The past week of basketball has provided a series of instructive data points for Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Playing without Joel Embiid is sub-optimal when it comes to winning games and gaining cohesion across a new roster during the NBA season’s final quarter. Regaining a fully fit Embiid is obviously a must if Philadelphia is to heed the prophecy of their ownership group and avoid an early postseason exit. At the same time, there has still been much to be learned without their All-Star center in the lineup.
Removing Embiid from the equation has forced Philadelphia to experiment with options at the five. Brown’s first move was inserting Boban Marjanovic into the starting lineup and providing him with all the minutes he could handle. Early returns where astonishing, too, with Marjanovic playing the best game of his career in a first up performance against Miami. Although that didn’t last long. An overreliance on the Serbian quickly proved problematic as opponents committed to making the 222cm behemoth defend in space. Portland, as the most pressing example, blitzed the Sixers defence thanks to a bounty of pick-and-rolls that left Marjanovic rooted in the paint.
Philadelphia gave up 130 points on an 126.2 offensive rating to the Trail Blazers. Not all of this is on Marjanovic, but he was undeniably a significant part of the problem. This isn’t necessarily his fault, either – nobody of his stature is mobile enough to deal with the shiftiness of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum play after play – but his inability to contest ball handlers as they turn the corner is easily exploited by shrew opponents.
Following the defensive flameout against Portland, Brown made a change to his starting lineup and inserted Jonah Bolden over Marjanovic. Bolden started three straight games before missing yesterday's Orlando bout with a sinus infection. He is averaging 18 minutes per game in Embiid’s absence. While it would be foolish to declare widespread takeaways from less than 100 minutes of basketball, Bolden’s return to the rotation has been an unquestioned success for all involved.
Personally for Bolden, considering he had been benched during the week before February’s All-Star break, gaining minutes under any circumstance is a welcome development. It’s a shame Embiid’s ailment was the catalyst but it has provided an opportunity that was in question following the trade deadline.
Bolden’s return has also offered the Sixers a detailed look at someone who remains their highest upside option as a reserve five man behind Embiid. Marjanovic is a known commodity at this point: he can be super effective given the right matchup but his defensive limitations are catastrophic in the wrong situation. There are diminishing returns as his minutes climb – Marjanovic’s career average is only 9.5 minutes per game for good reason.
Amir Johnson and Justin Patton, the two other centers on Philadelphia’s roster, are essentially placeholders for the remainder of this season. Johnson has been lapped by father time and no longer belongs on an NBA court, while Patton has played just two NBA games in his career so remaining healthy is his immediate aim. That leaves Bolden, and for all of his shortcomings as an NBA rookie, he offers something that nobody else on the Sixers roster can.
There will be postseason matchups where Bolden’s defensive skill set – namely his switching and rim protection - will be needed, and likely the best option for Philadelphia to deploy in second units where Embiid rests. That’s not to say Bolden is fully proficient in these areas, as he remains prone mistakes that are borne out of an indecisiveness as he adjusts to the speed of NBA basketball. As with most rookies, there is still a lag between thought process and action.
There are also frequent moments of wonder from Bolden that make you fantasice over his potential as a defensive player. Highlight blocks binges in marque games against Toronto and Golden State immediately come to mind. Less flashy, but equally impactful, is his ability to switch onto smaller guards and defend multiple players on one possession. This is something we touched on back in January and it has continued to happen.
During a key stretch against New Orleans last week, Bolden switched onto Jrue Holiday, played lock down defence on the perimeter and then scrambled back to guard Anthony Davis inside all within a 15 second spurt. There were multiple instances of Bolden and Ben Simmons seamlessly switching defensive assignments against Golden State over the weekend, too. The foundations of a versatile, switchable defensive player are present in Bolden.
The Golden State game was an instructive example of how Bolden may potentially fit within Brown’s playoff rotation. Bolden’s one-on-one defence against Cousins was problematic, just as it was two nights earlier against Steven Adams in Oklahoma City. That is less a criticism of Bolden and more an expected reality given the significant strength disadvantage the Australian was playing with in both scenarios.
Bolden just doesn’t have the heft to deal with nuanced low post centers at this point in his career. That would make a postseason series against Toronto problematic because of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Conversely, a matchup against Milwaukee could be better suited for Bolden as the Bucks are devoid of an interior bully. In situations where Bolden is exploited for a lack of size on the defensive end, his ability to stay on the floor will be tied to whether he can exploit his opponent on the other end. Case in point was the Golden State game.
While Cousins feasted on one end, Bolden spaced out the Warriors big man on the other, making three of four three-point attempts, all of which came from Cousins losing touch as the Australian floated to the perimeter.
“He earned a greater level of consideration for me,” Brown said of Bolden’s performance against Golden State on Saturday night. “I think it always stands out a lot more when you can make some shots and make some threes. It just stands out more. Because we have seen the other stuff and I think the discipline of playing pick-and-roll defence is something he is getting better at. There is also a physicality that is greater than you would think just looking at his build. I think he helped himself tonight.”
As Brown correctly explains, impact is easily quantified when the shot is falling. Bolden is shooting 36% on 62 attempts from three in the NBA. The sample remains infinitesimal so making any conclusions about his stroke would be a reckless exercise. But the simple fact remains that if Bolden gets hot from behind the arc in April, he becomes a weapon off the Sixers bench.
Should Bolden establish himself as a reliable shooter, then the natural reaction from opposition scouting reports will be to pay closer attention and close out harder when the ball swings his way. That makes this next development especially promising. There have been flashes of Bolden’s dribble drive game over the past week. Look here as he attacks a Cousins close out and finishes at the rim.
Again here against Oklahoma City two nights earlier.
Plays like these are unquestionably more impressive than Bolden making shots from the perimeter. That is because they show a level of nuance that is more reliable than whether or not his shot is falling. Bolden frequently utilised his handle playing in Europe over the past two seasons, in situations where his offensive role was significantly larger than what is needed on this Sixers roster. Philadelphia doesn’t need any shot creation from Bolden, but the ability to attack close outs is a pleasant complement to what Bolden hopes will become a lethal outside stroke.