Sixers better equipped for playoff push this season
The Sixers are headed to the playoffs for the second straight season, and – despite the fact that their depth remains a major concern – they are actually better equipped for a playoff push this year than they were last season when they lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will get further than they did last year, but they are definitely better prepared.
Start with experience. It’s hard to overstate the importance of in-game experience when it comes to postseason play, and the Sixers’ key contributors have [much] more of it this year. Last year was the first taste of the playoffs for both of the franchise’s young cornerstones, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Both players went through their fair share of growing pains in the playoffs last year, but with two hard-fought series now under their belts, that All-Star duo should have a much better idea of what to expect when the game slows down and the intensity revs up, and they should be able to hit the ground running without much of an adjustment period.
J.J. Redick remains the most experienced playoff performer on the team, just as he was last season. Barring an injury issue, Redick will eclipse 100 career playoff games during the first round, which is impressive. That type of experience should pay dividends, and was certainly part of the reason that the Sixers were so eager to sign Redick in 2017, and bring him back last summer.
Philadelphia’s other two starters last season – Robert Covington and Dario Saric – also had zero postseason experience between them. Those guys are now replaced by Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in the Sixers first five; two guys that have both played in the playoffs before. Butler has played in 43 playoff games between his time in Chicago and Minnesota, while Harris played in a single series as a member of the Detroit Pistons back in 2015-16.
For comparisons sake, the Sixers starting five entered last year’s playoffs with 88 total postseason games played between them; all by Redick. This season, that number jumps to 163 thanks to the experience gained last season, as well as the addition of Butler and Harris. Every member of the starting five now has at least some playoff experience to their name.
The same goes for Brett Brown, who was coaching in his first postseason (as a head coach) last year. Despite the consistent criticism that Brown is on the receiving end of on Twitter and over Philadelphia radio air waves, the fact that he led a team of young, inexperienced players to 52 wins and the second round in the first year that he was actually tasked with winning (and not ‘processing’) is impressive. Like his team, Brown was wet behind the ears last postseason, and it showed at times. With his first postseason now behind him improvement can be expected.
In addition to the increased experience, the Sixers are also better built for postseason play this season, structurally. One of the team’s major issues in the postseason last year (especially against the Celtics) was their inability to generate perimeter points. They didn’t have a guy that could create his own offense in a half court situation, especially when Boston schemed to limit Embiid’s effectiveness. Guys like Redick, Covington, and Saric were dependent on someone else (usually Ben Simmons) to create offensive opportunities for them. And while Simmons could set the table for everyone else, his own shortcomings on the offensive end were exposed without other play-makers out there to take the pressure off of him, and allow him to potentially play off-ball at times.
In Butler and Harris, the Sixers directly addressed that issue and added not one, but two players that are capable of generating their own offense at a high level. Both players can score on all three levels, meaning they can shoot from distance, put the ball on the floor and take it all the way to the rack, or pull and pop from midrange. So now, if Embiid is doubled, or Redick is face-guarded out to 30 feet, the Sixers offense doesn’t have to stagnate as it did often last season. Butler has established himself as a closer for the team throughout the regular season, and that role – a player that you can basically give the ball to and get out of the way of – is invaluable in postseason play.
Though they’re thinner, the Sixers are also a more talented team this season. In Embiid, Simmons, Butler, and Harris they have four legitimate All-Star-caliber players, and one of the most prolific shooters in the history of the game in Redick. Rotations shrink in the playoffs as teams tend to rely more heavily on their top dogs than they did throughout the regular season. This should work in the Sixers’ favor, as they have one of the best starting five’s in the entire NBA.
There are certainly questions - and concerns - surrounding the Sixers as they enter the 2019 NBA postseason, but at the end of the day they are a very talented team with an extremely high ceiling. Now it's just a matter of how close they can get to that ceiling.
Follow Michael Kaskey-Blomain on Twitter @therealmikekb.