There was no sense dancing around it. Part of being a players’ coach is treating players like grown-ups. On the court, the Sixers had staged a furious rally that ended with a fullcourt heave that rattled in and out like it was shot on a double rim. On the bench, Shake Milton had sat and watched while wearing warm-ups. When he had been on the court, the Sixers had been outscored by 17 points. Milton had contributed greatly to that disparity. Doc Rivers wasn’t calling his player out. He was stating reality.
“He’s just got to play better,” the Sixers’ coach said. “And that happens. But I think he was a minus-17. So, you have games like that. You have a couple games like that.”
A players’ coach also understands where the benefits of honesty end. The complete and total truth would have included the admission that Milton has had far too many games like that. By the end of the Sixers’ 116-113 loss to the Suns on Wednesday, you couldn’t help but wonder whether a more permanent seat on the bench might be next. This was more of a tryout than a litmus test. Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, George Hill — all took advantage of the absence of three starters, and the presence of one of the Western Conference’s leading contenders. There aren’t many postseason minutes up for grabs. At some point, Milton will need to start grabbing.
The exact amount of available playing time depends on your math. If the five starters combine for 180 minutes, and Dwight Howard gets 10, that leaves 50 unaccounted for. Hill could easily get a majority of that pool, given that he can make a case as the best shooter, ball handler, and all-around defender of the bunch. If he averages 25 minutes per night, that would leave just 25 for three players who have combined to average 63 thus far this season.
Which is why it might not have been a coincidence that Milton, Korkmaz, and Thybulle played against a playoff-caliber opponent. And it might not have been a coincidence that each player gave the Sixers more or less what they’ve come to expect. Korkmaz drained a pair of first-half threes and entered the locker room as his team’s second-leading scorer. Thybulle, meanwhile, was his usual pest on defense, contesting a Chris Paul pull-up in the second quarter, blocking the air out of a Devin Booker corner three in the third.
Milton? He was there. Until he wasn’t.
“We still trust him 100%,” Rivers said. “I still believe in him. I know he’s going to help us out. But it’s a long season, [and] when you’re struggling, we had other guys who can come in and help us, and that was tonight.”
Therein lies most interesting of the rotation questions. In a world where Hill and Ben Simmons are both healthy, and Milton is neither the best shooter nor the best defender of the remaining options on the bench, where does he fit in a postseason rotation?
Maybe it’s only interesting in that it isn’t interesting at all. Nobody outside of the starting five has had more of a chance to carve out his niche. Yet, with 14 games remaining, nobody has a less obvious role. Rivers is the second straight coach to try to turn Milton into a point guard, and the results have been so blatantly lackluster that you wonder if he would even be a thought if his parents did not make the prescient decision to assign him a name that implies a certain level of lateral quickness/agility.
Is there a world in which a Clarence Milton is a perfectly capable NBA two-guard? There might be. In the current world, though, Milton is in the midst of a brutal stretch of basketball, including his 2-for-10, five-point, four-turnover outing on Wednesday.
One thing is already clear: Hill will need to be on the court as much as possible. The veteran isn’t the most electric of playmakers, but he is a smart, tough ball handler who is a good bet to be on the court whenever Simmons isn’t. You saw it on numerous occasions in the fourth quarter on Wednesday. Whether he was passing over top of a defender who would have had Milton pinned against the sideline or walling off a smaller guard and taking a lob pass on the baseline or absorbing a midair hip check and finishing an and-one, Hill looked like the obvious choice to handle the ball when Simmons is on the bench and maybe even when he isn’t.
Along with the starters and Howard, that gives Rivers seven players with clear roles. In that eighth spot, Thybulle offers a defensive element that nobody else does, while Korkmaz offers a 40% three-point stroke. There are times when both of these things seem more true in theory than in practice. Korkmaz, for instance, is shooting just 37% this season, although he has connected on 41% in his last 26 games. But the same can be said of Milton’s attributes as a classic bench scorer. Apart from a handful of scoring exhibitions against disengaged defenses, Milton hasn’t done much to suggest that he can be a positive factor on either end of a postseason court. (Of his 16 games with 15-plus points, six have come against the Wizards and Nets. Five others came in games that were decided by a margin of 15-plus points.)
It’s an interesting juncture for a player who has logged the sixth-most minutes of any current Sixer over the last two seasons. In addition to the arrival of Hill, who is under contract for next season, Milton’s future is dependent on rookie Tyrese Maxey, who continues to show promise as a playmaker. Against the Suns, Maxey logged 31 minutes, finished at plus-4, and was on the court for the closing minutes of the Sixers’ attempted fourth-quarter comeback. Thybulle and Korkmaz also made crunch-time contributions alongside Hill. Only Milton was absent. It’s on him to change that.