They will have a five man playing the four, a four man playing the three, a three playing the two, and a point guard who can guard one through four. Their starting lineup will go 6-foot-10, 6-foot-7, 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10, 7-foot-plus. They will spend all 48 minutes of most games with a top-10 rim protector on the court.
It isn’t hard to see the logic in what the Sixers are going to attempt to pull off in the 2019-20 season. It also isn’t hard to see the risk. They traded away the player who was their most consistent performer in a playoff run that ended with them minutes away from beating the team that would go on to win the title. They said goodbye to the three-point ace who was a focal point of their offense for the last two seasons. And they pulled the trigger on one of the more unorthodox identity changes you’ll see in the NBA, signing former Celtics big man Al Horford to a four-year contract worth a potential $109 million in a move that will pair him with Joel Embiid down low.
The only guarantee is that the Sixers are going to look different, much different, than any incarnation of the team we have seen over the last couple of seasons. It’s going to take a lot more than an hour to fully digest the series of moves that Elton Brand and his front office pulled off on the first day of NBA free agency. If you have an instant opinion on how all the pieces will fit, your mind is far more advanced in the art of hypotheticals than mine.
With JJ Redick signing a two-year, $26.5 million deal with New Orleans and the Sixers acquiring Heat wing Josh Richardson in a sign-and-trade deal that sends Jimmy Butler to the Heat on a max deal, Brand’s new starting lineup will feature Ben Simmons at the one, Richardson at the two, and Horford and Embiid at the four and five. Tobias Harris, who signed a five-year, $180 million deal, will play the three. Mike Scott and his new two-year, $9.8 million deal will be coming off the bench along with 2018 first-round pick Zhaire Smith and 2019 first-rounder Matisse Thybulle.
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It’s a long, athletic, versatile rotation that is heavy on athleticism and switchability and short on three-point shooting and shot creation. In all likelihood, there will be at least one more move revealed, with the Sixers needing a ballhandler to play behind Simmons and in front of Shake Milton, who spent last season on a two-way contract and is projected to be a part of this year’s roster. It’s not an ideal reality, but it is the one in which the Sixers were forced to operate once it became clear that Butler would rather play elsewhere next season.
What, exactly, led to Butler’s departure is a story that we have yet to hear. The flurry of moves that erupted on Sunday won’t become official until July 6, the first day that teams can officially start signing and extending players.
Until the circumstances surrounding Butler’s departure are known, it is impossible to render a judgment on the totality of the Sixers’ maneuvering. If it was a matter of money, then shame on the Sixers, because it has been clear ever since the postseason that they needed a player of Butler’s ilk to be the best version of themselves.
The reason Brand and Co. tacked in such an unorthodox direction was undoubtedly the realization that it would be close to impossible to replace Butler with any one player. There’s a reason they traded for him, and it was borne out in playoff series against the Nets and Raptors, when the enigmatic star supplanted Simmons as the team’s primary ballhandler whenever they needed a bucket in their half court sets. That sort of player, one who combines shot creation with defensive chops, simply was not available. They could have settled for a lesser guard, but the price for a player like Malcolm Brogdon was prohibitive: $21 million a year plus a first-round pick, which is what the Pacers paid in a trade with the Bucks.
Horford emerged early on as a potential fall-back plan, for obvious reasons. The Sixers’ biggest problem this postseason was the fact that Embiid was not in optimal physical condition. If adding Horford to the mix enables them to limit their burgeoning superstar to 30 minutes a night and 65 to 70 games a year, and if that load management results in the best possible version of Embiid in the postseason, that alone could vindicate the move. Horford has experience playing the four: nearly 30 percent of his minutes over the last two postseasons in Boston came with another big man on the floor.
In Richardson, the Sixers add some of the perimeter offense that they will be losing in Butler. He’s been a wildly inconsistent three-point shooter over the first four years of his career — .357 last season, .378 the year before, .330 the year before that — but he is 26 years old and signed to an extremely team-friendly contract. While replacing Butler’s athleticism, the Sixers could find it a struggle to replace Redick’s shot.
In the immediate aftermath, there is this realization: for the third time in the last year, the Sixers will completely alter the identity of their starting five. Success or failure will very likely come down to the ability of Simmons and Embiid to play up to their potential. In that sense, then, little has changed.
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