It will be a tall order to beat the 76ers this season.
Beat them in a best-of-seven series?
That depends if an opponent can stand up to a starting lineup that towers over all others.
OK, maybe not towers, but the Sixers, based on opening night, do have the tallest starting lineup in the NBA.
Over the past few years, the NBA has trended toward small ball, with offenses built around three-point shooting. The dominating center has almost been phased out.
The Sixers are steadfast in their belief that a lineup with size, especially one that includes Joel Embiid, can win big in the NBA. And that’s the plan, to advance past the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they have been eliminated the past two seasons.
With heightened expectations, the Sixers plan to use their size to their advantage.
The Inquirer’s research shows that the Sixers stand at the top when measuring starting fives. The heights were taken from the website roster of all 30 NBA teams.
The Sixers averaged 6-foot-8.8 per starter. That edged both the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Mavericks, who tied for second (6-8.4).
The smallest team is the the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose starting five averages 6-5.2.
Teams of any size need players who have the ability to dominate. The Sixers certainly check that box with the 7-foot Embiid and 6-10 Ben Simmons, the league’s tallest point guard.
The rest of the starting five includes 6-8 Tobias Harris, 6-9 Al Horford, and the smallest of the bunch, 6-5 Josh Richardson, who would never be described as diminutive.
“I’ve never been the smallest starter on a team before,” said Richardson, who played the previous four seasons for the Miami Heat. “It’s pretty cool.”
Not if you’re playing the 76ers.
“It definitely poses a challenge,” said Minnesota Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders.
More than size needed
A tall lineup alone won’t win in the NBA. It’s about tall stars, not just tall players. Just look at the second-tallest team, the Bulls, who have some impressive young talent but aren’t expected to be a playoff contender.
Embiid is a two-time All-Star. Simmons, now in his third season, earned his first All-Star berth last season. Horford, signed as a free agent after the previous three seasons in Boston, is a five-time All-Star.
Harris, acquired in February, the day before the NBA trade deadline from the Los Angeles Clippers, has never made an All-Star team. Yet, armed with a new five-year $180 million contract, and the chance to play on the best team he has been on in his nine-year career, he could change that.
The indefatigable Richardson might be the smallest starter, but he often towers over opposing point guards he defends. Richardson is a shooting guard on offense, but he defends against point guards. And when Simmons takes a breather, Richardson moves over and runs the point.
In a point guard-driven league, this is no small chore to attempt to shut down the fleetest of NBA athletes. Richardson’s size often wears down the smaller guys he’s covering. He has a non-stop motor and insatiable desire to perform the most undesirable job – playing shutdown defense.
“I just try to tire guys out, making it tough on them the whole game,” he said last week before the Sixers embarked on a four-game road trip. “I pride myself on being in great shape, so I just try to stay close to guys, stay into guys the whole game, and just try to wear them down.”
The Sixers have tall players willing to play hard-nosed defense. During the preseason, Embiid said he wanted to be the NBA’s defensive player of the year. Simmons added that he wanted to be the best defensive player on the team.
Horford is known as a strong defender. In fact, when he was with Boston, he had the defensive versatility of guarding Embiid and Simmons in the same game.
Richardson has the ability to make a run at all-defensive honors.
Harris isn’t know for his defense, but the Sixers’ other tall, lanky teammates are ready to cover for him.
The size of the Sixers’ starters can be an intimidating sight for an opponent.
“One hundred percent,” Simmons said.
Size, talent, and the ability to defend is a pretty tall hurdle.
“There’s a reason why they are one of the best teams in the East and one of the best teams in the league,” Saunders said. “I think they have a defensive component to them, they have a toughness to them, they can throw looks at you offensively, not to mention the dynamic players they have as well.”
Tall by design
The Sixers had a tall starting lineup last year, but they have replaced 6-3 JJ Redick and 6-7 Jimmy Butler with the 6-5 Richardson and 6-9 Horford.
That the Sixers have literally grown their lineup was no accident.
“We are going old school, a bit defensive,” Sixers managing partner Josh Harris said last week in an interview with The Inquirer. “We think our size and our defense, that is how you win championships.”
Coach Brett Brown, now in his seventh season guiding the Sixers, uses the starters’ size in formulating his game-planning.
“I think it has to be factored in how we play,” Brown said. “It is a large portion of when I looked at the team and saw what the strengths are, you identify those on offense and defense. The fact that we are huge can point to different things on both sides of the ball that you should try to exploit.”
Nobody does more exploiting than Simmons. Still shy to chuck it from three-point range, he is a blur at 6-10, able to drive by much smaller defenders. He can also post up down low, another major mismatch.
Even with his size advantage, Simmons understands first-hand how difficult it is facing the Sixers starters, not to mention a number of the reserves.
“I experienced it in training camp, going against my teammates,” he said. “It is tough when you have a 7-footer on the back line, and guys 6-7, 6-9, 6-10 on the floor. It is tough and you have to take whatever look you have, but it is hard to get [good] looks with a team like that.”
Three of the key reserves include 6-7 Mike Scott, 6-5 rookie defensive whiz Matisse Thybulle (with a 7-foot wingspan) and 6-6 James Ennis. All are relentless on defense and give the Sixers energy.
Yet it is the starters who provide the Sixers a sizable advantage at both ends of the court.
In addition to Simmons, there isn’t a center in the league who can stop Embiid down low. His combination of size, strength, and more importantly quickness, forces teams to double- and sometimes triple-team him.
Even at the three-point line, where Embiid can often be found, he is quick enough to take a defender off the dribble, and drive to the basket.
Besides sheer size, talent and athleticism, the Sixers will need to be a better three-point shooting team. They can’t simply abandon that part of the game, nobody can in today’s NBA. Even on nights when threes are clanking off the rim, the Sixers’ defense, buoyed by the team’s size, should keep them in games.
“I think that the admittance of what is the team’s strength should start with the physical qualities,” Brown said. “And I love what we’ve got.”