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2020 NBA playoffs: What should the Sixers' playoff rotation look like?

2020 NBA playoffs: What should the Sixers' playoff rotation look like?

We’ve done plenty of looking back while the NBA season has been suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic. With the NBA’s Board of Governors approving a return-to-play format Thursday, we can now look ahead.

With eight regular-season games on the docket in the owners-approved plan, Brett Brown would have a short amount of time to answer several questions. One of the bigger ones will be about what he does with his playoff rotation.

Going into the 2019-20 season, the Sixers’ gargantuan starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford was supposed to play “smash mouth offense and bully ball defense," according to Brown. Because of injuries and a clunky fit, that hasn’t come to fruition.

Though Brown brought Horford off the bench for three games, the head coach has been insistent on wanting to give the Embiid-Horford pairing a chance to work. He’ll have serious work to do if he wants to make that happen before the team reaches the playoffs.

A more likely scenario would seem to be the offensive fit proving to be too awkward and Brown moving in a different direction. In that case, Shake Milton may be the team’s best option as the fifth starter. Filling in for Simmons, Milton had an outstanding run as the team’s starting point guard. Adding him to the mix would give the Sixers another ball handler and shooter in the starting five.

Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and rookie Matisse Thybulle could also be candidates. If Brown is searching for more of a veteran presence, Robinson could be a solution. Korkmaz, Thybulle and veteran Alec Burks all seem to be better options off the bench.

It’s not an easy thing to ask a five-time All-Star to come off your bench for the playoffs, but Brown may be left with little recourse.

Horford could prove to be a valuable sixth man. Brown likened Horford’s situation to that of Manu Ginobili’s in San Antonio. Ginobili, a two-time All-Star, was still a huge part of the Spurs’ run of dominance as an elite sixth man. 

Arguably the Sixers’ finest hour was a win over the Clippers before the All-Star break. On that night, Embiid and Simmons clicked more than ever before, mostly with Horford on the bench. Horford did help close out the game and put a lid on L.A. defensively in an impressive win.

Beyond Horford, Brown has something he didn’t have during last season’s playoffs: Options.

Throughout the 2019 playoff run, Mike Scott and James Ennis were the only reliable reserves. Ennis is gone and Scott has been inconsistent. That’s part of what prompted GM Elton Brand to make the move to acquire Robinson and Burks from the Warriors.

Basically, Brown is looking at three veterans and three young players. Robinson and Burks lack playoff experience but have much more NBA experience than Korkmaz, Thybulle and Milton.

Though he's struggled since arriving, Robinson has had an excellent shooting season and is a solid defender. Burks is instant offense off the bench and provides another ball handler and shot creator. Korkmaz has had an improbable bounce-back season and allows the team to run its “JJ Redick” package. Thybulle has proven to be a disruptive — albeit at times a little reckless — defender.

You also can't forget about Scott. He was beginning to come on before the season was suspended. He brings toughness and has hit big shots in the past, two important things in playoff basketball.

Brown likes to play 10 guys in his rotation during the regular season. He said back in February that he'd like for that number to go down to nine for the postseason. Well all know Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Richardson and Horford will play big minutes. That leaves four spots and six players vying for them.

If nothing else, the bench “tournament” over the last eight regular-season games could provide drama for a team that never seems to be lacking in that department.

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Brett Brown is 'shocked' his pitch worked on Ryan Broekhoff, who had a lot to consider

Brett Brown is 'shocked' his pitch worked on Ryan Broekhoff, who had a lot to consider

Brett Brown didn’t think Ryan Broekhoff would buy his recruiting pitch. 

“I was shocked that he agreed to come,” Brown said Wednesday on a video call with reporters. 

Yet the 29-year-old Broekhoff decided to join the Sixers for the remainder of the NBA season, signing the substitute contract the team had available because of its vacant two-way contract spot. He’d been a free agent since February, when he was waived by the Mavericks so Dallas could make room for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Broekhoff, who played 59 games over two seasons with the Mavs and converted 40.3 percent of his three-point attempts, has a connection with Brown through the Australian national team. Brown recalled Wednesday that he’s known Broekhoff since he was around 17 years old, while Broekhoff couldn’t recall the exact date of their first meeting. 

He's known Ben Simmons, a fellow native of Melbourne, Australia, since Simmons was about 16. 

“He’s had a lot of influence down in Australia,” Broekhoff said of Brown, who’s the current head coach of the Boomers and also held that position from 2009-2012. “I do remember he cut me from the 2012 Olympic squad, so that’s one thing that I can joke about now. Over the last couple years and especially now, with him being announced as the national team head coach again, we’ve had more conversations.

"I see this as a way to sit up close and personal and get some extra time to learn his philosophies and how things may work, not just with the Sixers but also with the national team.”

The odds of Broekhoff emerging as a vital piece for the Sixers don’t appear high, which Brown said he emphasized in an honest conversation. 

To mislead him about, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of opportunity here,’ that’s not true,” Brown said. “I told him that. You’ve got, what, six people? We all could look at each other and say, ‘What about Matisse (Thybulle)? And Glenn Robinson, and Furkan (Korkmaz) and Alec Burks?’ You could go on and on and on. 

“This isn’t an opportunity where it’s clear there’s a runway and a pathway at all. And that was the flavor of my talk. I downplayed it more than anything. He’s out of contract, I don’t want to mislead him. And I believed when I hung up the phone, he was either going to go to Europe or maybe somebody else could recruit him a little bit better than I did.

The large handful of wings on the Sixers didn’t deter Broekhoff. He said he had an identical offer from one additional NBA team, along with interest from several others. His goal is to find a “steady” spot in the NBA, though, and he thought the fit with the Sixers made sense. 

“They’ve been able to utilize shooters and guys that play off the ball to complement their stars,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m in JJ Redick’s category, because he’s been an unbelievable player and unbelievable shooter for so long, but it’s just being able to prototype myself around that style of play. He had great success here and hopefully I can find the opportunity to be able to deliver similar sort of performances.”

It's a somewhat generous assessment to classify the Sixers' system as conducive to outside shooting, given that the team this season is 14th in three-point percentage and 22nd in three-point attempts. In contrast, Dallas is eighth and second in those categories, respectively.  

Basketball wasn’t the only factor Broekhoff had to weigh.

“It hasn’t been an easy decision, by any means, to come back,” he said. “I have a wife and a one-year-old son, and my wife has an autoimmune disease, so she’s at higher risk for COVID. It’s taken a lot for us to be able to get to this point where we signed.

"We spoke to Elton Brand and we spoke to Coach, just wanted to get some more information about how the bubble is going to be down in Orlando. If anything happens, what are my options to get back and take care of my family? That was important to me.”

For the time being, Broekhoff wants to be sharp for the Sixers’ training camp in Orlando, which Brown described as “huge” in determining competitions for minutes and roles. Mandatory workouts at the Sixers' facility in Camden, New Jersey, started Wednesday, while the team is set to arrive in Disney World on July 9 and resume play on Aug. 1 against the Pacers (see schedule).

By knocking down some jumpers and playing with the "Australian toughness" Brown praised, Broekhoff could remind his head coach why he made that hopeful recruiting pitch.

“Anything can happen during camp and I’m going to try to put my best foot forward,” Broekhoff said, “and not just rely on shooting, but just show everything — try to defend and rebound and be an energy sort of leader, a veteran kind of guy.

"Even though I’ve been in the league only a short amount of time, I feel like I have a lot of experience, both internationally and overseas in Europe. Just being able to help the team in any way is my goal at the moment.” 

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The latest on Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and how the Sixers plan to use them

The latest on Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and how the Sixers plan to use them

In what has truly been one of the most unprecedented times in sports — and really the world — an unexpected nugget of news has emerged: The Sixers are (relatively) healthy.

None of their players tested positive for COVID-19 during the NBA’s Phase 2 protocol. The only player that will not be joining the team in Disney as of now will be second-year guard Zhaire Smith, who is dealing with a bone bruise in his knee.

But of all the health updates the team could provide, none are more important than the statuses of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, head coach Brett Brown had all positive news when it came to his All-Star duo.

In an interview just last month, Brown didn’t seem nearly as optimistic that Simmons would be 100 percent by the time play resumed. The team’s point guard had been dealing with a nerve impingement in his lower back which caused him to miss the last eight games before the NBA season was suspended.

In the time since that interview, several images — and a video of a couple acrobatic dunks — have shown Simmons working out in L.A. with his trainer Chris Johnson and LeBron James with the 23-year-old looking healthy.

You’re always trying to be responsible of not always being a cheerleader or delivering stuff that maybe you’re going to regret,” Brown said. “My comments on Ben [are] because you’re trying to walk that line of protecting him and not sort of jumping out of your lane where people’s hopes get a little too high. And so my decision to choose the words that I chose of we’re going to try to bring him along — I don’t backpedal from that — but the fact is he’s doing way better than that phrase would indicate. So I think the group should hear probably mostly now that you’re going to treat Ben like you’re going to treat Shake [Milton] or Matisse [Thybulle]. 

“He’s good to go. He’s put in a tremendous amount of work for me to able to confidently say that. I think when you search for silver linings with this pandemic and the way things have shaped up, it would be hard-pressed for me to find something more obvious than this. It’s enabled Ben to reclaim his health, but I think inching along from maybe a month ago that we spoke, that is not true. He’s good to go and we look forward to watching him with what I’m told is effectively 100 percent health.

While Embiid has dealt with a few injuries this season, the most pertinent question is whether he’ll be in top physical shape. It’s an issue Embiid has dealt with throughout his career and that Brown has been asked about ad nauseum.

Embiid recently said that he’s been working out six days a week in order to be ready for the league’s resumption. 

Let’s just start with the respect and applause I give him for putting in time,” Brown said. “There is nobody on our team that has put in more time than Joel Embiid. ... I’m proud of him, I respect him — he needed to do it. We understand the impact he can have on our team. I think that once Joel has that fitness base that I’m talking about and we get a three-week runway to deliver him to the regular season, I’m looking for Joel to come in as good as shape as he has been in since I have coached him.

As for how the pair fit on the court, Brown has mentioned on more than one occasion that the Feb. 11 win over the Clippers is the best version of his team. A big part of that was the success Embiid and Simmons found playing together.

For years, Brown has used Embiid and Simmons in a snug pick-and-roll — basically just a low post pick-and-roll with Simmons as the ball handler. While it hasn’t been particularly effective throughout their time together, it was on that night.

Brown sees it not only as a pathway to making them better, but to possibly being one of the biggest pick-and-roll threats in the league.

When you look at that particular game, that action, they ran it quite a bit in flow and lot of that was just those two guys playing together,” Brown said. “It wasn’t anything where you’re sort of stomping your foot from the sideline and calling the play. They found it organically. … Maybe the most prolific pick-and-roll partnership that I remember is [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone, and I think that [Simmons and Embiid] have a chance to hook up in the environment that you’re speaking about and grow that part of their game and just the coexisting as teammates and relational side. And that is a crunch-time look for sure. …

“But it was significantly run against the Clippers. I do believe it helped us, and I am excited to develop that part of those two players’ world. I think you’re going to see more of it in the regular season and based on its success, see more of it in the playoffs.

Stockton wasn’t 6-foot-10 and Malone wasn’t chucking up threes, but if Simmons and Embiid can be anywhere near that effective in that action — and stay healthy — the Sixers could be mighty dangerous in Disney World.

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