LAS VEGAS – On paper, the 76ers lofty profile has gone up a notch.
The additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson plus bringing back Tobias Harris have elevated the Sixers to the Eastern Conference’s top team, according to some prognosticators. The NBA Finals-or-bust talk is legitimate now that Kawhi Leonard is leaving the NBA champion Toronto Raptors for the Los Angeles Clippers.
But the Sixers need to figure out who’s going to replace Jimmy Butler as the closer?
Folks can write what they want about Butler, who is leaving the Sixers via a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat. But the swingman is one of the league’s best closers and was the Alpha dog of the squad.
But one can argue that they lost something in Butler they can’t get back. He was a guy that could create his own shot. Just think of all the times he bailed them out down the stretch to win games. Plus, he’s one of the better defenders.
As good as the Sixers are, it may be tough to replace him – at least initially.
One would think that role would eventually go to Harris, especially after receiving a five-year, $180 million deal.
With Butler gone, the 26-year-old will no longer be considered as the team’s third or fourth option on offense.
The eight-year veteran has improved each season and has elevated himself to a fringe All-Star. The Long Island, N.Y. native was an All-Star snub this past season with the Los Angeles Clippers before being traded to the Sixers.
He had been the Clippers most consistent player, averaging a career high in points (20.9), and shooting career bests in field-goal percentage (49.6 percent) and three-point percentage (43.4 percent) in his 55 games with Los Angeles in the 2018-19 season.
Harris also was named the Western Conference Player of the Month in November after leading the Clippers to a conference-best 15-6 record while averaging 21.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 52.8 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent on threes.
When given the opportunity, Harris has shown a lot of improvement since his first season playing regular minutes in 2013-14. Then, he averaged 14.6 points while shooting just 25.4 percent on three-pointers.
Harris showed glimpses of being a takeover player shortly after coming to the Sixers on Feb. 6.
One of his most impressive outings came on Feb. 28 when the Sixers snapped their 19-game series losing streak to the Oklahoma City Thunder on a night they were without centers Joel Embiid and Boban Marjanovic.
Harris finished with 32 points, his best in his eight games with the Sixers at the time. Three nights earlier, he scored 29 points in the Sixers’ victory over the Pelicans in New Orleans.
Against the Thunder, he made 5-of-7 three-pointers and 11-of-19 shots. His best stretch was an 8-0 run after the Thunder knotted the score at 93 with 5 minutes, 6 seconds remaining. He sandwiched two three-pointers around an eight-foot turnaround jumper.
But as the season progressed, Harris became underused, drifting to the fourth option most nights.
Now that Butler is gone, one would assume that he’ll get first crack at being the closer.