The Philadelphia 76ers officially signed James Harden, although the move was not without controversy as the NBA opened an investigation based on salary cap tampering and circumvention.
The tampering investigation could take months, as the NBA tied the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls to second-round picks in December for moves made in last year’s free agency. Some have suggested the investigation into Harden’s contract, the more serious of the two allegations, could even take years.
For now, we’re going to assume that Harden, PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr. will make the team next season. While additional moves can’t be ruled out this offseason, now seems like a good time to perform one of my favorite offseason drills: what will the rotation look like next season?
Since this list is a bit deeper than previous iterations with different options on how to play, I decided to go through three different rotations. While none of them are likely to be correct on opening night, it’s a good way to start thinking about how the team is preparing for next season. Unless otherwise stated, all statistics are from Cleaning The Glass.
Standard regular season (nine men)
• As I noted, let’s assume Tucker starts and scale accordingly. He’s been brought up to defend the best players in the biggest games, so the Sixers might as well make him comfortable playing alongside their best players. Tucker joins a group that might survive with me in fifth place. The four-man group of other starters had a net rating of plus-17.9 on 940 possessions in the regular season and a net rating of plus-6.7 on 481 possessions in the playoffs.
• In last week’s mail, I mentioned that the Tyrese Maxey-Joel Embiid backup units didn’t thrive at the end of the season. Despite Maxey’s improvements, his ground game can certainly be sharper. Although I’ll cover more options below, the Maxey-Embiid and Harris-Harden split still makes the most sense for sizing this group.
• Let’s talk minutes now. Harden hasn’t averaged below 35 per game since playing at Oklahoma City, while Embiid and Harris were just around that 34-minute mark last season. The hope would be that blowouts would limit those minutes a bit. Tucker is probably the main player to watch here. He played 28 minutes per game last season in Miami, and at his advanced age, I didn’t project him to play more than that in this exercise.
• Didn’t get a ton of Paul Reed who dominated a few summer league games. But coming off a postseason in which he’s generally held up well — the Sixers had a positive point differential with him on the floor, a parade-worthy achievement in recent years — I’d make him the top favorite to get the Vault Center role. at the start of the regular season. There might be additional competition, but for now, I guess BBall Paul gets the first crack.
• Those Harden-led save units at the end of the first and third quarters (and early in the second and fourth) are part of why Reed is an intriguing fit. You could legitimately try to change everything with these bands, something Harden and House Jr. had a lot of experience with in Houston. Unlike the past two seasons where the Sixers had a traditional big man protecting the rim (Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond) and more limited perimeter defenders playing much the same defense as the starters, the Sixers now have lineups at their disposal. wait times that may change. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will, but the option is there.
• This rotation includes two long shifts for De’Anthony Melton. The goal here is to have him play with one of Maxey and Harden on backup units but not both. It wasn’t something he did much in Memphis. In his last three seasons, Melton has played the shooter for at least 79% of his minutes. Grizzlies net rating in those minutes: plus-7.2, plus-4.2, plus-7.6
• Ninth place was tricky because I have this player appearing in relatively short shifts. It’s a question of whether you want to shoot or defend, and I think you could reasonably put Matisse Thybulle or even Shake Milton in those minutes. This Sixers team has better depth than previous years. I went with Niang because I think his shooting works well with Embiid.
Of course, there are ways to put both players down. Let’s reveal one of the craziest.
Tuckwagon regular season (nine men)
• Let’s say the Sixers decide to go all out on Tuckwagon and roll with Tucker as a backup center. Using the nine man rotation above and inserting Thybulle for Reed, that’s what I came up with. The Embiid-Maxey and Harden-Harris lag remains in place, with Niang taking every minute of spare power available.
• My goal here for Tucker is simple: 14 minutes with the other four starters and 14 minutes as a small-ball 5, which are the two main ways you can imagine him contributing to the Sixers. Despite its cool name, the Tuckwagon in 2019-20 was the only season it became a mainstay in the lineup. It was then that the acquisition of Russell Westbrook necessitated the mid-season transfer of Clint Capela to Atlanta. Tucker played center 52% of the time that season, with the Rockets having a respectable plus-3.5 net rating in those minutes. Houston used the Tuckwagon sparingly in 2017-18, but it was successful when they did. Tucker played center eight percent of his possessions that season with the Rockets, a more obscene 32.2 in those minutes. I could see the Sixers deploying a similar strategy this season if Reed or Charles Bassey prove playable, gauging his effectiveness but mostly saving it for the playoffs.
• The final question is who the Sixers surround Tucker with in these lineups. Harden, Harris and House were easy picks, but Thybulle or Melton can be placed in the latter spot. The 2019-20 Rockets have demonstrated that these rosters can succeed with a single spacer without the ground, and Thybulle offers much more defensive value than the 2019-20 Westbrook.
• A player noticeably absent from this exercise is Shake Milton. It’s no blow to Milton, who has the talent and makeup to stay in an NBA rotation for long. But the arrival of Melton, another combo guard who can play against the team’s two main perimeter starters, complicates matters. Milton could get time if Coach Doc Rivers decides to expand the rotation, play three-guard lineups or someone runs out of time, all distinct possibilities. It’s mostly a nod to the healthy Sixers possessing plenty of depth. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Milton gaining playing time outside of training camp.
• One of the rules I followed with these rotations is that Embiid or Harden is on the field at all times. But it should be noted that they were a deadly duo despite never having played together. Would 34 minutes of Embiid-Harden be completely overwhelming for the opponent?
Top 15 two-man rosters in offensive rating, minimum 500 minutes played last season. pic.twitter.com/7cr2SZqX8Q
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) July 27, 2022
I do not think so. But that’s how the Sixers turned Embiid and Simmons around in 2020-21 and that group has been very successful. The thought of an all-benches lineup (or even a “mostly benches” lineup) is enough to send a shiver down the spine of a Sixers fan. But as I wrote, it’s a deeper band.
• And if we’re going to look too far ahead, let’s look way too far ahead…
Standard playoffs (nine men)
• It’s a ridiculous exercise to attempt when NFL training camps are barely underway. The NBA playoffs don’t start for another 8 1/2 months. This is a projection and not something close to being set in stone.
• Putting this rotation together, the lack of wing depth could be a post-season issue for this current group. I didn’t like associating Maxey, Harden and Melton all together without Embiid. Maybe that turns out to be a workable range, but at least for now, it doesn’t seem big enough on the perimeter. I was also trying to limit Tucker’s minutes while keeping his shifts in line with the rest of the starting lineup. He’s mostly been a starter for the past two years, but it’s worth noting that Tucker came off the bench in 48 of Houston’s 82 regular-season games during their 2017-18 65-win dream season. Those two considerations opened up an appearance for Thybulle, who I traded to Niang from the regular-season rotation. You could do the opposite here too. The lack of wing depth would present an opportunity for Thybulle if he answers the age-old question and can improve his offense.
• The playoff rotation doesn’t completely take Melton off the map if he can’t play all 3s in the small-ball lineups, although his playing time may decrease. In the standard regular season rotation, there are 24 minutes available to Melton when Harden or Maxey is on the bench. It just seems right. In the playoffs, with the big guns playing more minutes, that number drops to 16 available minutes. This is where the Sixers could be a good, but slightly limited, fit for Melton. In Memphis, starters like Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane could easily play both 2 and 3. With Harden and Maxey holed up in the backcourt here, it’s a different story. I’m curious to see if the Sixers give Melton a chance with Harden, Maxey and Milton in small-ball formations. Probably worth testing its viability in small doses during the regular season.
• Tucker at center feels like this could be a playoff change, so I’ll let everyone find out what that rotation looks like.
(Photo by James Harden, Matisse Thybulle, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)