If you’ve watched the Sixers at all during the past two seasons, you’ve seen T.J. McConnell running point guard while Ben Simmons moves down to power forward.
You probably wouldn’t see it at all if Markelle Fultz was healthy, because he’d be running second unit point while McConnell plays sparingly off the bench. That was the pattern earlier this year before Fultz left the rotation with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Last night you saw Jimmy Butler handle the ball for a stretch of possessions on more than one occasion, stretches in which the Sixers used a lot of pick and roll in an effort to experiment a bit with concepts that aren’t typically part of Brett Brown’s base motion offense. It’s waaay too early to determine Butler’s viability as a point guard, but success in that department would then let us revisit these McConnell/Simmons lineups, which are not performing very well.
For starters, lineups featuring McConnell and Simmons have a -5.3 net rating this season, with a defensive rating of 109 and and offensive rating of 103.8. It’s the worst net rating among any Sixers pair that has logged more than 300 minutes together this season.
For context, here are some of the Sixers’ best pairings:
Joel Embiid and JJ Redick have played the most minutes together out of anybody on the squad, logging an excellent 12.6 net rating. That’s not surprising, considering how good they are in that two-man game, and also the fact that they primarily share the floor with three other starting-caliber players. Joel and Corey Brewer have only shared the floor for 49 total minutes, but their net is way up at 13.2 due to their great defensive play over an incredibly small sample size. That number will flatten out, but I wanted to leave it in there for you to consider.
Now look at where the McConnell/Simmons lineup falls:
That’s 425 minutes of -5.3 net, which takes us into page two of the Sixers’ lineup list at the NBA Stats site. Look at some of the other two-man lineups there and you see a bunch of guys who have played less than 100 minutes on the floor together. Some are no longer on the team.
Elsewhere on the stats page, you find that opponents are shooting 50.6% against lineups featuring McConnell and Simmons, which is the third-worst number among two-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes.
The others are:
- McConnell and Amir Johnson: 51.7 field goal %
- JJ Redick and Amir Johnson: 53.1% field goal %
For the energy and hustle T.J. brings on defense, he’s always going to have trouble in extended possessions against a guy like Patty Mills or Russell Westbrook.
Individually, T.J.’s on/off court numbers also help tell the story. The Sixers are currently a -1.0 in net rating with T.J. on the floor, but they’re a +6.1 when he’s off the court. Philly is a +2.9 when Ben is on the court and a +4.8 when he is not, so you see the disparity.
The concept of having them on the floor together is really three different bullet points squeezed together:
- Fultz is injured, so McConnell is really the only backup point guard available right now, unless you want to try more of Landry Shamet there (Shamet is doing well at shooting guard, so I wouldn’t move him).
- The Sixers don’t have much power forward depth, especially after the Dario Saric and Robert Covington trades, so staggering Ben at power forward helps address the issue.
- You have two ball handlers on the floor, so ideally T.J. can bring the ball up the court and Ben can use his size and distribution skills to pass out of the post.
Where this seems to fall short is in spacing and shooting on the offensive end. T.J. can shoot a little bit, but he needs a lot of space in front of him in order to attempt three pointers, something like this:
In that case it works out, because Ben is able to go down and play center, everybody else spreads the floor, and Simmons sucks in Lance Stephenson to give T.J. room to shoot.
Other times, you’ve got T.J. driving to the rim or running the baseline in that “mash” concept, which usually results in him being able to kick out to the perimeter for open looks. Sometimes the spacing just gets junked up though, and you have possessions like this one where Ben has the ball in a tough spot with the shot clock running down:
The other thing is that this lineup sort of forces your hand at the other three positions.
What I mean by that is, because McConnell and Simmons aren’t shooters, you’re going to have to throw in shooters elsewhere, which is why Redick, Shamet, Butler, and Muscala often get the nod while Joel Embiid sits. T.J., Ben, and Joel have only played 133 minutes together this season, so that trio rarely ever shows up in Brett Brown’s rotation. You can’t put Simmons in the dunker spot with Embiid on the floor and T.J. running point. You need to surround two non-shooters with shooters, which begs the question – should two non-shooters even be on the floor together in the first place?
It’s a unique circumstance for sure, as is everything related to Ben Simmons. Like I wrote above, this would be much different if Markelle Fultz was available, or if the Sixers had power forward depth that would allow Brett Brown to match T.J. with a stretch four instead. Maybe Jimmy Butler and Landry Shamet get the ball in their hands moving forward, but I think the Sixers would benefit big time if they could snag a backup big in the buyout market or get just something, anything out of Markelle.