Philadelphia 76ers: Georges Niang can’t be a one man bench

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

If there’s one Philadelphia 76ers player who has benefitted the most from the arrival of James Harden, it’s Georges Niang.

Now sure, Joel Embiid‘s life has been a good bit easier too, as he’s now been afforded a second double-team drawer to ease his burden on any given offensive possession, but when you’re the presumptive association MVP, that sort of comes with the territory.

For a time, Tyrese Maxey was also a major beneficiary of Harden drawing in defenders like a small planet, as was Matisse Thybulle, though opposing teams started to key in on Harden’s reluctance to pass when trapped just over midcourt and for a two-game period – versus Brooklyn and Orlando – their production took a corresponding nosedive. Still, from the Denver game onward, the duo have refound their identities and have watched their offense return via a steady stream of cuts to the basket and opportunities to work their magic in the full court.

Goodness, even Tobias Harris has watched his production slowly tick back up after a brutal half-dozen bouts paired up with SG1, and he’s now averaging 17.8 points on five attempts from beyond the arc per game, which may not seem like a lot, but is a significant upgrade over his 3.6 attempts on the season as a whole. Now granted, it sure doesn’t hurt that he’s made 12 of those 20 3s, which is good for a totally sustainable completion percentage of 60, but hey, after only attempting 3.4 deep balls per game over the first 49 games of the season, that’s what we call progress.

In a way, I guess Harden’s addition has been more or less a net positive for all four of the Philadelphia 76ers’ other starters, but as for the bench? Well… Niang’s doing well, that’s something, right? He’s taken one more shot per game from beyond the arc than from the field over the past 10 games while averaging the same number of field goals/minutes and has been inserted into the team’s closing lineup in place of Thybulle to give some additional offensive pop in the game’s final frame. While this look has been a work in progress, as Niang’s brutal final play versus the Denver Nuggets will haunt the dreams of more than a few fans, it’s hard to knock the decision to give the pride of Iowa State a bit more run, as he’s one of the team’s few bench players who can knock down outside shots.

With that being said, we really need to talk about how Doc Rivers is utilizing his bench during these final regular season games, as the Philadelphia 76ers are effectively running a playoff rotation on a random Wednesday night in mid-March.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ bench can’t just be Georges Niang.

Assuming the entire roster is fully healthy, what will the Philadelphia 76ers’ rotation look like come playoff time? Well, outside of the team’s “Big Four,” who will understandably average 36-40 minutes per game, Thybulle, Danny Green, and Georges Niang will likely each average minutes in the mid-20s, with a backup center – knowing Doc Rivers, probably DeAndre Jordan – averaging 8-12 minutes per game, depending on how deep Joel Embiid opts to go.

Could we see a few occasional minutes for Shake Milton, Isaiah Joe, or even Charlie Brown Jr. in a defensive sub situation? Potentially so, but as we collectively witnessed last summer, Rivers only turns to players like Milton when he has no other option and is quick to ice out a streaky scorer on the bench once a few shots fail to hit their mark.

Theoretically, that rotation isn’t particularly bad considering what the team’s roster currently has to offer. Sure, you’d like to see a bit more run for the young guys, but Green is the team’s best two-way reserve when he’s fully healthy, and Niang ranks second on the team in 3 point shooting percentage, so if Rivers refuses to go a single minute without a traditional center on the court, rolling with that eight-man lineup is probably the best the team currently has to offer.

Keyword: Currently.

Remember when the Sixers looked like they didn’t have a point guard during the preseason? When it looked like Seth Curry and/or Furkan Korkmaz was going to have to set the ball to Embiid on every offensive play like he was back playing volleyball, and the offense would become “The Process”-plus semi-shooters? Tyrese Maxey slowly but surely silenced the doubters by developing on the fly from an Energizer Bunny combo guard into a true-ish blue primary ball handler. Had Rivers threw up his hands and begged Daryl Morey to trade for a veteran point guard like, I don’t know, Sixers draftee Elfred Payton, the team may have found some minor success early on but it would have come at the expense of the player Maxey has become.

Is Isaiah Joe the next J.J. Redick? Is Jaden Springer an Avery Bradley-in-the-waiting? Can BBall Paul Reed play off of Joel Embiid and become a Brandon Clarke-level contributor? No one really knows, but unless Rivers actually puts them on the court with a long enough leash to try things out, we will quite literally never find out.

Now, to be fair, I semi-get where Rivers is coming from. The Sixers’ runway to forge a commitment rotation headlined by Harden and Embiid is short, and there are only so many minutes to try out different lineups, especially as the team fights tooth and nail for playoff seeding. For all of the knocks Rivers takes for his lineup rigidity, he’s actually attempted a few new lineups in an attempt to find the “right ones” heading into the playoffs, including Maxey and Harden on the court sans Embiid and the starters but with Green at the three instead of Thybulle. Have they all been successful? No, not per se, Green hasn’t quite found his rhythm since suffering a finger laceration versus Chicago, and any minutes Jordan spends on the court would probably be better served going to Reed or Charles Bassey, but goodness, when Embiid, Harden, Maxey, and Harris are averaging 35-plus minutes, especially against teams like the Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, and New York Knicks – twice – one has to wonder if giving the starters a lighter workload would not only give them more gas for important contests like Monday versus Denver but for young players to get a little extra run, too.

Granted, when those younger players are on the court, they actually need to shoot the ball, as the starters plus Niang have taken 239 of the team’s 255 shots over the past three games, but hey, that’s a conversation for another day. If players like Joe and Milton can earn more than seven combined minutes in the team’s third game in four nights, those opportunities will hopefully come.

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The Philadelphia 76ers are not a complete team. They are incredibly top-heavy and struggle immensely to overcome even minor injuries to bench players like Danny Green, let alone a more substantial absence to one of their starters should someone come down awkwardly on a rebound. Heaven knows Daryl Morey will scour the association for a big forward to eat off two-way minutes, a lights-out shooter to fill the Seth Curry role, and maybe even a reserve center who wasn’t born in the 1980s. But in the meantime, the team has to make the most of what they have, which is more than the eight or so players who get any real run in any given regular season game. Who knows, maybe one of the team’s deep bench reserves will go off like Tyrese Maxey last fall or Shake Milton in 2020, and the Sixers will find themselves with an additional solid performer come the playoffs. But even if they don’t, giving the starters a few less minutes a night will have a cumulative effect come late April, when the games actually start to matter.