PHILADELPHIA,PA - NOVEMBER 29 : Jerryd Bayless #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers goes up for the layup against the Washington Wizards at Wells Fargo Center on November 29, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Game Preview | Bench Influencing Recent Success

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Scene Setter:

BOSTON, MA - In these exciting, promising times, it’s easy for our basketball bandwidth to be almost fully consumed by the 76ers’ potentially generational talents.

But, with the team preparing to close out a strong month of November Thursday at TD Garden against the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic), a more subtle, yet still significant subplot is worth highlighting.

As the Sixers’ stellar two-week home stint revealed, their reserves have played an important role in the team’s success. Over the last five games, in which the Sixers have won four times (the lone loss came to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers), the bench has been one of the NBA’s best, achieving the following ranks:

• #7-10.4 net rating

• #3-94.9 defensive rating

• #1-57.5 rebound percentage

• #1-104.2 possessions per game

Plus-minus numbers further reveal just how impactful the bench has been. Here’s how the group has fared during the Sixers’ 4-1 stretch, which has vaulted the squad into fifth-place in the Eastern Conference:

• 11.20 vs Utah (W): +6

• 11.22 vs Portland (W): +3

• 11.25 vs Orlando (W): +9

• 11.27 vs Cleveland (W): -2

• 11.29 vs Washington (W): +1

“I think we’re playing well,” said T.J. McConnell, the Sixers’ leader in minutes off the bench, at 24.4, when asked this week about the reserves. “Our job is to provide a spark, not let any let off from what the starters provide. I think we’ve done a good job of that, but there’s certainly room for improvement.”

Through the first month and a half of the season, Brett Brown has stuck mostly with a nine-man rotation, with McConnell, Jerryd Bayless, Amir Johnson, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot getting the lion’s share of the playing time among second-stringers. Richaun Holmes has been in the mix, too, but he’s also missed time with injury.

Who Brown decides to play with whom has largely been the byproduct of a purposeful pursuit.

“We have gone overboard working with the analytics people, and my assistant coaches, on studying rotations, and seeing who pairs up and plays well with each other,” the head coach said Wednesday.  

One conclusion that’s been reached is the Sixers are best served by having at least two starters on the court at all times.  

“You’re mindful of who pairs really well with each other,” said Brown.

Let’s dive into that a bit more.

Brown went on to say that he, his coaches, and the Sixers’ analytics staff have been zeroing in specifically on two-man line-up data. These are a few pairings featuring bench players that stand out, based on calculations tabulated by stats.nba.com:

• T.J. McConnell - Robert Covington: 14.2 mpg / +12.3 net rating

• T.J. McConnell - Amir Johnson: 10.5 mpg / +9.7 net rating

• Jerryd Bayless - T.J. McConnell: 12.9 mpg / +9.2  net rating

• Amir Johnson - Ben Simmons: 10.2 mpg / +8.6 net rating

• Jerryd Bayless - Robert Covington: 17.0 mpg / +7.7 net rating

• Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot - Robert Covington: 5.8 mpg / +6.7 net rating

Typically, McConnell and Johnson are the first two back-ups who Brown summons, assigning them to replace Dario Saric and Joel Embiid respectively. You then might see Brown bring in Bayless for JJ Redick at shooting guard, and Luwawu-Cabarrot for either Covington or Simmons.

The interchangeability has, for the most part, been smooth, and productive.

“Sometimes, chemistry takes a while, but I think we’re doing a good job,” said McConnell. “It’s the coaches’ job to put the right line-ups in there, and our job to execute and play.”

When on the sideline, members of the Sixers’ reserve corps can often be found providing enthusiastic - sometimes endearingly goofy - encouragement to the starters. It’s just another part of the gig, according to Luwawu-Cabarrot.

“Those guys are doing their thing,” said the Frenchman, who tabbed Johnson and the injured Justin Anderson as captain and alternate, respectively, of the Sixers’ bench spirit crew. “Those are our teammates, so we just have to cheer for them. It’s also a thing to get you going.”

The past two weeks have proven it to be true - the partnership between starters and reserves alike is symbiotic, and has been critical to the Sixers’ results.  

“The guys are doing fantastically, I think,” said Brown. “Somewhere out there, you have to walk that slippery slope of having your best players on a floor, and guys that play well with each other. Stuff like that is always on my mind.” 

Opponent Outlook:

It’s quite the daunting stretch of the schedule for the 76ers, but then again, that’s how life has been this season (ESPN.com rates their schedule as the hardest in the league). Three days after facing the third-best team in the East (Cleveland), and two days before hosting the second-place squad (Detroit), the Sixers visit the conference’s top dog, the Boston Celtics (18-4).

The C’s, which defeated the Sixers 102-92 in an October 20th meeting at The Center, are coming off a 118-108 loss to Detroit, which marked the opener of a season-long five-game homestand. Boston has gone 2-2 since its impressive 16-game winning streak came to an end a week ago. The surge was tied for fourth-longest in franchise history.  

Kyrie Irving is leading the way for the Celtics, averaging 22.8 points per game, to go with 5.3 assist and 1.6 steals.

Follow Along:

• Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia / NBC Sports app

• Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network

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