Who are you, and what have you done with my slow, unathletic Sixers?
With Doc Rivers and James Harden no longer in town, this year’s Sixers look like they’re playing an entirely different sport than recent iterations of the team. After years of being devoid of playable wing depth, they’re suddenly teeming with too many options after the Harden trade. (Marcus Morris has played just six minutes and KJ Martin appears limited to garbage time for now.)
Between the Harden trade and the on-the-margins moves they made throughout free agency—namely signing Patrick Beverley and Kelly Oubre Jr. to one-year, minimum-salary deals—the Sixers have recast themselves as a deep, rangy, athletic team. And their versatility might be their greatest asset of all.
The decision to sign Beverley this offseason didn’t generate much excitement either locally or nationally at the time, but the dude is a proven winner. He helped guide the Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs in 2021-22, and he breathed some late-season life into last year’s moribund Chicago Bulls. That impact is already trickling over to Philadelphia, too.
Beverley is averaging only 2.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 16.9 minutes per game, but he’s playing his typical brand of bulldog defense. He’s fighting for contested rebounds like few Sixers in recent years have, and he’s providing some playmaking in the non-Maxey minutes as well. He’ll need to eventually make defenders pay when they leave him open from deep, but he’s off to a promising start with the Sixers.
The same goes for Oubre, who has been far better than anyone could have realistically expected. He’s started every game since P.J. Tucker went to the Clippers with Harden, and he’s averaging 17.4 points on 51.8 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game on the season. He isn’t likely to continue shooting above 41 percent from three-point range—his previous career high is 35.2 percent—but he’s already perhaps the best cutter on the team. He did an admirable job defensively against Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum on Wednesday, too.
De’Anthony Melton has gotten off to a frigid start offensively—he’s shooting only 32.4 percent from deep and 29.5 percent overall—but he’s averaging 1.3 steals per game and is generally wreaking havoc on that end of the floor, as usual. He’ll need to start knocking down his open shot attempts, though, because the Sixers now have the depth to give him the quick hook otherwise.
Nicolas Batum has been the standout from the Harden trade so far. He had 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting (3-of-4 from deep) and two rebounds during his Sixers debut against the Washington Wizards on Monday, and he followed that up with five points, four boards, one assist and one block in 26 minutes against the Celtics despite injuring his finger in the first half. As he gets more acclimated to the Sixers’ system, it seems like he, Melton and Oubre could all alternate as a rotating fifth starter depending on injuries/matchups.
Process legend Robert Covington is also off to a promising start following his return to his first-ever true NBA home. He’s had seven steals and two blocks in the past three games combined, and he also knocked down a three-pointer against both the Wizards and the Celtics. Pairing him with the likes of Beverley, Oubre and Paul Reed gives the Sixers a thicket of limbs for opposing offenses to contend with each trip down the floor.
After the 106-103 win over the Celtics, head coach Nick Nurse praised his reserves for buying into their roles in his system.
“Batum, obviously, is probably kind of a starter, big-minute-off-the-bench guy,” Nurse said. The guys like Pat and Cov and Paul, a couple others, like, they’re going in there to give to you some rough, tough, hard play. That’s their role, and they really excel at it.”
One of Nurse’s greatest attributes as a coach is his willingness to experiment. He figures to continue tinkering with his rotations and lineups over the next few weeks and months to identify which combinations of players are most and least effective. If they identify a hole that they need to address, they’ll have the flexibility to do so either ahead of the trade deadline or in free agency next summer.
A backup ball-handler looks like a glaring need right now, although team president Daryl Morey doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to add one.
“It’s going to be hard because we have a lot of very solid guys now that help you win, that are pretty high-level in this league,” Morey said on the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast. “Nic Batums, Covingtons, Oubre, Melton, Tobias. I mean, we have a lot of—House when he gets in there, Pat Beverley. So, breaking that eight or nine—’cause I think now Nick can play 11 or 12—it takes a pretty high quality of player.
“So I can’t just go get a guy who’s on the ball and slide him in there. We’ll end up being worse, and it’ll be better for Nick to scheme around the fact that we’re a little short of playmaking, which he’s done. So, long story short, it’s gonna have to be a pretty high-quality guy to make our rotation, and that means it could have to be our bigger acquisition.”
It’s Nurse’s job over the coming weeks to see if he can paper over that weakness schematically. Batum should help in that regard. The lineup with Oubre, Batum, Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris showed promise against the Celtics and deserves more run moving forward. Others will emerge, too.
The key to trying out these different combinations is to prepare the Sixers for anything once the playoffs roll around. If their Plan A isn’t working against a certain team, they’ll now have the luxury of changing up their strategy on the fly. That unpredictability will make them more difficult to face.
After acquiring Batum, Covington, Morris and Martin in the Harden trade, Morey didn’t envy the position that he’s put Nurse in.
“Nick’s really got his work cut out for him, because I don’t know who to play with our crew,” he said on the RTRS. “Generally, it’s best to play nine or 10 at most. Nick’s even talking about playing a wider group. That hasn’t been his history or my history, not that I’ve chosen. But the teams that I’ve been on in the past have played shorter rotations. It’s gonna be very difficult.”
Nurse doesn’t seem all that concerned about how he’ll have to juggle his rotations, though.
“I think we’ve got an interesting team,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve got an emerging young star in Tyrese, we’ve got an unbelievable player in Joel, and we’ve got a lot of athletes that are pretty talented around them that give them some depth.”
Once we get closer to the Feb. 8 trade deadline, the Sixers might try to consolidate some of the contracts and picks that they received in the Harden trade for a big upgrade. In the meantime, they should continue testing how all of their puzzle pieces fit together best.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.