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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