Monday’s media availability left very little to ponder. Shake Milton is going to be joining the starting lineup, while Ben Simmons is going to slide up to power forward. The implication, of course, is that Al Horford will anchor the second unit:
"He's been amazing, like you said he's been the starting point guard" Joel Embiid on Shake Milton taking over primary PG responsibilities.— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) July 13, 2020
This is huge news. The Sixers are going to run Ben Simmons off-ball a lot more in half-court while playing him as point 4 in transition pic.twitter.com/lGND8dVM9E
Some felt this was a “Captain Obvious” decision. The truth is, it’s a bit of a gamble:
The lineup of— Austin Krell (@KrellTPL) July 13, 2020
has yet to play a singular minute together this season…which is wild to think about considering the indications that this could be Philly’s starting lineup in a playoff series.
Having said that, it’s a sensible gamble, and one that is certainly necessary. This “new look” lineup affords Philly the opportunity to get another shooter on the court with Simmons. Perhaps more importantly for the Sixers, it offers a formula to a problem that has plagued the Sixers for two seasons–how to activate Ben Simmons, and unclog the offense, in the half-court characteristic of the playoffs.
The Third Wing
The only consistency the Sixers exhibited this season was that they almost always had one starter missing time with an injury. While it hurt them in those games, it may have helped them significantly in this restart scenario. The oft-injured starting lineup forced Brown to mix the likes of Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and Mike Scott into the first five, and the resulting pattern seems to have been the solution, all along.
Horford, Harris, and Simmons
Adding an additional wing to the lineup moved Simmons to the power forward position quite often. With three wings on the perimeter and one of Horford and Embiid playing the high-low game, Philadelphia’s offense received a dosage of Mucinex. With Horford as the center and a core of Simmons, Harris, and Richardson, welcoming Korkmaz or Scott produced offensive ratings above 115. While said lineups only played 75 and 53 minutes together, respectively, the consistent injuries rendered those two lineups to be some of the most used on the team.
Remove Scott and Korkmaz from those lineups. Substitute in Thybulle, who ranked 246 out of 278 players in offensive rating while playing at least 18 minutes per game. As you can predict, the offense seemingly fell off of a clip. That lineup’s defensive rating, however, was better than that of either of the one’s featuring Korkmaz or Scott, and ultimately produced a net positive. Substituting Milton for Richardson in that lineup pushed the offensive rating through the 110 threshold. It stretched the defensive rating down below 94. For a lineup that accrued the eleventh most minutes together of any grouping the Sixers have used, that is a significant number.
Embiid, Simmons, and Richardson
Substituting Embiid for Horford, and featuring a core of Simmons and Richardson, a pair of lineups including a third wing exhibited dominance, as well. Adding Korkmaz and Scott to that core posted a net rating of 23.2, with an offensive rating breaching 120. It is worth noting that this lineup also produced a true shooting percentage better than 65%. For context, the Miami Heat lead the NBA in true shooting percentage, putting forth a 58.7% effort.
Substituting Harris for Korkmaz, the offensive rating normalizes back towards the league’s average. The defensive rating rises a hair length. The true shooting percentage also dips below 55%–fifth worst amongst NBA teams in that category. That isn’t to say that Korkmaz is a better offensive player than Harris. One is a borderline all-star, the other is growing into a serviceable role player. It likely boils down to three-point shooting efficiency. Korkmaz’s three-point percentage is 3.5% better than Harris’ is this season. Korkmaz also has a seamless fit as a sniper within an offense that lacks consistent shooting.
It must also be noted that those two lineups were tied for thirteenth on the team in total minutes together, having played 33 total.
So, what is the point to all of this data that I have provided? What is the conclusion to this analytical puzzle I have put together?
Well, two of those three-wing lineups exhibited sub-100 defensive ratings and broke the 60% true shooting threshold. One of those two lineups converted just 33.3% of its three-point looks. The other converted 55.6% of its three-point looks. Those lineups weren’t devastating opposing defenses from deep. Those lineups were, however, functioning at a very high offensive pace. Both ranked in the top six in pace amongst all lineups that Brown used for at least 20 total minutes. Of those six lineups, they were two of only four groupings to produce a net rating in the double digits.
To put it simply, using a three-wing approach instead of a twin tower strategy affords the Sixers maximum defensive versatility. Three of the five players can switch across at least two positions. The implication is that the Sixers have the requisite length and athleticism needed to disrupt opposing offenses. That, in turn, maximizes Philly’s ability to create transition opportunities. As a result, those lineups put forth well-above-average true shooting values.
But, pace implies a full-court, run-and-gun offensive game. Adding Milton to the starting group and moving Simmons to power forward would indicate a movement towards a half-court, slower-paced style of play. So, how does the three-wing approach translate in a half-court setting?
The answer lies with Shake Milton.
(Oh, and I ignored the additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III intentionally. Their respective roles and usages between their times in Golden State and Philadelphia varied significantly. With such being the case, it would be irresponsible to attempt to determine statistical values equivalent to those of Milton, Scott, Korkmaz, and Thybulle when I couldn’t find a way to appropriately extrapolate their respective outputs into similar sample sizes.)
Shaken, Not Stirred
A knee injury in November derailed a strong start to Milton’s sophomore campaign. By the time he was deemed healthy, Brown’s rotations had taken form and the team was (at that point) on an upwards trajectory. With the team struggling with injuries in the early stages of 2020, Brown had to maneuver players into different positions in the lineup to accommodate. His creativity with player combinations opened an opportunity for Milton to prove he belonged.
From the beginning of 2020 to the beginning of the suspension,–a three-month stretch encompassing 29 games (Milton played in 21 of those games)–Milton averaged 13.4 points per game on 51.1% three-point shooting and 67.8% true shooting. To put it simply, Milton was scoring the ball with astronomical efficiency. He also saw a substantial increase in assists and steals per game. Milton wasn’t just finding his place in the rotation as a scorer, he was beginning to assert himself as an all-around player. Milton stepped up when the opportunity presented itself, distancing himself from the other wing candidates with his individual production.
But, it goes beyond basic box scores.
The Sixers play two very different styles of basketball–fast-paced to accommodate Simmons’ gifts, and half-court settings to accommodate Embiid’s motor and skills. The key to figuring out the Sixers’ offensive issues shouldn’t be to plug in the piece that results in the greatest contrast of those two polar opposite paces. On the contrary, the goal is to find the piece that stabilizes that pace whether that player is on the court or not.
Stabilizing the pace preserves the team’s individual motors. It also allows Brown continuity required to discover something that can be used consistently in a half-court setting. At a net difference of +.25, Milton offers the least amount of variance in pace whether he’s on or off the court. That value is the best amongst the group of wings including Scott, Korkmaz, and Thybulle. Adding Milton to the starting lineup minimizes the fluctuation needed to accommodate Embiid and Simmons.
Optimizing Shooting Efficiency
It would be negligent to not mention that Milton’s torrid first quarter of 2020 undoubtedly inflated his net true shooting percentage. Nonetheless, the on/off differentials are quite significant. Both Korkmaz and Scott produced net on/off true shooting percentages of less than +1. The Sixers’ net true shooting percentage was actually 1% better with Thybulle off the court than with him on the court. Milton, on the other hand, produced a net true shooting percentage of +1.7%. In other words, the Sixers shoot the ball with higher efficiency when Milton is on the court than with him off. The second-year guard’s presence has a significantly higher positive impact on the offense than do the presences of the other options.
Staying true to my findings on the Sixers’ statistical patterns, the team’s net defensive rating with those respective wings on and off of the basketball court remains a necessary variable, even with Milton not testing well. The SMU product presented the only net negative on/off defensive rating. In fact, Milton’s value was -5.2, and the next closest was +.9, courtesy of Korkmaz. Thybulle led the way, producing a net value of 3.7 in favor of him being on the court. In other words, Philly’s defense is far worse with Milton on the court than it is with any of the other three options tested.
Having said that, the disparity may be attributable to the players on the court with Milton. A number of his games during the “breakout” stretch came when either Embiid, Simmons, or both were missing time with injuries. Embiid’s presence on the defensive end cannot be understated, as he produced the team’s worst off-court defensive rating amongst all players to log at least 20 games played. Translation: of all Sixers to not be on the court, the team’s defensive rating was the worst with Embiid sitting, given the sample size presented. Of course, you might be thinking to yourself, “No shit, Sherlock.” But, in determining which wing should be the final piece in a three-wing lineup, that isn’t just a “no duh” assertion. It materially affects the conclusion.
Regardless of whether there’s an explanation for the magnitude by which Milton strayed from the pack, the trade-off on the offensive side of the ball outweighs potentially inflated short-coming on the defensive side of the ball. And I have one more variable to prove it.
Maximizing Offensive Efficiency
As far below the mean as Milton wandered on the defensive side of the court, he makes up for that variance on the offensive side. Milton’s net on/off offensive rating of +4.3 was nearly three times higher than that of Scott. Scott, himself, produced a value noticeably higher than those of Korkmaz and Thybulle. Korkmaz failed to breach +.5, while Thybulle produced a value nearly as low as -5. Relative to the other three options, Brown’s offense is most efficient with Milton on the court. And that phrasing understates the degree to which the offense elevates.
As impressive as Milton’s shooting efficiency is–and it is damn impressive–, the context of that shooting efficiency is mind-boggling. Milton amassed his most minutes per game (30.5), most points per game (19.4), and highest usage (23.1%) in March. That output came on 47.2% of his field goals made being unassisted and his true shooting percentage was 68.3%. Almost half of Milton’s scores were self-created, and his shooting efficiency actually rose from the previous month.
Let’s compare that output to the highest scoring months for Scott, Korkmaz, and Thybulle, shall we? In Scott’s best month (just under 10 points per game), only 14.6% of his field goals made were unassisted. Korkmaz’s best month saw an output of nearly 14.5 points per contest, and he created just 16.1% of those scores by himself. Thybulle’s scoring rampage of 6.4 points per game came on just 12.5% of his attempts being self-provisioned.
Shake Milton is more than just a highly-efficient shooter that fits a singular need in the Sixers’ starting lineup. He provides a dynamic offensive game that affords Brett Brown the ability to get creative and flexible with his offense, an offense that will be able to breathe clearly with Shake Milton serving as the Claritin.
All statistical data extracted from NBA.com