability in space, on and off the ball.
This physique also leads him to a high number of fouls (3.9 per 36 minutes this season. I’m not someone who really subscribes to the notion of a foul problem in terms of minimizing someone’s playing time But increasing a team’s chances of being in the bonus early in the quarter is a legitimate concern when/if Niang sees heavy minutes.
The Sixers improved their title chances when they acquired Harden. Even without him, this fifth starter would be in full mutation. Whether there was a realistic upgrade available, this spot remains a glaring flaw of this team and was not resolved by the trade deadline. Direct your anger where you deem it necessary.
Regardless of how the season ends, consolidating the starting lineup is a top priority this summer. Rivers’ willingness to fluctuate closing lineups should be on the Sixers and about their rotational flexibility, not born out of necessity and limitations. Right now, it’s the latter and could boost their exit from the playoffs in the coming months.