Being young and deep should give the Sixers a big advantage over most teams during the upcoming insane 66-game schedule. With little turnover, a system in place and fresh legs, they should be able to weather stretches like the 21 games they'll play in the first 36 days of the season better than most, but there's a big problem lurking, and it's one the team did nothing to prepare for.
The Sixers have eight legitimate rotational players in Jrue, Iguodala, Turner, Lou, Thad, Meeks, Brand and Hawes. If we're talking about minutes on the perimeter, they should be perfectly find piecing minutes together between Jrue, Turner, Iguodala, Meeks and Lou. That group should be able to weather a back-to-back-to-back without a significant dropoff. The problem, and it's a big one, is at the five.
In their top 8, they've got two guys who can play the five, Hawes and Brand. Last season, Doug Collins could use Brand at the five for long stretches. In fact, Brand played 1,176 minutes at the five, nearly 40% of his total minutes (including the playoffs). Whether or not playing the five takes more of a toll on Brand's body isn't the issue. It's the total number of minutes he's playing. Last year, he averaged 34.7 minutes a night. I just don't see how he's going to be able to handle that kind of workload with so few off days this summer.
If Nikola Vucevic winds up being serviceable to the point where they can get a consistent 10-15 minutes/night from him at the five, things will be much easier for your typical game, but that's a huge if at this point. Vucevic had a couple of nice plays in the two preseason games, and a number of plays where he looked completely overmatched. The athleticism doesn't seem to be there, which may or may not be a dealbreaker, but when you couple the limited physical tools with rookie mistakes, you're left with a huge liability in the middle.
Tony Battie can give you limited minutes from time to time, but nothing you can bank on. And of course, there's always Marreese Speights, who responded to Collins saying he had an inside track on the rotation with another dud of a game against the Wizards. You can't count on either of those guys.
It all comes back to Brand and Hawes. Brand probably isn't going to physically be able to handle as much of a workload as he had last season, let alone more. Hawes, well, he's got issues of his own. Last season, Hawes averaged 21.2 minutes per game, but played 30+ minutes in only 8 games (the Sixers were 6-2 in those games). Conversely, he played less than 15 minutes 15 times (they were 5-10 in those games). I'd say among the regulars last season, Hawes' minutes were a direct reflection of his performance more than any other player. The splits are pretty dramatic, 5 games under .500 when he played 15 minutes or less, 5 games over when he played more than 15.
If it seems odd that the team's worst player in their regular rotation's performance seemed so tied to the team's success, that's a testament to the team's lack of depth at the five and the price they wind up paying when they have to rob Peter to pay Paul (move Brand to the five to strengthen that position).
Doug Collins has a few options here, and he's probably going to have to evaluate the decision on a game-by-game basis.
- Cross your fingers and hope Hawes is playing well enough to stay on the floor for 30 minutes, then steal a couple with Vucevic and keep Brand's time at the five down to below 10 minutes, and his total minutes closer to 30 than 35.
- Hope the Voose comes along very quickly, to the point where you can go to him if/when Hawes falters so you can count on 40-ish minutes from that duo.
- Play small. Keep Brand's minutes closer to 30, but use 20+ of those minutes with Brand at the five instead of the four, and play small. Usually with Thad at the four, but you can rotate Nocioni, Brackins or even Iguodala at the four as well.
Personally, I'd almost prefer to see him go with option three. Pretty much without fail, the Sixers best rotations last year featured Brand at the five and Thad at the four. Unless Hawes or the Voose greatly surpasses expectations, I'd eschew conventional wisdom (and conventional lineups) and go with the unit that gives me the best production for the limited minutes Brand is available to me (according to my rotational data from last season, the Sixers were -56 with Brand at the four last season, and +195 with him at the five). It would've been nice if they had addressed this problem in some meaningful way in the offseason, but they didn't address any problems in the offseason, so we're probably going to find ourselves in the same boat.
Your thoughts and concerns on the five spot in the comments. Also, Derek Bodner and I will be hosting our first episode of SixersBeat tonight at 9:30pm, Eastern. Check back for the link late in the afternoon, but if you have any questions/comments/concerns you'd like us to answer/discuss during the show, leave them in the comments here.