Marco Belinelli

Sixers weekly observations: This season's bench compared to last season's, possible playoff matchups, more

Sixers weekly observations: This season's bench compared to last season's, possible playoff matchups, more

After the Sixers’ first three-game losing streak of the season, the team secured back-to-back 50-win seasons by beating the Bulls Saturday night. 

With Miami up next on Tuesday and Chicago again Wednesday, the Sixers’ magic number to clinch the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference is one. The Celtics’ final two games are against the Magic on Sunday night and the Wizards on Tuesday night.

Let’s get into our final weekly observations of the season: 

• Back on Dec. 11, about a month after the Sixers had acquired Jimmy Butler, Brett Brown was asked whether he thought this season’s bench was better than last season’s.

“No,” he replied.

Why?

“Ersan and Marco.”

Four or so months later, Brown’s straightforward assessment still seems sound. The Sixers’ bench is a plus-4 through 80 games, good for 12th in the NBA. They’re a minus-11 in 26 games since the trade deadline, 16th in the league.

With Belinelli and Ilyasova, the Sixers won 20 of their final 23 regular-season games in 2017-18 and the bench was sixth best in the NBA during that stretch.

The positive spin for the Sixers is regular-season stats don’t mean everything. Belinelli and Ilyasova could both score better than any player on the Sixers’ current bench, but the two struggled to defend in the Celtics series. 

The bench certainly has its flaws. Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden have no playoff experience and James Ennis is hurt. Jonathon Simmons was unimpressive in limited opportunities and Boban Marjanovic has been an automatic target for opposing offenses. T.J. McConnell’s pick-and-roll defense has been poor. Mike Scott, a Sixer for two months, is the most reliable member of the rotation.

All that granted, Ennis, Scott, Bolden, Smith and Simmons are each average to above-average defenders, unlike Belinelli and Ilyasova. They won’t all see significant time in the playoffs, but Brown at least has a couple more reasonable defensive options than he did last year. 

• It feels like we’ve all just been waiting for the playoffs to start for months, and the Sixers played that way much of this past week, especially in losses to the Mavs on Monday and the Hawks on Wednesday — unfocused and unmotivated. Joel Embiid’s absence was obviously a major factor as well.

It will be a relief for players, coaches, fans — everyone associated with the Sixers — when all the speculation about the playoffs stops and the the real thing begins.

• While we’re on the topic of speculation, the likeliest first-round opponents for the Sixers are the Nets, Magic and Pistons. 

The Magic might be the most difficult to play of that group. Orlando is 18-8 with the best net rating and best defensive rating in the Eastern Conference since the trade deadline. The Sixers’ 21-point loss in Orlando on March 25 was their worst with Joel Embiid of the new year.

Brown has also spoken candidly about how the Nets' guards expose the Sixers’ perimeter defense. None of the matchups would likely be a breeze, but the Sixers have much more talent than Brooklyn, Orlando or Detroit — whose biggest problem remains not giving Blake Griffin enough help. They’re too good to lose in the first round. 

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Sixers put bench under construction, but is second unit now any better?

Sixers put bench under construction, but is second unit now any better?

After a relatively quiet offseason, the Sixers’ roster has suddenly turned into musical chairs over the past few days.

In are Mike Muscala and Jonah Bolden. Out are Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Richaun Holmes.

Not exactly earth-shattering moves, but moves nonetheless.

Of course, all of those changes were directed at the Sixers’ bench. That’s because the team already has one of the best starting rotations in the entire NBA. The Sixers’ five-man combination of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid was plus-21.4 points per 100 possessions in 600 minutes of action together last season.

The reserves were a different story. The Sixers’ bench was among the league’s worst scoring-wise in 2017-18 before buyout veterans Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova pumped life into the group. With that duo on the squad, the Sixers posted a 20-3 record to close out the regular season and made quick work of the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.

Those results changed against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Sixers’ bench was exposed defensively and smothered on offense in the five-game series.

“I’ve said on record, and I’ll say it again, I believe that anything that kind of matters, you’re probably going to bump into the Celtics,” Brett Brown said during the Sixers’ exit interviews. “So they’re always going to be sort of on our mind in relation to how do you compete with them?”

Competing with the Celtics and beating them are two very different things.

Did the Sixers’ tinkering with their bench put them any closer to knocking off their longtime rival? That’s a tough one to answer right now.

Despite shipping away Anderson, Luwawu-Cabarrot and Holmes, you can argue that the Sixers’ second unit will still be more athletic next season. A fully healthy Markelle Fultz will likely start out as the sixth man, and we know he’s got some incredible bounce to his game. Zhaire Smith already gave a glimpse of what type of athlete he is during summer league. And while 31 years old, Wilson Chandler can still rise up to throw it down.

Defensively is where that athleticism should really shine for the latter two. The rookie Smith has continually said defense is his best skill as he was named to the Big 12 All-Defensive team during his lone season at Texas Tech. Chandler possesses the ability to defend both forward spots and takes pride on that end of the floor.

Meanwhile, Muscala and Bolden aren't anywhere near leapers of Holmes' caliber. However, they are still bigger bodies that have the ability to move their feet to keep up with their man. That’s in addition to known hustlers T.J. McConnell and Amir Johnson putting forth their maximum effort guarding opponents.

But is that enough when a healthy Celtics team gets its projected roster back and rolls out a reserve lineup of Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes?

If the Sixers are unable to contain Boston’s talented starters and deep reserve blend, they might really run into problems trying to keep pace with offense of their own now that they lack a serious three-point threat outside of Redick. Belinelli and Ilyasova, who both departed moments into free agency, gave the team a one-two punch off the bench that could drain shots from anywhere. Now the only serviceable shooter in a backup role is the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Muscala (a career 37.8 percent shooter from long range). Kyle Korver, anyone?

The bench reset was necessary if the Sixers planned on getting to the next level. Is it enough to put them on the same level as the Celtics or will they remain green with envy?

We’ll see.

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Wilson Chandler, Nemanja Bjelica improve Sixers' bench heading into season

Wilson Chandler, Nemanja Bjelica improve Sixers' bench heading into season

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.

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