I'm Thankful for This Time With Shake Milton
It doesn't have to mean more than it does.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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If there's one thing we've learned about Shake Milton, it's that he never shows up when you expect him to. Like the Sixers' own Great Pumpkin, anytime we sit around waiting for him to appear, it invariably results in heartbreak -- a steady stream of threes off the front rim, biffed layups and arguments with the ref while the other team starts an odd-man rush the other way. But man, let your guard down around him for one second, and he's going off for 39 against the Doc-led Clippers, or saving a second-round playoff game against the Hawks, or salvaging some franchise dignity from an otherwise team-wide lost-cause elimination performance against the Heat. And then as soon as you start expecting that Shake to be the Shake we get, he's back off into the shadows, not to re-emerge until the next time we have our back turned to him.
This latest run might be the purest example yet. He was terrible by any measure to start the season, cold and kvetchy and generally lost on both sides of the ball. Even as late as the first half of the Friday night Bucks game, I was thinking we might've finally reached the end of the line with our Shake -- he'd just been too ineffective for too long for Doc to ever really have cause to trust him again. And then Tyrese went hopping back to the locker room, and all of a sudden the Sixers were down to two playable guards; Doc suddenly had no choice but to trust him again. The faith might've been forced, but it was quickly rewarded: Shake handled well and hung in for some tough buckets, including a game-sealing layup off a surprise feed from Embiid that a less-locked-in Shake would've let carom off his forehead. 15 points and six assists in the biggest Sixers win of the season, and suddenly Shake was not only saved from the precipice of total NBA oblivion, he was arguably the team's second-most-important player.
It's continued on from there: an efficient 27 against the Timberwolves in a close loss, a 16-6-5 in Tuesday's huge home win against Brooklyn, and 22-7-9 in a strong-as-could-be-expected showing in Charlotte Wednesday night, the team's best all-around performance. He's doing absolutely everything that could be asked of him -- even going 7-16 from deep in the four-game stretch after hitting one total three over his first 10 games. It's a run we should all take a beat to appreciate, because it could end at any minute -- and when it goes, it may not come back anytime soon, if ever again.
Honestly, it's probably a little telling that it took the Sixers falling this low for them to have to turn to Shake at all -- if at any point in the last three and a half games, the Sixers had more than one of their four best players available, none of this mini-run of Shakesanity would've been possible. It's like he needed the space to stretch out and mentally and physically recreate what the good version of himself looked and played like, the kind that we (maybe just me) believed could be our backcourt savior back when James Harden was still a perennial MVP candidate in Houston and Tyrese Maxey was nothing but a gleam in Mike Muscala's eye. It's room he never would've gotten at this point in his Sixers tenure if we had any other plausible options for how to fill it.
But man, it's fun to have the man they once called Sniper Shake back. This version of Shake is like the exact midpoint of every good guard to ever play basketball, decently sized and modestly skilled, superlative at nothing but at least a tiny bit good at everything. He can handle to a point, he's a little crafty, he's deceptively strong and he's got range when you need it. He's not a pure point guard or shooting guard, but to call him a combo guard or a lead guard doesn't feel quite right either; he's just a guard, dammit, and a fine one. This version of Shake could average 18-5-5 forever on sturdy shooting numbers, and never make an All-Star team or even credibly be argued as deserving to, but you'd still want to argue him as a snub just because... well, he deserves to be recognized by someone.
And of course, it's tempting to fantasize about having this version of Shake all the time; lord knows there have been times this year our bench could use the extra zhuzh, and in theory at least he could play a competent backcourt partner to both James Harden and Tyrese Maxey for long stretches of game action. And if not, it's similarly tempting to consider letting him use these weeks with Maxey and Harden sidelined to put on a show for the other 29 GMs, and have him convince one of 'em that he could be a core piece on a rebuilding team if plucked from the Sixers' crowded backcourt rotation. (Hell, if Doc was running some other team, he'd probably give up multiple firsts to steal him away, mostly just based on memories of that one game three seasons ago.)
Neither is particularly realistic, sadly. Shake might just not be meant to come off the bench -- his career numbers are markedly superior as a starter than as a reserve. He needs runway to play himself into a groove that he just can't get in six minutes a half, particularly not with a team that (theoretically) has enough guard and wing depth when healthy that he might never be more than a bad run or two from falling entirely out of the rotation. And given extra opportunity elsewhere, he'd undoubtedly do well -- but the problem with being a midpoint player in the NBA is that your good-enough is usually getting in the way of someone else who's trying to be great, either in the on-court sense or the roster-building one. Shake could help a whole lot of other teams right now, but not in the ways that any of them ultimately really need, something most rival GMs probably understand better than we'd want them to.
That's fine, though. The regular season is long and full of subplots, getting one this enjoyable and low-stakes doesn't have to mean anything more than what it does. There's something to be said for the occasional relationship based solely on flirtation that never amounts to anything more, even as half your brain can't help but wonder What If (while the other half reminds you Why Not). And it's worth remembering that this really might be the last time: He's a free agent this summer, and he might very well be marginalized on this team well before that. If so, I give thanks this week that we got to watch Shake rattle and roll like this once more; it's a valuable reminder that the indelible and unforgettable characters we spend time with on this weird and wild journey are ultimately just as important a part of the experience as where they ultimately get us to.