76ers

Sixers experiment with Jimmy Butler at point guard in win over Lakers

Sixers experiment with Jimmy Butler at point guard in win over Lakers

For the past three games, we’d all finally forgotten, at least temporarily, about the constant process of developing the Sixers’ three stars on offense.

That changed Tuesday night, and not just because Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup in the Sixers’ 121-105 win over the Lakers after missing Saturday’s loss in Denver (see observations).

Brown had said on Jan. 15 he expected that Butler and Embiid would “be featured in more prominent ways, maybe than any pairing.” The Butler-Embiid partnership now has a new, fascinating twist, as Butler played at the point guard spot when Simmons was on the bench. 

The early returns with Butler at the one were positive. Butler had 20 points on 7 for 9 shooting, six assists and just one turnover. The offense ran very well with him at the point —  Butler-Embiid pick-and-rolls were a predictable, effective feature. 

“I like what we saw when we gave him the ball,” Brown told reporters in Los Angeles. “We didn’t really run complicated offense; it was quite simple in space. I thought he did a really good job with that.” 

Even after Butler’s three games on the sidelines with a sprained right wrist, it didn’t appear like his understanding with Embiid on pick-and-rolls had regressed. If anything, it looked like the two are improving together, figuring out each other's tendencies and how to exploit defenses that overplay in anticipation of those preferences. 

“I think he did an amazing job getting everybody open, especially the side pick-and-roll with me and him,” Embiid said. “I thought we executed that really well, but we still need to work on it to get better. But it was a good start. I thought it was amazing.”

The upside of using Butler as a point guard alongside Embiid is that it simplifies pick-and-rolls. Butler is able to attack the hoop downhill and the middle man is eliminated.

The downside is the lineups when those two are off the floor. Los Angeles went on a 16-0 run in the second quarter, during which the Sixers played a team of T.J. McConnell at the point, Corey Brewer and Landry Shamet on the wings, and Mike Muscala at center. Muscala should be able to slide over to the four once Jonah Bolden, who was out with a sore right Achilles, returns to the lineup.

But on Tuesday, you sensed the Sixers were just holding on whenever Embiid and Butler sat. Brown admitted as much, though he noted Muscala’s contributions were key. Muscala posted 17 points against the Lakers, his third best total of the season.

“You have a decision when you take JJ [Redick] out and Joel out and Jimmy Butler out,” Brown said, “and you have Ben, Mike, T.J., Landry, and Corey … you’re waiting to get the big boys back in the game. I thought that group, Ben and company, did a good job and they kept the momentum going. I thought Mike had a really big putback during one of those periods. Mike was our bell ringer tonight.”

In an ideal world for the Sixers, using Butler at the one would cut into McConnell’s minutes and allow him to provide his trademark spark and mid-range shooting without his defensive deficiencies and inability to space the floor being exposed as often. The solution of playing McConnell together with Simmons, though, does not look to be ideal. 

Brown will need to craft a more capable lineup to hold the Sixers over when Embiid and Butler are out. That might require staggering Redick’s playing time so that he can help Simmons carry the offensive load, and asking Shamet to run the point in some lineups instead of McConnell. 

The central experiment, though — that of playing Butler as a point guard — is off to an encouraging start. 

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Ranking the 10 most important members of the 1982-83 Sixers

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AP Images/Getty Images/USA Today Images

Ranking the 10 most important members of the 1982-83 Sixers

Thirty-seven years ago, the Sixers had a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals and were two wins in Los Angeles away from a championship. 

NBC Sports Philadelphia will be re-airing that series this weekend, showing Game 1 on Friday night, Game 2 Saturday and Games 3 and 4 Sunday. 

We’ll have stories to come on that team, which won 65 games in the regular season and came one game away from a perfect postseason. We begin today with a ranking of the 1982-83 Sixers’ 10 most important members. 

10. Earl Cureton 
Cureton didn’t play heavy minutes in 1982-83 as a backup to league MVP Moses Malone. In the playoffs, he played even less. But he did step up in a big spot when the Sixers needed him. With Malone in foul trouble in Game 2, Cureton was forced into action. Though it doesn’t look like much on a score sheet, he got the Sixers through 17 minutes without Malone that night in a 103-93 win.

9. Clemon Johnson 
The Sixers picked up Johnson in a February trade with the Pacers, and he was a solid backup big man. Malone had played a league-high 42 minutes per game the previous season with the Rockets, but he was able to average "only" 36.6 minutes after Johnson’s arrival and be sharp for the playoffs. 

8. Marc Iavaroni 
Bobby Jones may have been the Hall of Famer, but it was Iavoroni who actually started in 1982-83. The 26-year-old rookie had just finished four years playing overseas after his college career ended. On a team loaded with All-Stars, Iavoroni was a glue guy. He wasn’t afraid to get physical and do the little things his team needed. While the stats won’t wow you, make no mistake, Iavoroni was a big part of that championship run.

7. Clint Richardson 
Richardson was valuable as the team’s primary guard off the bench. He stepped up in the Sixers’ Game 1 Finals win when Maurice Cheeks got into foul trouble, playing 31 minutes and recording 15 points, four steals and three assists. 

6. Billy Cunningham 
You have to show some love for the man running the show. Though 1982-83 was Cunningham’s only title with the team, he’s easily the best coach in Sixers history. He coached and won more games and has the highest winning percentage and most playoff wins of any coach in franchise history. Cunningham was also a Hall of Fame player for the Sixers, helping capture a title in 1966-67.

5. Bobby Jones 
“The Secretary of Defense” earned the NBA’s inaugural Sixth Man of the Year award in 1983 after starting 73 games in 1981-82. As always, he was one of the league’s better defenders and finished the season third in defensive box plus-minus. Jones had 13 points on 6 for 7 shooting, four steals and two blocks in the Finals clincher. 

4. Andrew Toney 
While Toney is often looked at as a “what if” story, the healthy version of the guard was a crucial part of the 1982-83 team. He made the first of his two All-Star teams that season, averaging 19.7 points and 4.5 assists a game. He was just as critical in the playoffs, averaging 22.1 points in the Eastern Conference and NBA Finals. “The Boston Strangler” appeared to be destined for the Hall of Fame before serious foot issues derailed his career.

3. Maurice Cheeks 
Cheeks made his first of four career All-Star Games in 1982-1983, and it was a well-deserved selection. He was a reliable presence, starting 79 regular-season games and all 13 playoff contests, and an excellent defender and distributor. Cheeks posted 12.5 points, 6.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Most importantly, he got the stars the ball when and where they needed it and conducted the team with ample poise and intelligence. 

2. Julius Erving 
For most of his Sixers career, Dr. J would probably be No. 1 on a list like this. Though he wasn’t quite at the peak of his powers at age 32, Erving was still an unreal athlete and an All-Star. He averaged 21.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.6 steals in the regular season. While his scoring numbers were down slightly during the playoff run, his defense was on another level. He averaged 2.1 blocks a game that postseason, including 11 in four NBA Finals games. Erving needed a boost from Malone to get him over the top, but it was still a 1 and 1A type of situation with the pair of Hall of Famers.

1. Moses Malone 
It’s difficult to exaggerate how good Malone was in his prime. After being traded from Houston to Philadelphia, he won a second consecutive MVP award, led the league in rebounding for a third straight season and helped the Sixers finally overcome the Lakers. He also was a clear choice for Finals MVP, averaging 25.8 points and 18 rebounds in the series. Even if the Sixers didn't pull it off, fans will always remember his bold "fo', fo' fo'" prediction and how he nearly backed it up with his play. GM Pat Williams' deal to add Malone is one of the best trades in Sixers history, and the 1986 trade that sent him to the Bullets is one of the worst

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2020 NBA draft profile: Kira Lewis Jr. has the whole package offensively

2020 NBA draft profile: Kira Lewis Jr. has the whole package offensively

Kira Lewis Jr.

Position: PG
Height: 6-3
Weight: 165
School: Alabama

One of the top scoring point guards in the 2020 NBA Draft, Lewis filled up the box score as a sophomore at Alabama, averaging 18.5 points, 5.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He was the only player in college basketball to reach all those averages this season. 

He posted solid shooting numbers across the board — 45.9 percent from the field, 36.6 percent from three-point range and 80.2 percent from the free throw line.

Lewis just turned 19 years old in April and is younger than Cole Anthony and Tyrese Maxey, who both declared for the draft after their freshman seasons.

Strengths

Lewis is an impressive offensive creator in the half court and an absolute blur in the open floor. He’s one of those guys who can race down the floor for a transition layup before the defense can get set. He reminds me of a skinnier Coby White, who put up big-time scoring numbers in the second half of his rookie season with the Bulls.

Lewis can take his man off the dribble in pick-and-roll situations and is a good enough three-point shooter to keep defenses honest. He has elite quickness and is going to make some big men look silly when they get switched onto him. 

Alabama often gave Lewis the ball and let him take his man off the dribble while the other four players spread the floor. That game plan makes sense when you watch Lewis work. He has the whole offensive package: hesitation dribbles, crossovers, step-back threes and blow-by layups. He also has a nice knack for driving all the way to the baseline and finding open three-point shooters in the corners.

Weaknesses

Lewis has some adjustments to make at the NBA level. He’s very skinny, which could lead to difficulties holding his position defensively and finishing in traffic against bigger, stronger defenders.

He also averaged 3.5 turnovers to go with his 5.2 assists this season, but again, he had the ball in his hands a lot. 

As an NBA rookie, Lewis needs to figure out how to keep the turnovers down while also adjusting to a more complementary offensive role. 

Fit

Lewis checks a bunch of potential boxes for the Sixers.

Offensive creator off the bench? Check.

Backup point guard who could run the show and make threes when Ben Simmons posts up? Check.

Upside potential to be a starter down the road? Check.

The problem is that skill set will also appeal to a bunch of other teams who pick ahead of the Sixers. I’m not sure he’ll make it to them on draft night, but stranger things have happened.

The combination of Simmons and Lewis leading fast breaks for 48 minutes would make the Sixers one of the most fun transition teams in the league. 

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