The Sixers will begin the 2019-20 season with one of the tallest starting 5 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 3 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.
The Celtics’ Projected Starting Five
PG – Kemba Walker 6’1”
SG – Jaylen Brown 6’7”
SF – Gordon Hayward 6’8”
PF – Jayson Tatum 6’8”
C – Enes Kanter 6’11”
The Sixers matchup with the Celtics is perhaps the most compelling of any team for many reasons. There is, and always will be, the historical backdrop of Sixers/Celtics. There is also the fact that, more than any other team, these Celtics have been the chief nemesis of this Sixers team. There is Al Horford. And there is now an opening night nationally televised game in Philadelphia on the schedule. But beyond all that theatre, is an immense contrast in the teams’ starting fives.
Let’s start with what would appear to be obvious. Joel Embiid will cover Enes Kanter. On paper, this is a dramatic Sixers advantage. Embiid is one of the two premier defensive centers in the league (Rudy Gobert) and Kanter is a career 12 point a game scorer. Kanter, who is an outstanding offensive rebounder, has at times given the Sixers fits on the offensive glass. Preventing this against a Celtics team with a variety of perimeter weapons will be essential. Kanter’s lack of a perimeter game will benefit the Sixers immensely as it will allow Jo to live closer to the paint as a help defender. This will likely be critical against the considerably smaller Celtic team.
The other matchup that would appear set in stone is Josh Richardson on Kemba Walker. No one else in the Sixer starting five really has the quickness to play Kemba. Sixer fans know all too well what a prolific scorer Walker is off the dribble. Witness his 60 point game against the Sixers just last year: http://youtu.be/LEkEHzsx4-0 While Walker is basically an unguardable player when he gets on this type of roll, Richardon’s combination of speed and size is about the best that can be hoped for in covering a player like him. According to Second Spectrum research, opposing players shot 41.6 percent when Richardson was the closest defender last season. This tied for fifth among players to defend at least 700 shots. Side note – The only players with a lower percentage were Anthony Davis and 60 more percent of the Sixers starting five, Jo, Ben and Al. Here is further evidence of Richardson’s elite defensive ability from Couper Moorehead of HEAT.com following the 2018 season http://youtu.be/1x_2DPHd_Hg .
Beyond those two matchups is where things become very interesting. Most interesting is, who does Al Horford cover? The logical answer based on last year’s performances would be Gordon Hayward. Hayward was clearly not the same player that we saw prior to his catastrophic leg injury on the opening night of the 2017-18 season. He had lost considerable burst and seemed tentative offensively throughout the season. Hayward’s offensive numbers were essentially half of what they were during his peak seasons in Utah. However, if Hayward returns to pre-injury form this season he will be a brutally difficult cover for the bigger, slower and older Horford.
The final two matchups would likely consist of Simmons on Tatum and Harris on Brown. The Simmons/Tatum matchup will likely go a long way in determining which team wins this end of the floor. Tatum clearly took an offensive step back in his second year. He settled for many mid-range jumpers and, for whatever reason, couldn’t replicate his rookie year success with Kyrie Irving back on the floor. It could also be argued that Simmons took a step backward at the defensive end last year. During the regular season, Ben was not nearly the engaged defender we saw his rookie season. In his defense, he did seem to regain much of that defensive intensity once the playoffs began and performed at a much higher level. Which version of these two players shows up at this end of the floor may determine which team has the edge.
That leaves the Harris/Brown matchup. This will largely consist of Brown’s athleticism versus Harris’ strength and size. At this point in his career, Brown has not developed into a consistent one on one scoring threat. As long as that continues, Tobias should be able to hold his own at the defensive end. If Brown takes a step forward he could become a challenging cover for the bigger less athletic Harris. All things considered, the Celtics have far more ifs at this end of the floor than the Sixers.
Last season the Sixers offense averaged 115.2 points per game on 47.1% shooting from the floor. In four games (3 losses) to the Celtics, those numbers plummeted to 107 points on 41.5% shooting. There are numerous factors that contributed to the steep decline against Boston. But it would be difficult to argue that anyone, or anything, created more offensive difficulty for the Sixers than Al Horford. With that problem removed in the most fantastic of ways, let’s take a look at the matchups.
Enes Kanter, or any other currently rostered big man, one on one against Embiid is a massive mismatch in favor of the Sixers. The Celtics will have no option other than to double Jo on nearly every touch. Embiid’s progression, as well as a coaching plan for dealing with this, will be of paramount importance. An improvement in both conditioning and decision-making from Jo will help. But it is also incumbent on Brown to put him in better positions to succeed with the ball (ie; not initiating the offense from the top of the key).
In every other starting matchup, the Sixers will have a size advantage. The ability to take advantage of this will largely determine their offensive success against the Celtics. The greatest of these size advantages lies with Al Horford. The Celtics have no other starter who will be able to cover Horford in the post. There is a strong argument to be made for running the offense through him in the post if the Celtics stay with their starters and try to cover Al with an undersized player. This again would likely force the Celtics to frequently run a double team at Horford. However, unlike Embiid who is turnover prone, Al is an excellent passer. Over the last three seasons, Joel has averaged slightly more turnovers per game than assists. Horford, on the other hand, has a nearly three to one assist to turnover ratio. Witness Horford calmly handle a Heat double team: http://youtu.be/ijFj90EH0iI Simply put, Horford is a far better decision-maker with the ball at this point in their careers than Embiid. Running half-court possessions through him against undersized teams like the Celtics will make for a good recipe for offensive efficiency.
Beyond Jo and Al, the Celtics will likely matchup Walker on Richardson and some combination of Brown, Tatum, and Hayward on Ben and Tobias. Richardson’s five-inch advantage over Walker should make for easier looks all over the floor. Jaylen Brown’s quickness and athleticism could provide problems for Harris in one on one situations. Hopefully, Brett Brown will incorporate pick and roll situations into the offense this year as this is where Harris flourishes in the half-court. This will be essential for Harris to have success against a defender like Brown.
This leaves Tatum or Hayward covering Simmons in the half-court. Regardless of how this matchup plays out, the Sixers should have an offensive advantage. As should just become an automatic disclaimer, if Simmons returns with even a serviceable perimeter game the Sixers offense will move to a whole new level. Short of that, it is incumbent of Brown and his staff to use him more creatively than standing in the dunker spot (Can you say, elbow screener).