After coming within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the 76ers overhauled their roster in short order. Will it be enough to put them over the top?
In the span of just a few hours, the Philadelphia 76ers saw a team that came within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals take on a drastically different form. After re-signing Tobias Harris and seeing Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick sign elsewhere, the Sixers swiftly found consolation in Josh Richardson (acquired in a sign-and-trade with Miami for Butler) and Al Horford (signed for four years, $109 million) — moves that were declarations of identity as much as they were attempts to keep a competitive roster intact. In a league where playing small has often lead to success at the highest levels, Philadelphia has all but forfeited the ability to do so. These Sixers are uniquely constructed in a way other supersized teams aren’t. Playing small is often an attempt to remove weak links and hiding spots; Philadelphia won’t have any to begin with.
In Horford, Richardson, Harris, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the 76ers easily boast the NBA’s largest starting five and, in theory, one of its stingiest defenses. Embiid is so dominant on both ends as to make any attempt to play him off the floor futile, Richardson is Butler’s equal as an on-ball defender and more disruptive away from the ball. He and Simmons are two of the peskiest perimeter defenders in the league at just 25 and 22 years old, respectively. Harris is no stopper, but solid enough across multiple positions to fit in around four dynamic defenders. Horford, one of the rare centers capable of actually giving Embiid trouble in the postseason, will fill the few holes Embiid can’t and shore up second units that collapsed when the Cameroonian rested. Even as Horford’s mobility declines, Philly is now built to switch in a way it couldn’t with Redick while maintaining its rim protection and off-ball activity.
The more pressing questions will come on the other end of the floor, where the fit between Philly’s best players isn’t quite so clear. Horford is as solid a fulcrum as any Eastern Conference team has to offer but won’t remedy all of the Sixers’ offensive imperfections. In Butler, Philadelphia lost its most dynamic pick-and-roll operator and its lone perimeter player capable of creating reliable offense in a pinch. Harris’ gradual development has provided a reason to believe he’ll diversify his offensive game, but what progress he makes remains to be seen. Redick’s gravity was vital to the Sixers’ offense last season and the team is thin on replacements. Simmons’ limitations have been well-publicized. Embiid must make strides as a shooter to extract maximum value from this frontcourt pairing.
And yet, there may be enough collective talent there to grind out another top-10 offense anyway. Horford’s passing generates better shots for everyone around him; he can both initiate actions and make the sorts of connective plays that keep possessions moving. Both he and Embiid figure to run loads of handoff actions from the top of the key, which could help unlock Simmons, Harris and Richardson as downhill threats. Richardson is more capable than most fifth options of creating his own offense, employing some of the same methodical bullying tactics and sharp cuts Butler did while flashing a burgeoning pull-up jumper. Harris never quite found his ideal role in 27 games with Philadelphia last year; another year might help solidify him in Brett Brown’s system.
There was a compelling case that the Sixers should have banked on internal development, hoped their East rivals slipped and given last year’s team another run together — after all, Simmons and Embiid likely haven’t yet hit their primes. Due in part to circumstances beyond their control, that option disintegrated early Sunday evening, and Philly did the best they could with the options before them. We’ll soon find out if it was enough.