The Sixers will begin the 2019-20 season with one of the tallest starting five of any team, let alone championship contender, in NBA history.
This rare mix of length and talent will provide the Sixers with a huge size advantage against nearly every team in the league. It will also create multiple size mismatches on a nightly basis.
However, in today’s NBA that places so much emphasis on the three-point shot, it is far from certain that the size disparity between the Sixers and opponents will always be an advantage.
Let’s take a look at the potential starting 5 matchups against teams that are considered conference final contenders and examine how the Sixers might match up at both ends of the floor.
Projected Starting Five
PG – Eric Bledsoe 6’1″
SG – Wesley Matthews 6’5″
SF – Khris Middleton 6’8″
PF – Giannis Antetokoupnmpo 6’11”
C – Brooke Lopez 7’0″
The Bucks are the team most clearly standing between the Sixers and a trip to the NBA finals. Giannis’ presence creates a matchup problem for every team including the Sixers. Towards the end of last season, Brett Brown experimented with Joel covering Giannis and daring him to be a perimeter shooter. This seems like an extremely wise strategy. While Giannis’ jump shot has improved, it is still by far the weakest part of his offensive game. He and his teammates thrive when Giannis is able to get in the paint to either score or create shots (mostly open 3’s) for others. If Jo comes back in better shape it will only enhance his ability to cover Giannis and prevent him from attacking the rim. The addition of Al Horford and his defensive intelligence will also aid in the covering of Giannis. Horford would most likely match up with Brook Lopez and choose the right situations to help without losing responsibility for Lopez at the 3 point line. Additionally, Ben Simmons could potentially cover the near foot shorter Eric Bledsoe. This would give Ben the ability to be the primary help defender on Giannis. Bledsoe is only a career 33% shooter from 3. He is at his best attacking the rim, but Ben’s size should mitigate that. And even if Bledsoe occasionally beats Ben off the dribble, the Sixers overall team size should create problems for him finishing at the rim.
To finish defensively Josh Richardson would cover Matthews and Tobias would cover Khris Middleton. Middleton could potentially create some problems for Harris to cover. However, Harris’ size advantage could make it difficult for Middleton to get clean looks at jumpers that he thrives on. Middleton is not a great creator off the dribble, but if Tobias is unable to stay in front of him it would be an easy adjustment to switch Richardson on to Middleton. Josh would be giving up a couple of inches, but have little difficulty staying in front of Middleton. Harris would then cover the smaller Wesley Matthews who at this point in his career is next to no threat off the dribble.
Overall, the Sixers size should provide them with the ability to build a wall anchored by Jo designed to prevent Giannis from consistently getting to the rim. And they should be able to do this without leaving wide open shooters at the 3 point line.
In the final two matchups late in the season last year the Bucks were able to create some problems for the Sixers by having Giannis cover Simmons. Ben was extremely tentative and seemed somewhat intimidated by Giannis’ strength and size. In the two games, Ben played a total of 70 minutes. He only attempted 13 total shots and did not have one free throw attempt. Compare that to his season averages of over 12 FG attempts and over 5 FT attempts per game, and it is easy to see the Giannis effect on Ben. To make matters worse, in the half-court Ben was often positioned in the “dunker” spot. This allowed Giannis to repeatedly help on Jo in the post. While Jo did have monster scoring games in both tilts, he only shot 43% from the floor. In the second game (a loss) Jo shot a particularly troubling 12-31.
The Sixers have several options to counteract this problem this season. The simplest option is that Ben returns a little bigger, a little stronger and most importantly, with a little bit (at least) of a jump shot. If Ben’s jumper remains a summertime mirage, there are still other ways to combat this problem. With Giannis covering Ben, the Bucks are going to have to cover Al Horford with a very undersized player. Putting Horford in the post against an undersized player should provide the Sixers a great advantage, especially because Horford is a far superior passer to Jo at this point in their careers. If Giannis or anyone else comes to double him he is far more likely to be able to make them pay. Regardless of how the Bucks matchup, one of Jo, Ben or Al is going to be covered by a severely undersized player. It will be up to Brett Brown to figure out how to exploit this.
The Bucks will also have the additional problem of Eric Bledsoe having to cover someone. Last season he would have had a logical cover in JJ Redick. This year the nearest replica Bledsoe will find to JJ is the 6’6” Josh Richardson. While no one would argue that Richardson is the shooter JJ was, the difference is not as significant as one might think. On catch and shoot threes last season Redick and Richardson attempted a nearly identical amount per game (Redick 4.8 Richardson 4.6). Redick shot 42.4% compared to Richardson’s 38.5%. Further, as great a shooter as JJ is, once he was closed out on he was closed out. Richardson, on the other hand, has the ability to go by his defender and score or create shots for his teammates. Giving up 5 inches to a quality shooter who also can put the ball on the floor should present big defensive problems for Bledsoe and the Bucks.
This leaves Khris Middleton and Wesley Matthews to cover Tobias and one would think either Horford or Simmons. While Matthews was once a high-level perimeter defender, injuries and age (33 at seasons start) have turned him into an average defender at best. Middleton is no great defender either, but his size should enable him to reasonably cover Harris. Perhaps the Bucks attempt to cover Simmons with Middleton and put Giannis on Horford. While this seems reasonable, Horford’s shooting ability will mitigate Giannis’ ability to help on Jo. Whichever way the Bucks choose to cover, potential advantages exist for the Sixers. They are not a given, however. It will be up to Brown and his staff to exploit them.
Advantage: (Potentially) Sixers