The Whiteboard: How the Bulls and 76ers are thriving without key pieces

Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, The Whiteboard

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Considering the unresolved messiness of the Ben Simmons situation, the Philadelphia 76ers have to feel very optimistic about their start to the season. They are currently 5-2, with wins over the Hawks and Blazers, and are averaging 115.8 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league by a fairly wide margin. The offensive start is even more impressive when you consider that Joel Embiid has already missed a game and been fairly average (by his standards) when he has played — averaging just 21.0 points per game on 43 percent shooting.

We’re still looking at a fairly small sample size but removing Ben Simmons from the equation has allowed the 76ers to pack lineups with more shooting without having to sacrifice much in the way of playmaking.

How has the Philadelphia 76ers offense become the best in the league?

Tyrese Maxey has taken Ben Simmons’ spot in the starting lineup with Georges Niang as the other major second-unit addition. Is still not a strong outside shooter (he’s made 31.6 percent of his 3s this season) but his willingness to shoot off the dribble both inside and beyond the arc (51.9 effective field goal percentage on 3.9 attempts per game) gives the offense a totally different dimension.

But he’s also been relentless effective at creating off the dribble. Even though he’s only averaging 9.0 drives per game, Maxey is shooting 61.0 percent on those drives, and with shooting fouls rolled in the 0.968 points per drive he’s averaging is the best mark in the league among players averaging at least 5.0 drives per game. He may not be as skilled as Simmons in a vacuum, but the way he deploys his skills is a much greater challenge for the defense when surrounded by the complement of shooters Daryl Morey has added over the past two years.

Seth Curry has been an absolute flamethrower, hitting 20-of-37 (54.1 percent) from beyond the arc so far this season. Danny Green (43.8 percent) and Furkan Korkmaz (37.5 percent) have been great ancillary threats from the wing but Niang has been a game-changer as well. He has the size to play primarily as a 4 but he’s also a stretchy, off-ball weapon that has to be accounted for. He’s made 43.2 percent of his 5.3 attempts per game this season.

The team’s defense has taken a step back without Simmons, as you would expect, but it’s possible they haven’t really hit their offensive ceiling yet with Embiid and Tobias Harris still working to recapture their form and efficiency from last season. This is a very different 76ers’ team than the one we saw two seasons ago but there’s reason to think it could generate better results, even if they aren’t ever able to flip Ben Simmons for something useful.

The Chicago Bulls going small by necessity

The season-ending injury to Patrick Williams has thrown a major monkey wrench into the Bulls’ rotation but so far they’ve been able to keep things rolling by playing ultra-small. The 6-foot-4 Javonte Green has taken Williams’ place in the starting lineup, for now, pushing DeMar DeRozan to power forward. It certainly hasn’t seemed to bother DeRozan, who’s scored 32 and 37 points in wins over the Jazz and Celtics since the change.

Outside shooting has been the one weakness in DeRozan’s game but that’s mitigated at least somewhat by moving him into the frontcourt and adding Green to the lineup. Opponents are then forced to defend DeRozan with bigger players — like the Jazz did with Eric Paschall, Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles — or cross-match to keep a guard or wing on him, like the Celtics did with Marcus Smart.

When DeRozan has a bigger player on him, he’s freer to attack off the dribble — he produced 17 points on 16 drives against the Jazz. When he has a smaller player on him, he can leverage his scoring skills in more conventional ways and help his teammates leverage the mismatches elsewhere as the opposing 4 has to defend someone else. Against the Celtics, the Bulls scored at a rate of 133.3 points per 100 possessions when facing lineups that included both Al Horford and Robert Williams (two traditional bigs).

Defense will be an ongoing concern in lineups with DeRozan at the 4 and the long-term depth of the team will be a huge question mark. Any other injuries to their core rotation could put a significant dent in the playoff hopes. But if they can find help on the free-agent market, getting to explore these small-ball lineups now could be an advantage when they need them down the road.

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