This is part three of the Philadelphia 76ers’ midterm grades, this time featuring the bench. While the starters are the most important part of every team, they can’t play every minute of every game. Sooner or later, you need a bench. For some teams, the bench is a crucial weapon, like Manu Ginobli on the San Antonio Spurs from days past, or Jordan Clarkson for the Utah Jazz right now. Spoiler alert, this team isn’t one where the bench is a massive plus. The thing is, with how good the starters have been they don’t need to be. They just need to not horribly blow the lead. When the full bench is out there, they can do that.
Articles have already been written on Shake Milton so there’s no need to dive deep into his game. Put simply, he might just be the fourth most important player on the team after the three stars. His contributions on the bench are absolutely critical. It’s no shock that the 76ers’ worst stretch (a three-game losing streak) came with Milton out injured. Doc Rivers likes to play majority bench lineups late first-early second quarter and late third-early fourth quarter. These lineups straight up cannot work without Milton in them.
That’s because Milton is the only true offensive threat on the bench. He’s the only guy that can create for himself and others. Without him, creation duties fall to Tyrese Maxey, a rookie, or Furkan Korkmaz who really just…can’t. Milton is averaging the fourth most points on the team at 13.8 and he’s also got three assists a game. His shooting percentages are nothing special at 44/31/89, but considering he has to create basically every shot it’s not bad. He’s also shooting the three better recently, and he shot over 40% last year so the potential is there.
This year, Milton has really shown himself as a three-level scorer, capable from every spot on the court. His handle has improved enough that he’s always a driving threat, and he is often able to keep his head up and find the open man. His pull-up jumper game is acceptable, and every once in a while he still has the spot-up shooting we saw last year. He’s also improving as a defender, and his seven-foot wingspan gives him a ton of potential on that end of the floor.
To see Milton’s impact we can look at the lineup stats. He’s part of the 76ers’ best lineup, where he replaces Danny Green. That lineup is +44 on the year, and Doc often closes games with it. The three best primarily bench lineups also feature Milton. Not only that, they are the only majority bench lineups that are positive.
Milton can still refine his game a few levels. His handle isn’t amazing, and his three point shooting could be better. The most important thing however is that he fills a role that the 76ers desperately need, and fills it well.
Similar to Seth Curry, Korkmaz has had some really amazing games. There has also been games that left Philly fans wanting him on the first train out of town. That’s the nature of shooters isn’t it? This grade might be too high for some of the truly awful games he put together, especially during the stretch that Milton missed. Then again, both games against the Indiana Pacers and the second game against the Toronto Raptors Korkmaz deserves a lot of credit for the wins with his hot shooting.
The appeal of Korkmaz is perfectly on display in those games. The attention that the Sixers’ Big Three demand means shooters are open a lot. Of the three primary snipers on the team, Korkmaz takes the most advantage of the space. Curry gets run off the line too easily, and Green is hit or miss. So is Korkmaz of course, but when Korkmaz is on he’s really on.
Korkmaz can only do that one thing well, but that one thing is arguably the most important thing in the NBA today, and the most important thing for the 76ers. His three-point percentage might only be 34.5% for the year, but over his past five games he’s shooting 42.9%. The key to his improved number has come from his ability to stay composed against closeouts. Earlier in the season he was having the same problem Curry has now where he would attempt to dribble past close outs. Recently, he’s letting the closeouts fly-by, or he takes one dribble to the right or left before firing away. It’s working well, and he’s had two fantastic shooting performances recently, going 5/11 and 6/13 from downtown. As long as Korkmaz stays in his lane, he is very valuable.
Kind of the opposite of Furkan Korkmaz, Thybulle is consistent. Consistently a great defender (literally one of the best in the NBA) and consistently a non-factor on offense. Three weeks ago, BBall Index’s new stat D-LEBRON (the defensive part of the stat, Luck-adjusted play Estimate using a Box prior Regularized ON-off) rated Thybulle THE best wing defender in the league. While Thybulle has slowed down from a strong stretch of games, he’s still one of the most impactful defenders. On a per-36 basis, he’s tied first in the league in steals, first in the league in blocks for non-bigs and tied first in the league (among minutes qualifiers) in deflections. While per-36 numbers can be shaky, it’s worth noting in the two games before the break that he did start and got 30+ minutes he averaged 2.5 steals and two blocks.
It’s not just the stat sheet either. He’s doing a great job of clamping the opposing teams best (sometimes second best because of Ben Simmons) wing, and sometimes he even performs better than Simmons. The game against the Sacramento Kings was a particularly great example of this. De’Aaron Fox was cooking Simmons with his speed and went 9/13 in the first half. When Thybulle became the primary defender in the third, Fox went 3/13 the rest of the way. In addition, he allows the 76ers to implement a situational zone defense. Thybulle (who got drafted because of the Washington Huskies zone defense he led) gets even more disruptive at the point of attack. They’ve only used it twice with Thybulle, in their first meeting with the Pacers and against the Houston Rockets. On both occasions the 76ers absolutely smothered their opponent.
Thybulle might be elite on one end, but basketball has two parts and his offensive part struggles. On the year he’s shooting horrific 39/26/57 splits and dropping in just 3.1 points per game. He’s been better in February, shooting a respectable 35% on threes, but every single one is completely wide open, and defenders don’t respect him. A solid groundwork is there. The form on his shot isn’t terrible, and he has enough athleticism to work as a cutter and he can catch lobs, but for some reason he can’t put it together with any consistency. He’s yet to hit double figures and he’s had zero points in 11 games.
He still gets minutes though, and it’s because he really is a gamechanger on D. If he can get to at least respectable on the other end it won’t be long before we see him in the starting lineup. But he’s not there right now, and it’s readily apparent. Lineups with him and a bunch of other non-shooters can make the eyes bleed. But Thybulle is often in at the end of games (even if just for a possession for two) because he is one of the best defenders in the NBA.
Howard has been a serviceable back up. Brought in to provide veteran leadership and championship know-how, he doesn’t really make a difference in games all that often, but on occasion he’s been great. Against the Dallas Mavericks he scored 14 points and had eight boards in just 16 minutes of play, leading to one of the few 76ers’ blowout wins. He’s also been a nice presence in the locker room, especially for Ben Simmons.
Howard is still effective inside, altering shots and pulling down boards (offensive and defensive) with regularity. He’s been a fine backup to Embiid, and he plays his role competently. However, lineups with Howard tend to really struggle on the spacing side of things. Not only that, but Howard has been awful when he’s had to start. He’s 0-4 as a starter and a total of -56 in those games. He fouls and turns the ball over quite a bit, and his touch around the rim isn’t amazing. Still, Howard does what he needs to do most games: score a few tips, secure boards, and play solid inside defense.
Maxey really saw his playing time drop in February as players returned from Covid or injury. C might be too high for him, but he gets this grade simply because of his stellar performances as a starter in the middle of January. That includes a ridiculous 39-point game against the Denver Nuggets, where Danny Green was the only available starter and most of the bench was out too. In his starting streak he averaged 16.1 points per game on 48% shooting as the primary ball-handler. He also chipped in 3.3 assists per game, and had a career high eight dimes in a win against the Miami Heat in that span.
Maxey is still incredibly raw, but there is plenty to be excited about. His handle is nice, and his dribble penetration is already a weapon. His floater is clearly at an NBA level and he goes to it often with a lot of success. The problem is that’s really his only NBA level skill right now. His jump shot (especially the three ball) is a major work in progress, and he isn’t an NBA ready defender yet. That’s probably why his minutes have tanked recently. He averaged 20 minutes a game in January and is down to just ten in February. After Milton, he’s the second-best initiator on the second unit, but with Milton around Maxey just doesn’t have much of a purpose. When Thybulle, Howard and Milton are out there, there isn’t room for another guy who can’t shoot.
Still, Maxey can fill in when the 76ers desperately need him too, and watching him burst to the rack really makes you excited about the kid’s future in the league. Not just anybody can drop 39 points (with no free throws) in their 10th NBA game. Right now though, he’s not quite ready.
Mike Scott has missed most of the year, although his past five games have been solid, including a start where he scored 11 points and had four steals filling in for Tobias Harris. His deep ball, which kind of deserted him for a while is back, and that’s really nice to have for this 76ers team. The way he’s been playing he’s kind of absorbed Maxey’s minutes, and if he can keep it up that will probably hold.
Isaiah Joe has flashed a couple as the 3-and-D player they drafted him as, but the rookie is pretty raw. He still needs to add 10-20 pounds, but shooting 38% from deep on the limited shots he had is impressive. He was reportedly on the cusp of taking Korkmaz’s role, but Korkmaz put those to bed in his breakout game against the Raptors. Since, he’s been sent to the G-League. He and other rookie Paul Reed have been playing very well down there, leading them to the finals.
Overall Grade: C+
The bench isn’t spectacular by any means, but when the full group is together they’ve been good enough. The bench unit just needs to hold onto whatever lead the starters usually give them. Without Milton they can’t really do that, but when he’s there it’s been fine. Interestingly, the main bench guys have all had games where they absolutely showed out. Milton’s had quite a few including a 39-point outing against Miami and Thybulle’s defense was crucial in the first matchup against the Pacers and against the Kings. Korkmaz’s first quarter barrage was instrumental in the win against the Raptors, and Howard was a monster against the Mavericks. Not to mention the best showing of them all, Maxey against the Nuggets.
If they can all play as the best version of themselves (which they clearly have the potential to) this bench unit could actually be really solid. As it is though, it’s not surprising that many are desperate for the 76ers to make a move before the deadline.
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