The Sixers bench is off to a bad start
When the Sixers added new pieces to the the mix during the offseason, it seemed like they were setting themselves up well in terms of depth from starters to reserves. Well, four games into the season, the bench hasn't shown a whole lot of strong performances and there hasn't been a whole lot to make us believe it's going to get better soon.
During the Sixers' first victory in Detroit, the bench contributed just 20 points, shooting just 7-for-28 from the floor. Yes, so only 25 percent of the shots from five bench players went into the basket over 78 combined minutes. The Sixer bench is ranked 24th in the NBA in scoring (27.3 ppg), 27th in three-point field goal percentage (.243), 29th in +/- (-38) and free-throw percentage (.541) and dead last in the league in field-goal percentage (.325) through the early going. It's not all bad though. The reserves are in a third place tie with 5.8 offensive rebounds per game.
Originally, after the draft, one would imagine the Sixers starting lineup would include Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Joel Embiid. With Fultz having issues transitioning to the NBA (shoulder, mental yips, etc), Jerryd Bayless starts off the ball aside Ben Simmons, which has worked out more times than not to start the season. That's fine, Fultz and Dario Saric will lead the second unit, right? Wrong.
Through the first four games, both Fultz and Dario have been underwhelming to say the least. While it's expected for Fultz to have some growing pains, his shoulder issues and shot mechanics have turned him into a completely different player than the Sixers selected No. 1 overall. He's passing up wide open opportunities to shoot the ball and continues to drive into the paint, promptly to have his shot blocked. Through four games, Markelle is averaging 6.0 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists, shooting just 33.3 percent from the floor and he hasn't taken a shot from beyond the arc yet, heck none of his shots have been even close to the arc.
Meanwhile, many folks in Philadelphia thought Dario Saric would be a favorite for NBA Sixth Man of the Year prior to the season. After putting together strong numbers in the second half of last season (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Dario was put in a reserve role to start this season and it made the coaching staff feel confident in the second unit. Unfortunately, Saric hasn't been able to get settled in at all in his new role, which includes playing time at center on occasion. He's shooting 41.1 percent overall and 31.1 percent from beyond the arc. His shots just aren't falling. On Monday in Detroit, he put together a strong showing in the first half, scoring seven points, but he missed all of his shots in the second half.
Going further down the bench, veteran addition Amir Johnson has been pretty bad with the exception of the first half in the Sixers' season opener last Wednesday. He hasn't provided a whole lot of defensive stability, like the team had hoped for, and he doesn't offer much of anything in place of Embiid on offense. He's averaging 3.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in about 15 minutes per game, shooting an abysmal 29.4 percent. Johnson has been on the wrong side of the +/- spectrum all season, posting a -7 at Washington, -1 against Boston and Toronto and a team worst -11 against Detroit. It might be time to call upon the younger, more offensively gifted option in Jahlil Okafor.
Let's get this out of the way first. Jahlil Okafor is a defensive liability. Not even going off of that awful pick and roll defense he played last year against the Heat that went viral, Okafor knows he needs to improve defensively. Formerly Big Jah, now Vegan Jah, shed 20 pounds over the offseason, changed his diet and came into camp more fleet-footed and quick than he had been in previous years. Finally with his knee injury behind him, Okafor put together a respectable preseason, showing some improvements on both ends and sticking to the game that got him drafted third overall, muscling his way to the basket in the post. With Richaun Holmes going down with an injury in preseason play, one would imagine Okafor would see the court more to start the season, but that hasn't been the case. Vegan Jah was a DNP-Coach's Decision for the first two games. He finally got into game action during the Sixers' 34-point loss to the Raptors on Saturday and despite picking up fouls pretty quickly, he looked confident with the ball, was more active defensively and showed the ability to hit the mid-range shot. Okafor finished with 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting, ending up a rebound shy of a double-double with nine. He also blocked two shots. With the lackluster play of Amir Johnson, it will be interesting to see if Brett Brown works Okafor into the gameplan during the Sixers' next game against Houston on Wednesday.
Richaun Holmes is being re-evaluated this week after fracturing his wrist on October 6 in the preseason. It's hard to believe he won't be the backup for Embiid off the bench with his versatility on offense and defense. That being said, Okafor should see more minutes after the work he put in this offseason. Holmes produced with regular minutes last season due to injuries to Embiid and Okafor, averaging 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in the second half.
T.J. McConnell will always be a fan favorite of the process, but now as the teams' fourth best point guard, his minutes in Brett Browns rotation should be questioned...or at least who he's paired with. It seems McConnell is most often paired with Fultz in the backcourt, which would be fine if Kelle would shoot the ball, but they both are ball-handlers, so the pairing doesn't work out well. T.J. can't shoot, so he doesn't offer much versatility either. At this point, Nik Stauskas would be a welcome site over McConnell, just for the sake of scoring upside. Nik played eight minutes down the stretch in the Sixers loss to the Raptors, going 0-for-1 from the floor.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is shooting just 23.5 percent from the floor and Justin Anderson's streaky offense isn't enough to get him minutes despite his defensive upside. He's played just 20 minutes this season, scoring 12 points on 4-for-12 shooting and 2-for-7 from beyond.
The bench needs to get better. The Sixers can't let the game slip away from them when Joel Embiid and/or Ben Simmons is not on the floor. Jahlil Okafor needs to be given another look and hey, perhaps even get Nik Stauskas and Furkan Korkmaz some minutes to add some scoring ability into the picture. Between Fultz's issues and the struggling second unit, Brett Brown has his work cut out for him as the Sixers take on James Harden and the Rockets twice in the next week and play seven of the next 10 on the road.
Brandon Apter is a contributor to 97.3 ESPN and managing editor at SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @bapter23.