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?