If the Sixers hadn’t traded for Jimmy Butler on Saturday, there’s a good chance we’d be talking in these weekly observations about Dario Saric finally breaking out of his slump and Robert Covington continuing to prove he’s one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball. However, those players are, of course, no longer on the Sixers.
• Not only does Brett Brown have to integrate Butler into the team, but he also has to find out his new-look team’s best rotations around Butler. The decision that will get the most immediate scrutiny is his starting lineup.
Saturday, Brown went small, starting Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, Landry Shamet and Joel Embiid. Especially with the Sixers’ two offseason acquisitions currently out — the team is still slowly easing back Wilson Chandler from the left hamstring strain he suffered in the first preseason game, and Mike Muscala has a broken nose and facial laceration — that lineup was likely derived more from necessity than being any sort of telling signal for what things will look like once Butler arrives.
• Projecting ahead, Brown has a ton of options. As our national NBA reporter Tom Haberstroh suggested, this would be a good time to have Redick replace Fultz in the starting lineup. While Fultz has had some promising moments, he’s currently a below-average NBA starter, one that hasn't attempted a three-point shot in six games.
In terms of volume, the Sixers lost 11.3 three-point attempts per game combined from Covington and Saric. Starting Redick would help replace that missing three-point shooting, end all the consternation about the subpar spacing when Fultz and Simmons share the floor, and allow Fultz to exclusively run the point for the second unit.
• When Chandler is finally unrestricted, starting him at the four seems like the logical choice. On Friday, Chandler told NBC Sports Philadelphia that he feels “very comfortable” playing as a small-ball four since that’s what he did for most of his career under George Karl and Mike D’Antoni. He’s also started 447 of 593 career games, so that wouldn't require any adjustment.
Chandler is a versatile, switchable defender who can capably guard just about every position besides center. He even did a serviceable job in limited action Friday night against Kemba Walker.
If an opponent decides to go big, the Sixers would be able to handle it defensively with the 7-foot Embiid, the 6-10 Simmons, the 6-8 Chandler and the 6-8 Butler in the lineup.
• There are plenty of details Brown will have to work out about how to best employ Butler, but there are two simple, invaluable qualities Butler has that should make Brown’s job much easier.
Late in the game, Brown can say, “Stop [insert name of opponent’s best player]" and Butler will get the job done. In crunch time, he can tell Butler, “Create your own offense,” and Butler will do it.
Butler has been in the top-10 for each of the past three seasons in clutch scoring (with clutch situations defined as the last five minutes of a game with a point difference of five poinys or less). While Joel Embiid is still growing in those situations, Butler has thrived in them for years. He’s shot 89.3 percent from the foul line in the clutch over the last three years.
• The Sixers’ third-quarter struggles finally cost them a game Saturday night in Memphis.
Outside of the Indiana game, here are the Sixers’ third quarters recently:— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) November 11, 2018
It’s officially a trend, one they’ll eventually have to fix.
• Covington’s departure means T.J. McConnell is the lone survivor from the 2015-16 Sixers, the team that went 10-72 and lost 28 straight games. As usual, McConnell stepped up when called upon for a Sixers team that had just nine active players against Memphis, with 16 points and seven assists.
“For all of us back in Philadelphia, when you just sort of look at him not play and you watch his body language and his mannerisms on the bench, you can see instantly that he’s a leader, he’s selfless, he’s an incredible part of this fabric,” Brown said. “He’s a huge part of our culture. To see him come into a game tonight and do what he’s done a lot when he’s on the floor playing, I’m proud of him and he deserved that performance.”
The Sixers lost two other key parts of their culture in Covington and Saric. The dynamic of this team has changed entirely, both on and off the court. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this new version of the Sixers develops.
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