Shake Milton

Sixers 'counting on' Shake Milton, but does he replace Al Horford as a starter?

Sixers 'counting on' Shake Milton, but does he replace Al Horford as a starter?

Over the course of seven seasons here, Brett Brown has turned to several colorful phrases to explain his thinking. “Horses for courses,” said in his Bostralian accent, is a go-to one.

The basic premise of the expression is putting the right players in the right environment to succeed based on the matchup and personnel surrounding them. Over the course of the year, Al Horford’s fit offensively in the starting lineup hasn’t quite fit that sentiment. 

While Brown has seemed hellbent on making Horford a part of the starting lineup, he admitted in a video conference call with reporters Wednesday that the offensive fit of his starters has been “clunky.”

Part of that, Brown said, is the circumstances with the team this season.

“I do feel like the design of our team is challenging, for sure,” Brown said. “Do I think it’s built for the playoffs? Yes, I do. Do we have enough runway to pull something special off? Yes, we do. None of us can dismiss 19 out of 65 games you’ve got your starters — that’s just a real number. Ten brand new players out of 15 — that’s a real number.”

While Brown was adamant that he still believes in his team and the roster GM Elton Brand assembled, he offered that things on the offensive end could be better.

A game Brown has referenced more than once as the best version of his team is the Feb. 11 win over the Clippers. In that game, Horford came off the bench and played an important role in the victory. 

When Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid got hurt, Horford was inserted back into the starting lineup and took advantage of the opportunity. In the six games before play was suspended, Horford averaged 15.8 points, nine rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from three.

So, what will Horford’s role be when/if play resumes?

It’s a big one. It’s a huge question,” Brown said. “My thought process is quite simple. I’m going to go into camp and I’m going to see stuff and feel stuff, you’ve got some preconceived ideas, obviously. I feel like whatever we thought leaving the season and now what am I going to see as we come back and we sort of haven’t played basketball in three months and the fitness and all that type of thing. I’m going to go into the three weeks and figure it out. 

“I think it’s true that we’ve learned some of the things that either don’t work and you’re really in your head and you’re heart, I don’t care how much time we have, that’s probably going to be tough to pull off vs. we need to do a little bit better, I need to do a little bit better. In relation to stamping off on, ‘Here it is, this is what’s going to happen,’ I’m not doing that.

Another player that stepped up when injuries hit was Shake Milton. Aside from his 39-point outburst in L.A., Milton was proving to be a reliable player that featured a different skill set than most players on the roster.

Over Milton’s last nine games, he averaged 19.4 points and shot a ridiculous 60.5 percent on 5.4 attempts from three a game. While you can’t expect Milton to keep up that torrid pace, his ability as a ball handler and shot maker could be crucial.

While Milton did the bulk of his damage while Simmons was down, the pairing seems like a logical one going forward. Brown has spoken at length about unlocking Simmons’ ability as a screener and roller, at one point comparing Simmons to Blake Griffin in that regard. Milton excels at running the pick-and-roll and his ability to shoot makes the action a difficult cover.

I’m excited because I’m counting on him to continue on,” Brown said of Milton. “I don’t believe that what we saw is that much of an outlier. To think that he’s going to perform at that consistent level that he showed prior to the pandemic would be sort of ambitious. I do think that if he can capture the large majority of the form offensively and defensively — and obviously the shooting percentage is a huge part of that — if he can capture a large portion of what we saw, he really has a chance to come in and play a significant role in a rotation capacity in the playoffs.

If Brown knows which way he’s going with his starting lineup, he didn’t give much away. Does Horford’s fit fall into the category of “we need to do a little bit better” or will it prove to be a “that’s probably going to be tough to pull off” situation where Brown turns to Milton?

Age and experience are factors. Milton is just 23 and has played 52 NBA games with no playoff experience. We all know Horford’s resume and have seen firsthand what he’s done in the postseason.

But the diversity, versatility and flexibility Milton adds to the starting unit might outweigh that. And at that point, you get a playoff-proven big as your sixth man — albeit a handsomely paid one.

Brown has “preconceived ideas” about his rotation, but some of those might change once the team begins working out at Disney World.

“I hope to get as many as those questions out of the way in training camp,” Brown said. “I think my experience is that is an ambitious wish that oftentimes doesn’t happen as clearly as you had hoped. But in a perfect world, you’d like to go into those eight games that we’re speaking about and have some minor tweak and rotation changes as opposed to Game 5 and, ‘Oh, crap, we’ve got something that’s a little bit funky here.’”

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Former NBA executive ranks 10 best free agent contracts, loves a Sixers sleeper

Former NBA executive ranks 10 best free agent contracts, loves a Sixers sleeper

The Sixers' roster construction has been heavily scrutinized this season, and for good reason. Players like Al Horford and Tobias Harris commanded huge contracts while the starting lineup failed to gel.

But according to one former NBA exec, free agency wasn't all misses for still-green general manager Elton Brand.

John Hollinger, former Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Grizzlies, ranked his 10 favorite free agent contracts in terms of value, and one Sixers player landed on the list:

Fan-favorite guard Shake Milton.

Here's why Hollinger loves the Milton contract so much:

Shake Milton, 76ers | 3 years, $5.5 million remaining

This could end up as a massive win for Philly, as Milton still has three years left on his contract and it’s a minimum deal, the so-called 'Hinkie Special' that virtually every Sixers roster addition signed during The Process era. While Milton was a draft pick, his contract was not a rookie deal – he served as a two-way player in 2018-19 before inking a four-year deal this past summer.

Milton established himself as a back-end rotation player in Philly this season and, at 23 years old, has time to launch his career further in the coming years.

It's not as splashy or exciting as nailing a superstar contract, but those will rarely win in the "value" category because of how much money the league's best players command.

Milton has been a lot of fun to watch this year, and showed improvement in nearly every department. At the time of the NBA's season pause, he was averaging 9.5 points and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 45.3 percent from deep and 76.5 percent from the free throw line.

And, of course, we had The Shake Milton Game, a midseason joy unto itself.

The Sixers nailing it with a guy like Milton is certainly a good sign about Brand's ability to find hidden talent and build a team in the margins, an important skill in the era of the supermax contract.

(Of course, Hollinger listed both Horford and Harris among the six worst free agent contracts in a separate list, so Brand still has some work to do.)

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Breaking down 4 interesting plays from Sixers' last game before NBA's hiatus

Breaking down 4 interesting plays from Sixers' last game before NBA's hiatus

The last time the Sixers played a game, the final score was an afterthought. In the context of the NBA season being suspended that night as the reality of facing a global pandemic set in for many fans, Joel Embiid looking good in his return from a left shoulder sprain and the Sixers beating the Pistons wasn’t very important. 

With the NBA’s owners and NBPA having approved a tentative plan to restart the season at Walt Disney World on July 31, we have a chance to both look back and look ahead at key questions for if/when the season resumes. We’ll start by highlighting a few notable plays from that March 11 game vs. Detroit.

This first play is a negative one as Mike Scott falls behind in defending a ball screen, calls on Joel Embiid to switch and watches Tony Snell hit a runner over the big man. 

The defense at the point of attack generally wasn’t very good from the Sixers in this game, with Pistons ball handlers penetrating too frequently. While the Sixers’ preferred mode of pick-and-roll defense is having the perimeter defender go over the screen and the big man drop, can players like Scott and Furkan Korkmaz fight over picks and manage to stay in the play enough in a postseason series? 

Statistically, the Sixers have been above average defending the pick-and-roll, but far from elite. That’s an accurate description of their defense overall, too. 

This next sequence is a strong one for Al Horford, who had 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in this game, albeit against a bad Pistons team. 

After Detroit runs a double drag action and both Embiid and Horford drop, Brandon Knight kicks the ball out to Christian Wood, and he blows by Embiid. Horford does a nice job sliding over to help and contesting Wood’s shot, though he does get away with a slight bump. It’s also encouraging to see Horford show he still can take a rebound, start the offense and make an intelligent play by finding Embiid deep in the paint against a smaller defender. 

The Horford-Embiid pairing has consistently been the Sixers’ worst regular duo, but plays like this are small slivers of hope. Though it’s not worth forcing a frontcourt that doesn’t work, Horford theoretically still could have positive value next to Embiid in certain situations, especially as a passer. 

Of course, adding Ben Simmons back into that mix presents a different challenge. The Simmons-Horford-Embiiid trio has excelled defensively but been the Sixers’ worst three-man lineup in terms of offensive rating by over two points. 

When play resumes, there’s a strong case for shifting Horford back to the bench and keeping Shake Milton in the starting lineup. Milton’s shooting numbers were incredible after Simmons exited early with a lower back injury on Feb. 22 in Milwaukee — he made 60.4 percent of his three-pointers on 5.3 attempts per game — but that’s not the only reason he should stick as a starter. 

Milton shows a capacity for probing the defense and making the simple, correct play. In fact, the entire Sixers team does that in the sequence below.

Here, the Sixers start in a “Horns” set, with Milton at the point. As Milton gives the ball to Horford on the left wing, Embiid sets what the Sixers refer to as a “sprint away screen” on the opposite side of the floor, otherwise known as a wide pin down. Richardson doesn’t use it here, perhaps because he doesn’t want to curl up and disrupt the two-man game with Milton and Horford. 

Notice how Milton waits until Horford has screened off Svi Mykhailiuk before driving and hitting a long runner off the “wrong” foot.

The outside shooting is an attractive skill, but Milton’s ability to accurately diagnose plays and capitalize on attacking opportunities is another persuasive argument for him being part of the Sixers’ Disney World starting five. 

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