Jimmy Butler

Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

We don’t need to strain for creative nicknames, like “the Phantastic 5.” 

The Sixers’ new starting lineup is, to put it simply, a very good group of five basketball players, albeit one figuring out how to play with each other.

Here are five things we’ve learned about the new starting unit:

Harris fits well into the offense 

In his first four games with the Sixers, Tobias Harris has averaged 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game — not a bad start.

He’s fit naturally into the Sixers’ offense. Brett Brown has mostly plugged Harris into actions the Sixers already have installed, and Harris has generally thrived in those settings. The play below is a familiar “screen the screener” action. 

Out of a Horns set — two big men at the elbows, two wings in the corners — Harris sets a ball screen for Ben Simmons, then flares off a screen from Joel Embiid. He gets a mismatch on Nikola Jokic and dips in for a soft floater.

Though Harris is still learning his teammates’ tendencies, he hasn’t seemed too uncomfortable in unstructured situations, either when plays break down or in transition. He ran a nice pick-and-pop with Embiid early in the shot clock vs. the Lakers. 

There is one action the Sixers have recently introduced, a modified “Spain pick-and-roll.”

Jimmy Butler loops up to the top of the key. Off the ball, Joel Embiid sets a back screen for JJ Redick at the foul line, and Redick curls to the rim. Embiid then comes up to give Butler a ball screen, with Redick right behind him. Redick will typically give Embiid a back screen before shooting up to the top of the key — this is the traditional Spain pick-and-roll, that ball screen immediately followed by a back screen.

In the example above, Redick doesn’t make any contact with Embiid’s man, Al Horford, who decides to give a hard hedge on the pick-and-roll between Butler and Embiid. Still, the Celtics’ defense is slightly overbalanced toward Butler and Embiid. Harris, stationed in the weak side corner, takes advantage by driving baseline on Marcus Morris and drawing a foul.

The defense is a work in progress 

The Sixers’ new starting five is a long, versatile, switchable defensive unit. It is, however, still a work in progress.

In their first game together, the Sixers had some miscommunication on a couple of pick-and-rolls, including the one below. Harris and Simmons both take Will Barton, leaving Mason Plumlee open on the roll.

A poor defensive first quarter for the Sixers against the Lakers ended fittingly, with nobody picking up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Simmons is shifting his approach 

While the first legitimate three-point attempt of his career Sunday understandably got the most attention (see story), Simmons appears more willing overall to take the open jumpers presented to him.

With LeBron James deep in the paint, he stepped into a jumper from the elbow early against the Lakers.

Simmons is now 14 for 70 (20 percent) this season on shots from 10 feet and out. It’ll be interesting to track whether, even as the playoffs approach, he continues to take shots that have been highly inefficient for him. 

The staples still work 

Brown has had a few shootarounds and just a single practice to incorporate new actions, so he’s mainly had to rely on old favorites.

“12,” the multi-layered action that starts with Redick sprinting up from the baseline, often to give Simmons a ball screen, is still very difficult to guard because of Redick’s threat as a shooter. Plumlee and Malik Beasley botch their coverage on this play and, after a clever hesitation, Simmons attacks the open lane.

“Elbow,” the Embiid-Redick two-man game, is never leaving the Sixers’ offense as long as those two are still around.

The Celtics did a good job denying Embiid the ball at the end of the first quarter, but the Sixers adjusted well. With Mike Scott double-teamed, Embiid flashed to the block and found T.J. McConnell on the opposite side for a lay-up.

Late-game execution will take time 

Boston, as has so often been the case, executed better than the Sixers when it mattered Tuesday night.

The Sixers weren’t quite sharp enough on their late, game-tying attempt off a sideline out of bounds play. 

Butler screens at the top of the key for Redick, who sprints toward Harris, the inbounder. The idea is to make an entry pass to Embiid and play a Redick-Embiid two-man game. But Embiid fumbles the pass, which  throws off the timing of the play. Instead of hand it off to Redick, Embiid kicks the ball out to Harris and runs out to set a ball screen, trying to create a sliver of space.

Embiid rebounds Harris' miss and puts it back in, despite the Sixers being out of timeouts and needing a three to tie. Afterwards, he admitted he wasn’t aware the Sixers had no timeouts left and called himself “an idiot” for not kicking the ball out.

These five pieces have only been together for four games — not everything is going to click automatically late in games. Things just need to be more precise come the playoffs. 

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Sixers stock watch: Elton Brand making moves, Jimmy Butler quietly excellent, Jonah Bolden out of rotation

Sixers stock watch: Elton Brand making moves, Jimmy Butler quietly excellent, Jonah Bolden out of rotation

What a week it was for the Sixers.

After getting beat pretty handily by the Raptors Tuesday night, the mood postgame was somber.

All that changed when the Sixers pulled off a late-night trade for forward Tobias Harris.

Let’s get right into this week’s stock watch.

Stock up

Elton Brand

Duh, right? Less than five months into the job and less than three years removed from actually playing for the Sixers, Brand has pulled off the two boldest moves of the NBA season. Landing a player the caliber of Harris signifies to the rest of the league that the Sixers mean business. 

For anyone that’s concerned that this trade is a “rental,” you need to realize the situation Harris is in. This is already his fifth NBA team, it’s the best one he’s ever been on and the Sixers can offer him more money than anybody. From the Sixers’ perspective, you have a 26-year-old borderline All-Star that has improved consistently over his NBA career. Hell of a move by Brand.

Aside from Harris, Brand did a solid job upgrading the team’s bench with players like Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons. All four guys are experienced, battle-tested and can play average to above-average defense.

Bonus points for telling Magic Johnson and the Lakers to kick rocks.

Jimmy Butler

The slam dunk here would be Harris, but he’s only been here for two games so there’s no baseline for his performance as a Sixer. 

Butler, on the other hand, has had a weird tenure with the Sixers. There have been questions about his fit and reports that he “aggressively challenged” Brett Brown. The questions came back up with Harris’ arrival, but Butler has quietly been excellent over the last two games.

Against Denver, Butler was aggressive and lived at the line, making 14 of 14. He was efficient vs. the Lakers, hitting 6 of 10 for 15 points in just 30 minutes.

Brown is enjoying what he’s seen out of Butler:

With this team, he respects the game, he plays the right way. So you start putting him in a system and on a team that has more firepower, you feel even a greater level of respect. I see that with him. I really do see that with him. He and Tobias I think are incredibly unique in that regard. Normally you get shot hunters and they’re not doing that. They take what the game gives them and I think to the points that we all talked about, there is a good ecosystem, there is a good vibe. They are sharing the ball.

It’s an interesting point Brown brings up here. Butler is an All-Star caliber player, but he’s never been a volume shooter. The highest amount of shots per game he averaged in a season was 16.5 in 2016-17. That mark was good for 23rd in the league.

It’s entirely possible that Harris’ presence will actually allow Butler to thrive, creating more space for Butler to drive and get to the basket.

Stock down

Jonah Bolden

This one is tough because it’s really just a matter of circumstance. Bolden had solidified his role as the team’s backup five, but with an experienced big like Marjanovic in the mix, Bolden finds himself on the outside looking in with the rotation.

It will be interesting to see what Brown does if a team chooses to go small at the five with Marjanovic — it didn’t work out well when the Lakers did it with former Sixer Mike Muscala. Bolden has done well as a rookie and could still get playoff minutes if there’s an appropriate matchup against a smaller and more athletic five.

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Sixers 143, Lakers 120: Sixers crush Lakers behind explosive offense

Sixers 143, Lakers 120: Sixers crush Lakers behind explosive offense

BOX SCORE

Two games in and the new-look Sixers are looking like a problem.

LeBron James may have been in the building, but it was the Sixers' stars who shined in a 143-120 win over the Lakers on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center.

The win improves the Sixers to 23-6 at home and 36-20 overall.

Joel Embiid returned to his dominant form, Tobias Harris looked more aggressive in his second game, and the team's starting five looked unstoppable at times.

Here are observations from the win.

• Brett Brown said again pregame that Embiid is still “the crown jewel” and the All-Star center reminded everyone of that in the national spotlight.

After struggling Friday night and being questionable again Saturday while dealing with a stomach bug, Embiid looked spry. There were at least two plays where the Lakers flat out forgot about Embiid — somehow — and it led to easy buckets. That seemed to help Embiid get going early as he had 25 points at the half.

On one play Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got switched on to the All-Star center. Embiid pulled a dream shake-like move and buried a fadeaway. It’s just unfair what this guy can do at over seven feet tall. There were a couple sequences where Embiid got a little overzealous bringing the ball up the floor, which led to turnovers or not great shots. It didn't make the possessions any less entertaining.

He finished with 37 points and 14 rebounds for his league-leading 46th double-double.

• What continues to stand out about Harris is his all-around game. Sure, his elite three-point shooting has already been a very welcomed addition to the Sixers, but he offers so much more. He’s able to pull the ball off the rim and bring it up court, similar to what Ben Simmons does.

The other aspect of his game that stood out early was his physicality around the rim. It’s not something that’s typical from him, but he certainly showed he could play a little bully ball when matched up on smaller players.

The only player that would’ve had any shot at containing Harris would’ve been LeBron James, but James was busy chasing Simmons around. Harris is just one more matchup nightmare for Sixers’ opponents.

Has made first six shots for 14 first-quarter points on his way to a 22-points, six-rebound and six-assist performance.

• There are certainly kinks that need to be worked out, but this starting five shows glimpses of being completely and utterly dominant. 

The ball movement at times is an absolute thing of beauty. If there were any issues with guys not getting enough touches or shots, you wouldn’t know it. The ball never seems to stick and all five guys are playing an unselfish brand of basketball. They also turned the ball over just seven times. If you’re a team that likes to switch, you better be able to do it one through five against these guys.

The versatility and length they now have on defense is scary. The communication is still an issue. On one possession, Simmons literally pushed Harris out to complete a switch. You can see defense is where the biggest growing pains are, not just with the starting five but with all of the new pieces.

• There have been concerns about Jimmy Butler and his place in the offense since he was traded here. With Harris’ arrival, that situation seemed like it was only going to get murkier, but that hasn’t really been the case.

If anything, Butler has been more aggressive, something Brown has said repeatedly he's wanted to see. After hitting 14 of 14 free throws vs. Denver, Butler didn't get to the line as often, but was definitely making a concerted effort to get to the rim, finishing with 15 points on an effecient 6 of 10 from the field in 30 minutes. Surely Harris' presence has helped loosen things up for him.

• I was wondering when I’d get to type this sentence for the first time: Ben Simmons took a three-pointer (see story).

Not a halfcourt heave at the end of a quarter, but a legitimate NBA three. He actually just missed it, as the ball rimmed out. This is a huge development if he continues to put them up. If he makes them, look out.

Overall, Simmons had a rough shooting day. Who knows if it was the matchup against his mentor James, but Simmons was aggressive early. He went just 2 of 9 from the field in the first half and 3 of 13 for the game. The good news is Simmons turned the ball over just two times after he did so nine times against Denver. He does tend to turn the ball over less when he’s decisive and looking for his own shot.

• Speaking of James, he was booed lustily on his first touch. It was his first appearance in Philadelphia as a Laker since he chose Los Angeles. His representatives met with the Sixers over the summer, but it didn't appear that James was ever seriously considering Philadelphia as his destination. He nearly netted a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

• Kyle Kuzma couldn’t miss early for the Lakers, making 4 of first 5 from three. One of several young players Los Angeles dangled to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis, Kuzma had one of this better games as a pro, pouring in 39 points on 14 of 21 overall.

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