The Philadelphia 76ers are NOT built for small-ball

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

While center-less small-ball lineups are taking the NBA by storm, the Philadelphia 76ers’ iteration of the look is a downright statistical nightmare.

For the better part of a year, the Philadelphia 76ers have been singing the virtues of going big.

Despite being a contrarian philosophy when compared to the overarching trend of space and pace offense built around volume 3 point shooting, Elton Brand doubled down his shall we say unique approach to roster building – allowing shooters/scorers like J.J. Redick, T.J. McConnell, and Jimmy Butler to walk in favor of defense-focused players like Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

63 games into the 2019-20 NBA season, the journey is still out on whether this throwback-style can survive in the 21st century; the team has occasionally looked brilliant but has just as often been incredibly hard to watch.

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So naturally, when you build a team boom or bust on a supersized philosophy, there are going to be certain situations where the team excels and others where it struggles. The biggest blind spot of this current Sixers squad – especially without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons – is the Houston Rockets‘ brand of uber-small-ball basketball.

In Philly’s recent game against the Sacramento Kings, Brett Brown was faced with a bit of a dilemma. Horford was in the midst of one of his best games in a Sixers jersey, maybe as a pro in general, recording a virtually unprecedented plus 41 Real Plus/Minus to go with 18 points, six assists, and eight rebounds in 36 minutes of action. In any world, especially one without Embiid, those numbers would be out of this world, but who would the team use as his backup for the final 12 minutes of the game?

Well, at first, it was Norvel Pelle, the 26-year-old rookie with a propensity for showstopping blocks. He logged three minutes in the first quarter, was called for a defensive goaltending violation, and finished out his run with a -12 RPM. This obviously isn’t good and erased a 12 point lead built upon some solid starter play by Horford, Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, and company.

That’s when Brett Brown decided to shake things up and get real weird with it.

After another great nine-minute stretch with Horford on the court, Brown subbed him out for none other than the game’s starting power forward Mike Scott. The weirdest part? The Kings still had their starting center, Harry Giles III, in the game when Brown subbed out Horford for Scott.

Over the final three-quarters of the contest, the Sixers played without a starting center for nine minutes and recorded a Net Rating of -292, worse than any individual lineup used in the game, even Pelle’s three-minute run. Just for context, when Horford was out of the game, the Sixers gave up 24 more points than they scored in 12 minutes of action.

To make matters worse, the team only had a positive points differential without Horford on the court for one 43 seconds, the final 43 seconds of the game.

Yikes, that is not good.

To make matters worse, these various lineups with Scott (I guess) logging minutes at center don’t even make much sense from a gameplay standpoint. Unlike the conventional wisdom of surrounding Simmons with shooters to free up the paint and give the gifted passer a number of outlet options on the wings, neither Milton or Harris are particularly privy on dishing out assists. If the two teams were swapping points, it’d be one thing, but fielding a lineup that adds nothing to the equation offensively while being a massive defensive liability just doesn’t make any sense.

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Now to be fair, whether or not the Philadelphia 76ers can field a competent small ball is fairly inconsequential. The Milwaukee Bucks don’t regularly deploy a small ball lineup with Giannis Antetokounmpo at center against the Sixers, the Miami Heats‘ best look against Joel Embiid and company features Bam Adebayo, and even the Boston Celtics would be warry to run their small-ball look against a team with so many dynamic All-Stars measuring in at 6-foot-10 or taller. When the team finally returns to full strength, these weird ultra-undermanned games will fade into a distant memory, but for now, maybe give Kyle O’Quinn a few minutes here and there.