Alec Burks

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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Sixers at Bucks: 3 storylines to watch

Sixers at Bucks: 3 storylines to watch

The Sixers are back on the road for the first time since Feb. 6. They’re back in Milwaukee, too, and again set to play the team with the best record in the NBA.

Ben Simmons will be available after missing the Sixers’ overtime win Thursday over the Nets because of lower back soreness. Kyle Korver (back soreness) is out for Milwaukee.

Here are three storylines to watch for Saturday’s matchup between the 35-21 Sixers and 47-8 Bucks: 

Antetokounmpo might be due 

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Christmas performance against the Sixers was a major outlier, with his 8-for-27 shooting effort his worst of the year. He’s shot under 50 percent from the floor this season only 12 times.

Though Joel Embiid and Al Horford defended Antetokounmpo well on Christmas, the MVP has been far worse than his season average from three-point range in his two games against the Sixers, which suggests he might be due to hit a couple of the long range shots he'll presumably be invited to take. Antetokounmpo is 1 for 14 from three vs. the Sixers this year and a 30.9 percent three-point shooter overall. He put up 36 points and 20 rebounds in the Bucks’ last win over the Sixers despite going 1 of 7 beyond the arc. 

‘Being the best player in the world’

Embiid, who was Antetokounmpo’s first pick in the All-Star draft, shot just 6 of 26 in that Feb. 6 game.

After an All-Star Game in which he scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and a dominant showing against the Nets that rescued the Sixers, Embiid is feeling good about himself.

The All-Star Game was fun, being there in the fourth quarter, doing my thing at the end of the game,” he said Thursday night. “I thought it was great. The game against the Clippers was a good starting spot. But the All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here — I belong, and being the best player in the world. I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard and try to get wins. Go hard and try to win a championship. 

Embiid no longer has to wear the splint on his hand that appeared to affect him in the Sixers’ second meeting against Milwaukee. 

“I’ve been struggling a lot at the free throw line the past couple games, especially with that splint,” he said Thursday after making 18 of 19 foul shots. “It was a good relief to have it off.”

‘I call him A-Buckets’ 

While Glenn Robinson III started against the Nets, Brett Brown preferred Alec Burks and Shake Milton in the second half and overtime. Burks scored 19 important points, 16 after halftime, and Robinson was happy to see him show what he’d been doing with the Warriors before the two were shipped to Philadelphia.

“I was up on the bench cheering for him, excited for him,” Robinson said Friday. “I know that’s what he can bring to any team that he’s on. He tried to say that to the media when he first got here — it doesn’t matter where you’re at. Especially if you’re in a position where we’re fighting for our careers. We don’t have a contract after that. 

“Wherever you are … it’s tough to play well if you’re thinking about so many different things. So, I was excited for him, happy that he went off [Thursday] night. But yeah, that’s AB. I call him A-Buckets.”

Brown said Thursday he’s willing to let competitions play out for the final spots in his playoff rotation, and Burks made a strong impression on him, especially with his pick-and-roll playmaking (see story).

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Alec Burks stands out to Brett Brown in Sixers' bench competition with performance vs. Nets

Alec Burks stands out to Brett Brown in Sixers' bench competition with performance vs. Nets

The 12-44 Golden State Warriors have not been the most compelling viewing this season for an East Coast audience. 

Alec Burks, after scoring 19 points Thursday night in the Sixers’ 112-104 overtime win over the Nets, seemed to acknowledge that reality. 

“Just playing my game, man,” he said. “I know I played on the West Coast. I don’t know if y’all watch the West Coast, but that’s how I play. It’s just playing my game, just trying to feel it out, because it’s only my second game — I’ve only been here a couple days. Hopefully it will get better and better as the season goes on.”

Before the Sixers acquired him and Glenn Robinson III from Golden State, Burks had been averaging a career-best 15.8 points per game. His offensive contributions were timely against Brooklyn as he scored every one of his points after the Nets took a 50-30 lead. 

Brett Brown had said pregame that he wants to have a nine-man playoff rotation but that he doesn’t yet know every one of its members. 

“I think there’s a period of time, especially when you’re talking about the last two, say, spots, where it has to be competitive, and it will be,” he said.

After a bizarre game in which the Nets had a 46-10 run and the Sixers made a season-low 4 three-pointers on 22 attempts while shooting 32 of 35 at the foul line, it would have been fair for Brown to say he couldn’t pass much judgement on that competition. Instead, he identified Burks as a standout, especially in the context of the Sixers’ playing without Ben Simmons (lower back tightness) and searching for solutions at backup point guard.

We’d all have to walk out of here being pretty impressed with Alec Burks,” he said. “He provided a scoring punch. He really was a dynamic scorer. And I think the more I’m seeing him, his ability to pass out of a pick-and-roll is elite. … We’re always wondering what’s going to go on with the backup point guard when [Simmons] is healthy, and I tried [Furkan Korkmaz] a little bit there, I tried [Josh Richardson] a little bit there, Shake [Milton] came out of left field in the second half because I wasn’t entirely thrilled with how I was rotating the group and what I was seeing. 

“And so you’re wondering, might Alec have something to do with being a primary ball carrier, because he’s a really good pick-and-roll player and passer? He stood out tonight. The other guys I thought were solid, but as far as standing out, he did to me.

With the Warriors, Burks was above league average efficiency on pick-and-rolls, isolations and dribble handoffs this season, per He was well suited for ball handling responsibilities with the Sixers on paper, and Thursday was the first extended look at those skills on the court. Burks had sat out the Sixers’ Feb. 9 game vs. the Bulls as he adjusted to a new time zone, city and team, and he’d only played 14 minutes against the Clippers in the Sixers’ final pre-All-Star break game, scoring two points.

Brown tossed out a bunch of lineup combinations, looking for a group that could bring order to a chaotic game. Though Burks air balled an open three with 1:07 left that would have given the Sixers the lead, he was a clear inclusion for Brown in overtime. He scored five of the Sixers’ nine points in the extra session. 

“He was big for us,” Tobias Harris said. “He gives us another guy that can handle the ball and create his own shot. He has a really good mid-range jumper, he’s got great speed going downhill. He was able to make some huge plays for us, especially in the fourth quarter. We just fed off his energy tonight, and it was good to see him get going. … I think he’s going to be great for us.”

Outside of Burks, it likely wouldn’t make sense to take much away from the play of the Sixers’ bench players. Simmons was out, Raul Neto started and Brown was constantly grasping for someone or something that could have a positive impact.

Burks emerged. 

“Since we got him, I felt like that was another guy that could create his own shot — just come off the screen and pull up behind the three-point line,” Joel Embiid said after his 39-point, 16-rebound night. “And he’s not afraid to take that shot. We need that. We haven’t really had that the last couple years, so it’s a good sight to see. A great job by [general manager Elton Brand] for making it happen.”

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