As the Philadelphia 76ers continue to work out their rotational kinks, one question seems to have a clear answer.
The early part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2019-20 season has been fine. The team hit a few minor bumps during their four-game road trip, but is overall off to a good start at 7-3.
This is not normal for Sixers fans. Just a year ago Sunday, the team traded for Jimmy Butler and was still playing Markelle Fultz, Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala. Everyone outside of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid was trade bait as the front office searched for a third star.
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The following months also brought about major changes, but in much more stable fashion. Simmons just got a five-year extension that kicks in next season, Tobias Harris, Embiid and Al Horford are locked up through 2023, and Josh Richardson and Mike Scott are here for at least two more years.
More than two players have a future in Philly, which has mitigated the anxieties of seasons past. As a result the biggest questions heading into 2019-20 were about fit, because for once the pieces were already set in stone.
One of these uncertainties regarded the point guard rotation. Minor additions were made to address the hole behind Simmons: Raul Neto, a traditional floor general who was good for Utah when healthy; Trey Burke, a three-level scorer who gives a different look to the position; Richardson, who had experience running point in Miami; and Shake Milton, a 2018 second-round pick who received a dirt-cheap contract extension this summer.
The season is young, but it’s pretty clear who the winner of this battle is.
Richardson soaked up most of the backup 1 minutes early on. Though he’s an excellent perimeter defender, his offensive game is not built for the position. His reads are somewhat bland and he’s more of a scorer than a playmaker. The Tennessee alum has an array of skills, but his offensive game is best for a secondary role.
Burke hasn’t gotten much of a chance, but when he plays he’s productive. The Michigan product has only clocked into the two games Simmons has missed, but he’s dropped 17 points (on 15 shots) and seven assists in 36 minutes as a Sixer. Though Burke has been known as a poor defender since entering the NBA, his time in Philly has not harmed the defense much.
Milton’s knee injury took him out of this quiet tournament, but prior to that he was rarely used as a 1. His work in the G League last season was best on display in a scoring role and his capacity going forward will likely be that as well.
The loudest participant in this bout has been Neto. He has a larger sample to evaluate than the others and there’s a good reason for that. He’s the first conventional 1 Embiid has ever played with, which could finally lead to some pick-and-rolls. Embiid will never get those with Simmons on the floor, so it would be nice to see him get some easy points and make plays on the roll.
Neto is also a much better defender than Burke. Neither is much taller than 6’0″, but Neto has exquisite body control and upper body strength that allow him to play bigger. He also has a clear understanding of the team’s defense, ranking third on the team in deflections per 36 minutes.
In situations that warrant more matchup ball (i.e., the playoffs), the 6’6″ Richardson is a clear favorite to be the 1. He can create from all three levels, plays excellent defense and doesn’t have tunnel vision with the ball. But exhausting that trump card so early is not necessary with everyone else around.
Burke is liked among fans for his ability to get a bucket. That may be a valuable skill in certain matchups, but others could see him hamper the defense more than help the offense. In addition, most of his minutes would come with Embiid (because of how he and Simmons are staggered), and those spurts should be all about the big fella.
In most cases, Neto is a better option.