Is it Trey Burke time for the struggling Sixers?
The question itself is evidence of how bad this offense has looked over the last few weeks. No disrespect to Burke. It’s just not the sort of thing that a team typically finds itself asking after spending its summer blowing through money like a Game of Thrones production. When you have four players under contract for $20-plus million a season, you’d rather not reach a point where you’re turning to a journeyman on a non-guaranteed contract for salvation.
Yet that is where they were at the end of the third quarter Wednesday night: down by three points, on pace to score under 100 for the fourth time in eight games, watching Julius Randle and Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis drop threes like it was some kind of charity exhibition. All this against a 4-11 Knicks team that won’t finish near the top of the league in anything except pounds per point.
Something needed to change, and for the fourth time in four games, Burke looked like he could be it. When he checked into the game at the start of the period, the Sixers were down, 79-76. When he checked out eight minutes later, they held a 93-90 lead.
“When he’s on the court, you can feel his energy," fellow reserve James Ennis III said. “He speeds the game up.”
Burke has been a bit of a mystery since signing with the Sixers. During training camp, there were times that you could look at all of their roster pieces next to each other and see the inevitability of the current juncture. With the potential exception of Zhaire Smith, mostly because of the unknown, Burke was the only potential piece of the rotation with a track record of creating half-court scoring opportunities off the dribble.
Every team in the NBA needs that element within its portfolio of skills. If all goes according to their offseason vision, the Sixers will use the bare minimum. But as we’ve seen here recently, plans often look a lot more rational in theory.
Perhaps therein lies the secret of the patience that Burke has exuded this season. He spent the first seven games on the bench, failing to play a single minute. Then, after a two-game stretch in which he logged 36 minutes, he was back to being a 48-minute mannequin modeling the latest warm-up fashion.
“Early in my career, I probably would have checked out," Burke said.
But things change fast in the NBA. He didn’t need this season to teach him that.
In 2013, he played in the NCAA championship game and then was drafted No. 9 overall. In his first three seasons in the NBA, he averaged 28 minutes per game. Two years later, he was playing in the G League, part of a mid-career odyssey that included stints with three NBA teams in three seasons.
“I know it’s a long season, and with the things that I have in my skill set, I think I can help this team win,” Burke said.
The Sixers might not have a choice but to find out if he is correct. In the four games he has played this season, they outscored opponents by 19 points when he was on the court. Nobody on the team has outperformed him on an efficiency basis: 21.9 points, 9.1 assists, 7.1 rebounds per 100 possessions.
It’s a ridiculously small sample size, but that’s kind of the point: Given the way things have gone for this Sixers offense, it can’t hurt to see what Burke can offer on a more regular basis.
Against the Knicks on Wednesday night, he was exactly what they needed.
“I knew we needed a spark coming in off the bench, not only offensively but defensively," said Burke, who finished with nine points and two assists in 15 minutes of action. “Third quarter, I think everyone on the team got concerned, trying to figure out who was going to bring the energy. I don’t think it was just one person tonight. ... My goal was just to come in and make an impact in the time that I had.”
Particularly evident was the value of his ballhandling ability when paired with Ben Simmons. Dating back to Markelle Fultz and Jimmy Butler, the Sixers have long understood the value of pairing their third-year point guard with, as Sixers coach Brett Brown described Burke on Wednesday, “somebody that could do some stuff off a live ball.”
“I thought his intensity changed the pace, the speed, the energy in the gym," Brown said.
Burke’s role against the Spurs on Friday and Heat on Saturday will depend on how he recovers from an ankle injury that he suffered while taking a charge against the Knicks. He gave himself the all-clear in a postgame interview Wednesday, but the Sixers listed him as questionable on their injury report Thursday.
Whatever the short-term prognosis, Brown doesn’t have much to lose by continuing to experiment with Burke’s role.
“Pace, pace -- offensively, pace,” Burke said. “Obviously, he knows I can make plays for myself or others. But defensively, as well. He’s challenged me since I’ve been here to be just as locked in defensively as I have been on offense, and I’ve accepted the challenge.”
It might not be what they envisioned in July, but the season is long, and now is the time to figure out the pieces.