Are we sure the Sixers bench got worse?

A lot has been made about the off-season departures of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, but the Sixers bench has the potential to be even better than last season.

The NBA is back! That means we get to see if takes that were formulated over the summer are validated after a few games. In all seriousness, asking questions about team decisions and player moves are completely fair and valid, there is, of course, natural agreement and disagreement, leading to the rush to try and see who's right or wrong.

One of the questions surrounding the Sixers, besides the obvious Markelle Fultz saga, was how the Sixers could replicate the bench production that fueled a 16 game winning streak to end the 2017-18 season. That bench run was fueled by buyout options Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Their hot three-point shooting provided a much-needed scoring punch off the bench.

Those two players left the Sixers in the off-season and while that admittedly was a loss for the team, it wasn't detrimental. I think we may be making a bigger deal than is warranted for two guys who at the end of the day were buyout options.

The Truth about Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova

Belinelli shot 32% from three in his first 12 games with the Sixers after being claimed from the buyout market. He took terrible fade-away shots, leaning forward, backward, or leaning to the left almost parallel to the floor. On top of that, he was a sieve defensively.

Nothing changed during the 16 game win streak. While he shot 41.5% from three. The shot selection was still the same, while playing terrible defense. The only difference was the shots were going in. In fairness, Belinelli's shooting in his first 12 games wasn't indicative of the shooter he really is, but his red-hot shooting during the 16 game win streak wasn't his indicative of the shooter he is either.

Ilyasova was a little bit more important than Belinelli. He was used as a stretch 4 and sometimes even played center. He shot 36% from three which provided important spacing for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to operate. He was also a good offensive rebounder, and was among the league leaders in taking charges. Belinelli and Ilyasova no doubt helped the Sixers, but relying on these two heavily in the playoffs showed that the regular season production might have inflated their actual value.

Once the hot shooting stopped, Belinelli became almost unplayable. He does provide spacing naturally because defenses can't just leave him open, but as his shooting percentages fell back down to earth, his flaws became more glaring.

Belinelli played fine during the Miami series, but in the prism of playing the Boston Celtics, Belinelli was rendered useless. It highlighted the Sixers lack of two-way depth at the wing and guard position. Belinelli shot 31% from three in that series, and was not only chased off the line, but he was also punished on the defensive end by Boston's more athletic and bigger wing players. Head coach Brett Brown didn't have a choice but to play J.J Redick and Belinelli together because the team needed shooting on the floor, but playing those two together meant death on the defensive end.

Ilyasova was a different story shooting the ball. While his offensive rebounding stayed, the shooting disappeared. He shot 29% from three, and the regular season success covered up the fact that he was cooked athletically, and couldn't stay in front of Boston's wings defensively. So basically the same story as Belinelli, just with more offensive rebounding the occasional charge taken.

It highlighted what we had forgotten about Belinelli and Ilyasova, which is, they were buyout players. Yeah, they are NBA players, but if you're relying heavily on buyout players in your rotation, you're going to be in for a rude wake-up call. That wake-up call was the Celtics series.

The regular season production of those two made people --national media, and most fans-- forget that the Sixers bench was a giant dumpster fire the first four months of the season.

The Sixers 5 man lineup of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric had the best net rating in the NBA last season, inversely the Sixers' bench production before signing Belinelli and Ilyasova was absolutely terrible. The Bench had a -5.6 efficiency difference according to hoopsstats.com, which was 24th in the NBA, and after signing Belinelli and Ilyasova the difference was brought up to basically even at -0.2. So really, you had to ask them to be better than Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Justin Anderson, and space-eater Trevor Booker, who is now in China. Not exactly a big bar to clear there.

Where are the upgrades then?

With Belinelli and Ilyasova gone, the Sixers had to address the bench because you don't want to go back to being terrible, but they also didn't want to have the same problems that were highlighted by Boston in the playoff series. In comes Wilson Chandler, who is a credible, and solid two-way player, who can at least be big, long, and not get burned every possession on defense like Belinelli. While Chandler doesn't have the off-screen shooting ability of Belinelli, he still shot 38% on catch and shoot threes, which is the type of shooter that's perfect playing off Simmons and Embiid. The Sixers would gladly take the slight drawback in off-screen shooting for more defense. Chandler bolsters the Sixers lack of wing depth in a way Belinelli clearly did not. That's an upgrade.

Mike Muscala was thankfully signed after Nemanja Bjelica backed out of his agreement with the Sixers to go make more money with the Sacramento Kings. The question is whether Muscala can replace Ilyasova, and I think he is more than capable of that. Over the last two seasons, he worked his way into the Atlanta Hawks' rotation as a bench big, who can stretch the floor. Muscala is not only younger than Ilyasova, but he is also bigger, more athletic and a more accurate shooter, shooting 39% from three over the span of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Muscala might not be the offensive rebounder Ilyasova is, but Muscala can play Power Forward and provide size and shooting at the backup center spot in a way that Ilyasova could not when he was slotted into center at times.

What about the rest of the bench? Rookie Zhaire Smith provides promise as an uber-athletic guard, and might be an immediate rotation guy with his defensive ability but we won't know exactly what he'll produce until he gets back from his injury. But if you ask "Is Smith better than Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot or Justin Anderson?" Then the answer is probably yes.

JJ Redick, who was moved to the bench before the preseason, has obviously helped out. 26th pick, Landry Shamet, already provides more value off the bench with his shooting alone than TLC or Anderson ever did, and while he isn't a world-destroyer defensively, he is already better than Belinelli on that end of the floor, which has been a pleasant surprise so far!

Can't the front office sniff around the buyout market again?

While we continue to discuss the two buyout candidates from last year, we have failed to ask ourselves this question: Can't the Sixers dip their toe into the buyout market again this year? It's not like losing Belinelli and Ilyasova mean the Sixers can never test that market ever again. The buyout market should have some candidates that provide even more value than last year's bench heroes ever did.

It's worth monitoring how Trevor Ariza will play out the season with the Phoenix Suns. I'm higher on the Suns' young core than most, but that doesn't mean they will win more than 30 games. Ariza was one game away from the NBA Finals last season. Is it fair to assume he would want a chance to compete for the playoffs again? The Suns only signed Ariza to a one year deal, so they won't be tied to him financially long-term. That's a possible buyout candidate the Sixers could snag.

Iman Shumpert, who has looked really spry early in this young season with the Kings, is another potential candidate. Do we think he might be sick of all the losing in Sacramento by the time February rolls around?

Will Kyle Korver be bought out if the Cavs become one of the worst teams in the NBA? Will Justin Holiday want out of Chicago? The Sixers could look at Atlanta and see if their old friend --and new head coach-- Lloyd Pierce could provide some details on Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter.

The point is the buyout market this year should be stronger than last year's, and if the Sixers are vigilant, they can bolster the bench even more.

Players need to get healthy first before we can properly assess just how good this bench unit could be, but when you compare it to the start of last year, there is no question that this year's bench is better on paper.

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