Sixers experimenting with smaller lineups

The team could lean into a full downsizing when their star center rests.

When reserve big man Mike Muscala sustained a broken nose in practice Tuesday and was announced out for about a week, it wasn’t exactly a cause for alarm. Still, any hit to the depth chart is inconvenient for a Sixers team that hasn’t been firing on all cylinders to start the 2018-19 regular season. But when life serves you lemons in the form of Mike Muscala facial stitches, make yourself some lemonade. For the Sixers, that refreshing, sugary drink comes in the form of an extended look at lineups with Dario Saric at center.

Philadelphia’s first look at the super-small, Saric at the 5 lineup this season came last week against the Clippers, in order to counter Boban Marjanovic’s game-altering presence. Saric missed some open looks in that game, but you could see how the floor was opened up by going with Dario in place of Amir Johnson in that smaller lineup configuration. Here was what Brett Brown had to say on the matter, courtesy of The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann:

“It’s kind of the way the league is going. I’m curious about that. Usually it’s done more out of a reactive mode, foul trouble or you’re losing and you got to just change the game. I think going forward, it does interest me as a proactive type of lineup instead of a reactive adjustment to a game that’s not going your way.”

Many folks have discussed the 6’11” Mike Muscala serving a similar function as a backup five, but with Moose temporarily sidelined, Brett Brown’s hand seems forced to experiment with Saric even more. Wednesday night in Indiana, Saric played 36 minutes, his most playing time in the last eight games. Most notably, 7 of those minutes came with Dario playing the 5.

In those minutes, Saric was joined on the court by Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Landry Shamet, and either Wilson Chandler or Robert Covington. The Sixers were outscored 16-13 by the Pacers, but the idea offers interesting potential going forward. If you insist upon playing Simmons and Fultz together, playing Saric, Shamet (or Redick), and Covington would seem to be the best way to maximize shooting around them.

On the play below, those three space the floor while Simmons handles the ball and Fultz occupies the Birdman zone around the basket. No traditional big man means Fultz can go down low rather than being around the arc where his defender would ignore him and clog the lane. Instead, Domantas Sabonis is overly concerned with a potential Simmons drive, creating enough space for Saric to get off a triple.

Certainly, plenty of things have to work out for these sorts of lineups to be successful. Saric has to hit shots at a respectable clip, which mostly hasn’t happened to start the season. On the other end, the Sixers have to rebound and protect the rim adequately enough to ensure they’re not just trading baskets with the opposition.

As the old proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. At the moment, Brett Brown may be going more to these smaller lineups when Joel Embiid sits due to a lack of alternatives, but maybe it will prove to be effective and transform into something the team can call upon to change things up in the future. Or maybe these lineups won’t be successful, but there’s value in learning that information as well. If nothing else, we are one step closer to an extended look at something I know a lot of Sixers fans are yearning to see: Ben Simmons at point-center.

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