Heading into last season, the Sixers’ bench had more questions than answers.
On opening night, the Sixers rolled out Amir Johnson (-7), Dario Saric (-9), T.J. McConnell (-14), Markelle Fultz (-18) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (-19) in a 120-115 loss to the Wizards.
As the season went on, Johnson and McConnell were solid contributors, Saric struggled off the bench but flourished as a starter, Luwawu-Cabarrot struggled with injuries and inconsistency, and we all know about Fultz.
It wasn’t until the Sixers signed Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova — both bought out by the Hawks — that the bench finally found its stride. Both players averaged over 10 points a game and shot over 36 percent from three during their stint with the team.
Not wanting to get caught in the same spot of banking on buyout candidates after the trade deadline, Brett Brown fortified his bench heading into the 2018-19 season. In trading for Nuggets combo forward Wilson Chandler and reportedly signing Wolves stretch four Nemanja Bjelica, the Sixers have not only replaced Belinelli and Ilyasova, but they may have actually improved upon them.
Nobody can question the boost Belinelli and Ilyasova gave the Sixers in helping them win 16 straight games to close out the season and beat the Heat in five games. But during the series loss to the Celtics, both players were exposed. Brad Stevens attacked both players on the defensive end, eventually leading to Brown sitting Belinelli in favor of Justin Anderson.
That shouldn’t be the case with Chandler and Bjelica. There is no doubt Belinelli is a better shooter than Chandler, but Chandler brings more to the table. He has the ability to play the three or the four. He’s a decent shooter (36 percent from three last season) and can create off the dribble. He’s a much more athletic and versatile defender as well. He’s also grown accustomed to playing with ball-dominant players in Denver, which should help his transition into the lineup and should make his shot selection better than the trigger-happy Belinelli.
Based on raw numbers, you could certainly make the case Ilyasova is the better player than Bjelica, but Bjelica fits in much better with the Sixers. He’s more athletic, quicker and a much better passer than Ilyasova. That should serve the Sixers well on both ends of the floor. On defense, the Sixers switch on everything so you have to be able to guard multiple positions. In Brown’s pace-and-space offense, shooters are a must and you have to move the ball quickly and effectively. He also does well attacking closeouts and taking the ball to the basket — though it's not his strength.
Another added plus: Chandler and Bjelica are here for one year. Belinelli and Ilyasova both received multi-year deals with their new (old) teams. That gives the Sixers more financial flexibility headed into the 2019 offseason and its loaded free-agent class.
You can be disappointed that the Sixers’ star hunting came up empty — for now — but you have to acknowledge that Brett Brown and company have already built a better bench.