Something had to change on the Sixers’ bench.
It was inevitable, given the recent run of abysmal collective play that could perhaps be chalked up to typical fluctuations over the course of a season but was nevertheless losing the Sixers games and routinely jeopardizing leads amassed by the starters.
So, even with Ben Simmons and Shake Milton returning and the team fully healthy, rookie wing Isaiah Joe remained in the Sixers’ rotation Sunday night against the Raptors. Furkan Korkmaz only played two first-half minutes after Matisse Thybulle picked up his third foul, and Tyrese Maxey did not play.
Joe didn’t dramatically turn the game, scoring three points in 12 minutes during a 110-103 Sixers loss to the Raptors, but he continued to exude competence. He cares about the details defensively and has flashed talent on that end of the floor, too. Against the Bulls on Friday, he earned a steal by rotating down to negate a potential Daniel Gafford layup. In Tampa Bay, he stuck to Norman Powell well both on and off the ball without being overzealous, and he drew an offensive foul by sliding with Powell and allowing the sixth-year guard to crash into him.
“He’s playing well,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought defensively, he was absolutely fantastic, and that’s what we need. This is not football. You’ve got to be a basketball player and you play both ways, offense and defense. I thought he did that tonight.”
Korkmaz has worked to improve on defense, but it’s hard to hear Rivers’ comment about basketball being a two-way sport without thinking of him. Neither his defense nor his three-point shooting were nearly good enough to help the Sixers in last season’s playoffs. Though he’s capable of scoring flurries, he again doesn’t seem likely to increase the Sixers’ chances of winning postseason games. With Korkmaz having made 3 of his last 21 field goals, there was no compelling reason to keep playing him over Joe, even if the 21-year-old happens to be a second-round rookie who’s slight of frame.
“It’s just a look,” Rivers said of his decision. “Everyone earns their minutes. It’s always a fair competition. Right now, we’re going with Isaiah.”
Joe is known for his outside shooting and might be due to have a breakout offensive game soon. Even if he doesn’t, though, his steadiness and skills in areas besides marksmanship could very well lend him an edge in this “fair competition” — or “quiet tournament,” if you prefer former head coach Brett Brown’s terminology.
The sample size is small, of course, but Joe’s 3.5 turnover percentage is actually lowest among NBA wings, per Cleaning the Glass. That figure is almost certainly unsustainable, but it’s not fluky. Joe was a low-turnover player at Arkansas, too, with an 8.9 turnover percentage over his two college seasons.
“He’s been solid,” Tobias Harris said. “He’s been solid for us all year every time he gets the opportunity. He’s a player, Isaiah, he doesn’t make many mistakes on the floor. ... Defensively, he’s well ahead in terms of understanding the game plan, the terminology and where to force guys. We’re going to need him this year. When he gets the opportunity, he does take advantage of it.”
Joe has tried his best to approach his first professional season with a combination of humility and self-belief. He trusts in his jumper while recognizing it would be impossible for a rookie to understand all the nuances of the NBA in a pandemic-affected season with few practices.
“I think a lot of it is learning on the fly, being able to watch the veterans, being able to pick up what they do on and off the court so whenever it’s my time, I’ll be ready,” he said before Sunday’s game. “I feel like I’ve been doing a really good job. They do a really good job of keeping me in tune so I’m up to speed on everything, and making sure I’m involved so that when it is my time, I will be prepared.”
It’s improbable that Joe or any member of the team’s roster is a panacea for what ails the bench. With the playoffs in mind, that present reality isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. Milton and Matisse Thybulle are capable of positive contributions in playoff series, when rotations shrink. Though Dwight Howard's pairing with Simmons has been poor — the Sixers have a minus-9.2 net rating on 380 Simmons-Howard possessions, per Cleaning the Glass — the 35-year-old has had recent success in high-stakes games. Simmons as a small-ball option in minutes without Joel Embiid also seems more promising after his 42-point night against the Jazz.
The Sixers could sure use another bench piece or two, though. The team’s second-unit issues are plentiful, with half-court facilitation, Simmons-Howard lineups and a dearth of decent two-way players among them. President of basketball operations Daryl Morey always investigates possibilities and will have ideas for how to alleviate these weaknesses before the March 25 trade deadline.
In an ideal world for the Sixers, Joe, Korkmaz and Maxey won’t be required to play heavy postseason minutes unless one of them is on an absolutely-can’t-miss hot streak. Joe is in the spotlight for now, though, and the Sixers are hoping the 49th pick in this year’s draft can provide a little short-term relief.