The 76ers' bench came up big Monday night, outscoring the Detroit Pistons' bench, 54-24, in a 116-102 home win over Detroit.
It was a great night for reserve Furkan Korkmaz, who scored a career-high 18 points, and rookie Landry Shamet, who added 10. Also, T.J. McConnell finished with 14 points. But the Sixers are going to need to form a stronger second unit between now and the playoffs.
There is a necessary amount of context needed when looking at the numbers from Monday’s game. First and foremost, Jimmy Butler left with a groin injury with 2 minutes, 20 seconds to play in the first quarter.
When a player averaging 33.8 minutes, 21.4 points, and 5.3 rebounds is suddenly rendered unavailable, it is necessary for the rest of the team to pick up the slack. That’s part of what happened when Butler went out, and it may be what happens on Wednesday if Butler does not play against the Brooklyn Nets.
Also, the Pistons were without their best player, Blake Griffin. Griffin is not a defensive powerhouse in the way that another player might be, but his strength and his ability to switch are nothing to scoff at when it comes to playing against undersized and inexperienced opposing players.
“Look at the points the bench gave us. I think they had 11 threes,” coach Brett Brown said after the game. “Furkan came in, and he was our bell ringer tonight. I thought Landry Shamet came up with some aggressive plays. ... Our bench was big tonight.”
The point here is not to take away from how well the Sixers bench played Monday. Those reserves rose to the occasion, and they’ll need to do it more often as the Sixers trudge through the regular season. But, sometime between now and the postseason, the Sixers are going to need to upgrade.
Korkmaz, Shamet, McConnell, Mike Muscala, and Amir Johnson are not going to be able to help propel the Sixers past some of the more elite NBA teams that feature deeper rosters.
When Brown was asked Tuesday if the Sixers bench is better this season than it was last season, his answer was short and certain.
“No,” he said without hesitation.
The simple explanation is that the Sixers had Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova at the end of last season and that team was clearly deeper than the Sixers are today. Even with that team, the Sixers were facing the same problems they are now. The addition of Ilyasova and Belinelli helped during the regular season, but the Sixers' defensive weaknesses and short rotations (among other deficiencies) were exploited by the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs.
When comparing the Sixers to a top-tier team such as the Toronto Raptors, depth is by far the biggest gap between the two.
Muscala has been playing better recently, and has excelled when brought in as a backup to Joel Embiid, but his success has effectively pushed Johnson out of the rotation. McConnell will be used strategically by Brown during the postseason, as we’ve seen before, and he’ll likely have success in a limited role. Clearly, Shamet has been more NBA-ready than anyone expected and that is a good sign, but he is still a rookie who needs time to learn and grow. The same could be said of Korkmaz, in his second year but coming off an abbreviated first year.
“He’s not intimidated by NBA basketball,” Brown said of Korkmaz. “He’s not intimidated by the moment.”
That’s great right now while Korkmaz is still developing. That’s where he is, though, still in a development stage. While Korkmaz is growing on the defensive end, he still has lapses, isn’t consistent, and is not strong enough for some of the NBA talent that would be thrown at him in the playoffs.
There are the possible returns of Zhaire Smith, Markelle Fultz, and Justin Patton, but none of them is guaranteed to return or be able to help in a meaningful way upon returning. The other members of the Sixers bench (Jonah Bolden, Shake Milton, Demetrius Jackson), while promising, are not going to be the ones who provide elite depth in the postseason.
There are a lot of question marks hovering around the Sixers bench. It’s not clear exactly how the Sixers plan to address their available roster spot or upgrade their existing talent, as they have recently worked out free agents but have not made any moves.
As 2019 grows nearer, so does the Feb. 7 trade deadline (not to mention the buyout market), so while changes might not be right around the corner, they are surely coming, and this time the Sixers are going to be looking for better upgrades than Ilyasova and Belinelli. They have to.