Sixers: Assessing the Offseason

Full accounting of the Sixers main moves thus far:

– Trade Jimmy Butler (good riddance) for SG Josh Richardson
– Re-sign Tobias Harris — 5yr/$180 mil.
– Sign Al Horford — 4yr/$109 mil.
– Re-sign Mike Scott — 2yr/$9 mil.
– Re-sign James Ennis (min. contract)
– Sign Kyle O’Quinn (min. contract)
– Extend Ben Simmons — Max 5yr. (2020)
– Drafting Matisse Thybulle

Horford & Harris (the new big-three/four)

Any discussion of the Sixers offseason and current shift in identity starts with the addition of Al Horfod and the elevation of Tobias Harris to a lead role in our offense.
The Sixers signed Horford for $97 million in guarantees, plus $12 mil. in Championship bonuses. And Harris got just below the full 5-year max contract that he’s valued at, but will need to prove he’s worth moving forward.

Horford has been a thorn in the Sixers side for years now, and in particular has been the most frustrating defensive & offensive matchup for Joel Embiid throughout his career. To substract him from Boston is a win its own right, and to add him to a core of Embiid, Simmons, and Tobias Harris is an odd fit, but one that should be an overall improvement from last years group when you consider the auxiliary moves the team has made.

Rightfully so, Ben Simmons is now the undisputed floor general of this offense with the majority of touches running through Joel Embiid. Tobias Harris now figures to slide into Jimmy Butler’s secondary ‘bucket-getter’ role where his game will shine more than it did last season when he played off the ball.

Harris is an equally dominant offensive player to Butler with a much higher ceiling next to Embiid and Simmons; this compared to Butler’s slightly awkward fit, which was hampered by his petulant refusal to shoot off the catch, and subtle need for attention. In this regard, Harris is an obvious upgrade.

Horford figures to slide into Harris’ fourth-fiddle role from last season—a role that he’s thrived in throughout his entire career in Boston and Atlanta. He’s a knock-down shooter who’s incredibly effective without the ball, and is a capable scorer in the low post and as a roll-man. Any concern about his fit next to Embiid and Simmons is baseless.

The two-birds-one-stone cliché pretty clearly applies here, as Horford’s versatility will allow him to start and finish games/halves at the 4 next to Embiid, while also being able to play as the backup-5 when Joel is on the bench. The lineup with Embiid off the floor will go from perhaps the teams biggest weakness to a strength. Horford is a stopper in the paint (as we know) and is versatile enough to switch on the perimeter. They can afford to rest Embiid for more games and longer minutes without worrying about the major decline in defensive and offensive efficiency that has accompanied his sitting out.

As far as off-court impact, there are few players who fit the profile of Horford, who has spent the past few seasons as the leader in Boston’s locker room and now figures to replace the veteran void in the locker room left by Redick’s departure. Beyond his presence and impact on the culture, Horford is the perfect mentor for the still-maturing Embiid—in fact, I can’t think of a better player for him to learn from.

While rumors of this union always felt a little odd, there was something enticing about the idea of him joining this nucleus. Now that it’s a reality, Sixers fans should be excited.

Josh Richardson (& Butler trade)

Trading Butler for a player like Richardson and the flexibility to add Horford is an obvious win for the Sixers. While Butler gets his wish to be “the guy,” live in warm weather, wear a cool Miami-Vice jersey, and whatever other silly reasons compelled him to trade the opportunity to contend, for the proclaimed reasons of “comfort” for his family and posse.

Sixer fans are showing a lot of love for Josh Richardson, who isn’t being lost in the shuffle of another hectic offseason in Philly. He’s been an exciting young player who has started 188 games over the past three seasons for Miami. He was frequently asked to assume a lead role on offense that’s a little beyond his capability, but he posted decent numbers and flashed the sort of well-rounded two-way wing package that projects as well above-average for a complimentary role in Philly.

Beyond that, at 25-years old and under control for $10 million for the next three years (third-year player option) he’s on one of the more team-friendly contracts in the league. He won’t be the lethal shooter running off screens that JJ was, but he’ll be close to as reliable a shooter off the catch as someone like Covington, with the ability to attack a closeout that every Sixer-wing has lacked outside of Butler.

His real value comes on defense, where Richardson has been one of the better guards in the NBA with the size and quickness to defend multiple positions. Redick is a major liability on defense, and Richardson is a complete turnaround from that. In a starting lineup of Embiid, Horford, Simmons, and Tobias, 6’6” 200lb. Josh Richardson will be the smallest player on the floor for the Sixers.

Defensive Potential

The Sixers were already one of the top defensive teams in the NBA, and possibly the most efficient on the glass. The additions of Horford, and Richardson, rookies Thybulle, and Zhaire, and the return of Harris, Mike Scott, & James Ennis will solidify their identity as one of the most physical teams in the league, with the length, switchability, and lack of holes to makeup the #1 defense in the NBA.

If you remove Joel Embiid for a moment, this roster with Horford at center would probably be in the top-10 defensively. Add perennial contender for Defensive Player of the Year in Joel Embiid, and all of a sudden the team’s potential to be a historically dominant defensive team is abundantly clear.

The big concern: spacing/shooting

The major question that remains is spacing. Will the front office add shooters? Or can the current players develop/produce to the point where they create enough gravity to open up the floor for Embiid, Simmons, and Harris?

This was a concern before the team lost Redick—the offense could be anemic at times when he wasn’t on the floor—but for whatever reason the front office doesn’t seem particularly concerned about this.

The best shooters on the roster are listed as follows:

Stats are from 2018 (*Horford: ’16-18 Boston stats)

– Harris 39.7% on 5.0 attempts per36
– Richardson 35.7% on 6.5 attempts per36
– *Horford 38.2% on 3.7 attempts per36
– Scott 40.1% on 6.5 attempts per36
– Ennis 35.3% on 4.6 attempts per36
– Zhaire Smith ???
– Matisse Thybulle ???
– Shake Milton ???

They have more players with serviceable jumpers than in years past, but none of which are high volume/high percentage quite like JJ or even RoCo. A lot of the Sixers spacing question hinges on the unknown, that being Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle, and to a lesser degree, Shake Milton—who figures to sign a full-contract any day now.

Smith shot 45% in his lone season in college, but that came on just 1.1 attempts per game (18/40 in 37 games). His stroke was neither pretty nor broken, so there’s a possibility that a year of development allows him to contribute from beyond the arc. His ability as a defensive-stopper gives him immense value for this Sixers team if he’s able to adequately help space the floor on offense.

Much of the same applies to Thybulle, who shot a fairly erratic 35.8% in college, and whose jumper looks like it could use some work in the NBA. He had a much larger sample size than Zhaire (534 career 3PA to Smith’s 40) and for that reason I think he inspires slightly more confidence, but much like Zhaire (and any rookie), the translation of Thybulle’s jumper to the pro-game is basically a coin flip.

If neither player is able to garner respect from beyond the arc, a lot of pressure will fall on Harris, Richardson, Horford, Scott, and Ennis to connect at or above their career-averages, otherwise the Sixers will have severe spacing issues.

While the league as a whole is beginning to realize that small-ball only works if you have prolific shooters (which are rare), and is accordingly becoming longer and more physical (a la Toronto, Milwaukee, & the Sixers) spacing and three-point shooting still reign supreme.

For a team that relies on a center in Joel Embiid, and a non-shooting point guard in Ben Simmons to run their offense, you would think Elton Brand and Brett Brown would be a little more proactive in regard to surrounding them with knock-down shooters, but they’ve callously ignored such a concern. Make no mistake about it, if the Sixers find themselves struggling through an Eastern Conference that suddenly got a lot more competitive than it’s been in years past, the lack of three-point shooting will be the reason why.

The Big Picture

Altogether, the Sixers have leaned into their identity as one of the nastiest, defensive-minded teams in the league, and while shooting may be suspect, it’s hard to deny that they’re far more athletic on the wing and at guard than in years past.

While JJ Redick will be sorely missed at times throughout the season, it’s reasonable to argue that the team became too reliant on him to be instant-offense for them, and it’s possible that they’re better served for the long run developing a system that doesn’t hinge on a heavy dose of Redick DHO’s.

The system that Brett Brown and company have opted for is one clearly predicated on getting in the paint on offense, and smothering the other team on defense. While it’s a style that runs obtusely counter to the three-point revolution of the last decade, it’s an identity that served Toronto well on their Finals run—maybe it can have similar success for the Sixers.

With Simmons inking his contract extension for next summer, and Horford, Harris, Embiid, and Richardson under contract for at least two more seasons: this is it. While anything is possible, given the current structure of the CBA and the salary cap rules, this is the core that The Process has produced: Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Horford, Richardson. Assuming the team can add shooting and create enough spacing, this is far and away the best iteration of the Sixers that we’ve seen in The Process Era (though for now, it’s only on paper) and hopefully it’s the final core that they’ve been searching for.

From Bynum to Butler, I’m thankful for everyone one of the hapless cast-offs who have lead the organization and fan base to this core of players. Now it’s time for them to go out and win a Championship.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: