The Philadelphia 76ers need to test out their younger pieces.
There are four legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are prohibitive favorites, with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers gaining steam. One thing separates the Sixers from the pack, though — and not in a good way.
Right now, the Sixers have the worst second unit of any high-profile contender. The starting five is elite, but production tends to drop off whenever the bench unit steps in. That also contributes to a poor record on the road.
Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and potentially Ben Simmons are All-Stars. J.J. Redick is averaging a career-high in scoring and his shooting, more likely than not, will improve to the mean as the season progresses. Wilson Chandler is a solid, starting-caliber forward.
Move to the bench, and the Sixers lack proven contributors. Mike Muscala is solid and can probably spend time at five once the postseason hits, but he’s far and away the best reserve. You aren’t winning a championship with Moose as your best reserve.
Landry Shamet and Furkan Korkmaz have been pleasant surprises who, for the most part, contribute on offense. Shamet especially shows promise, with his off-ball movement mimicking Redick’s in more ways than one.
Neither can defend at a high level, though, with Korkmaz lacking the core strength and Shamet lacking the physical tools to consistently contain NBA wings. It’s made worse by the Sixers’ switch-heavy scheme, which can cause issues against teams boasting elite creators.
The Sixers are more reliant on shooting and offensive firepower in the second unit, which makes sense. Perhaps those issues become less problematic when the rotation gets shorter in the postseason.
With that said, it’s clear the Sixers need to add depth. The best solution would be hitting the trade market (hello, Justin Holiday/Kelly Oubre/Markieff Morris) or the buyout market (hello, Trevor Ariza/J.R. Smith).
Until the Sixers can make a move, though, there’s no reason to avoid the younger pieces. It’s time to give Shake Milton and Jonah Bolden a chance to earn NBA minutes. A chance to carve out a niche in a presently shallow second unit.
As Liberty Ballers’ Matt Carey put it, the Sixers need to learn what they have.
The Sixers’ decision to keep Jackson was a perplexing one. He hasn’t proven himself at the NBA level and point guard isn’t a huge position of need, assuming he’s not an upgrade over McConnell and Fultz.
With Shake Milton, however, Brett Brown should be eager to integrate him into the rotation. The former SMU guard was a lackluster combine performance away from first-round consideration. The upside is obvious, as he’s averaging 22.4 points on 37 percent three-point shooting in Delaware.
Standing 6-foot-6, Milton possesses the size and length to defend at least two positions. He’s also the perfect fit in the Sixers’ offense — another secondary ball-handler who can spot-up at a high level, an ideal skill set next to the current core.
If Milton can capably defend and knock down threes, there’s reason to believe he can help the Sixers. He won’t — and probably shouldn’t — play big minutes in important games, but with the current bench underperforming, there’s ample reason to give him some minutes.
As for Bolden, there’s not much incentive to play Amir Johnson right now. He fouled out with zero points in 16 minutes against Detroit. He let Andre Drummond do to him what Embiid does to Andre Drummond.
Bolden remains a raw talent, but he’s a versatile defender who can hit the occasional three-pointer. That alone should intrigue Brown, especially in small-ball rotations where Ben Simmons is pushing the tempo.
Even more so than Milton, Bolden got considerable first-round hype as a prospect. He thrives in up-tempo situations, so the fit behind Embiid makes sense. Mike Muscala is (and should be) the primary reserve, but Bolden should get more opportunities every now and then.
In the end, though, it’s clear the Sixers need to make another trade (or sign another free agent) before competing with Toronto and Boston atop the Eastern Conference.