In a league trending toward downsized lineups, one of the presumed challenges for the Philadelphia 76ers was how to maximize a roster featuring three core pieces 6-foot-10 or taller: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. However, as Sam Hinkie once aptly recognized, “a competitive league like the NBA necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag.” Rather than view an abundance of size as a problem, the 76ers have made it a feature, not a bug.
Six games ago, head coach Brett Brown moved Saric into the starting lineup, joining Embiid, Simmons and 6-9 Robert Covington in a unit The Stepien’s Cole Zwicker referred to as the Monstars lineup. Like the “Space Jam” villains, this group towers over the opposition. Unlike the Nerdlucks from Moron Mountain, Philadelphia’s Monstars have experienced success on the final scoreboard, winning five straight games prior to a one-point defeat in Sacramento on Thursday night.
On the season, across 61 minutes of action, lineups featuring Embiid, Simmons, Saric and Covington have dominated the competition to the tune of a positive-24.5 net rating. Such lineups, which have featured a fifth man of J.J. Redick (37 minutes), Jerryd Bayless (19) or T.J. McConnell (5), have both a 118.3 offensive rating, surpassing the league-best Warriors, and a 93.8 defensive rating lower than the league’s stingiest squad, Boston.
As you might expect from a supersized quartet, controlling the glass has been at the heart of the unit’s success. The group sports a 29.8 OREB percentage and a 89.7 DREB percentage, both of which would be league-best marks for a team. Creating more second-chance opportunities and denying them to the opposition is a surefire way to cover up any other flaws. In reality, there haven’t been many flaws to cover up.
Defensively, Embiid’s dominance has been well-documented and both Covington and Simmons have proven to be versatile defenders capable of guarding a wide variety of positions. Covington’s aptitude was anticipated after receiving some All-Defensive team votes last season, but Simmons’ emergence as a force on that end has been a pleasant surprise after he often seemed disinterested in the task at LSU. Positional optionality allows Brown to stash Saric and an interchangeable guard on the two least threatening opposing offensive weapons.
Then, when they have the ball, being larger hasn’t meant the 76ers aren’t able to rain fire on the competition from all areas of the court. Even with Simmons still figuring out which hand he wants to shoot with and Embiid’s early-season struggles from the perimeter, the other three spots on the court have offered elite outside shooting. Redick and Bayless are both knocking down better than 42 percent from 3, which is what the team was hoping for in bringing those guys aboard.
Meanwhile, Covington has taken the leap with elite talent around him providing easier looks at the basket. He is shooting an even 50 percent from 3 on a whopping 7.5 attempts per game, and as noted by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner (prior to the Kings game), Covington has been the most efficient player in the league on catch-and-shoot possessions. Covington’s shooting will almost certainly regress a bit, but as confident as he looks in his shot, there’s no reason to think he can’t remain an elite weapon from downtown.
Then there’s Saric, who was the biggest question mark, but has stepped up to shoot 40.4 percent on 3s, a notable jump from his 31.1 percent mark in his rookie season. All along, the hope was that Saric simply needed time to adjust to the longer NBA 3-point line after coming over from Europe. The 76ers are betting that has been the case, rather than a small sample size of success. Saric is an extraneous piece with his prodigious passing ability neutered alongside the ball-dominant Simmons and Embiid. If the lineup is to work, Saric needs to be able to space the floor, as he does here after Simmons kicks it to him out of side pick-and-roll action with Embiid.
Terrific passing ability all over the court is greasing the wheels for this Monstars group, as an excellent 68.9 AST% would attest. Simmons’ passing ability is no secret with the rookie putting up numbers unheard of since Oscar Robertson. Embiid is gradually learning how to find open teammates when defenses collapse on him in the painted area, and when given the opportunity, Saric still has the ability to run the offense in the half-court. Elite court vision can make up for less than ideal spacing, as you see here: With three Maverick defenders in the paint, Saric is able to find a cutting Simmons for the basket.
It has only been a couple weeks and we should view a larger sample size before forming any definitive conclusions. At the moment, though, it looks like Philadelphia’s Monstars unit will be a force to be reckoned with, and the rest of the league won’t be able to shrink it back down to size.
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