The last time the Philadelphia 76ers won a NBA championship (1983), LeBron James was not born yet, the New York Knicks were a playoff team, and Michael Jordan was yet to be drafted.
Now, for the first time in a long while, the NBA has league-wide parity. There is not a definitive pick to hoist the Larry O’ Brien trophy this upcoming season. In past years, fans would have immediately picked dynastic teams such as the Golden State Warriors or Miami Heat, but this year, there is no obvious option.
This leaves the door ajar for the 76ers to make a legitimate run at the trophy after years of tanking and constant roster turnover. With a plethora of moves made in recent weeks during the free agency period, general manager Elton Brand put his team in position to fight for the NBA championship.
One of the biggest trades of the free agency period sent Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat in exchange for Josh Richardson. Butler had voiced his frustration with the 76ers throughout the season and turned down a maximum contract offer from the team to stay, and instead opted for a sign and trade to the Heat.
Offensively, Richardson is a completely different player from Butler, and perhaps fits the Sixers’ style of play better. While Butler needs the ball to be effective, Richardson excels off the ball. Last season, he was in the 69th percentile for spot up shooting. He can also create off of a dribble hand-off, pulling up for a mid-range shot or hitting the roll-man in stride.
Expect to see the ball in Ben Simmons hands a lot more as a result of this trade. Richardson is not an elite ball handler or isolation player like Butler was, but this is better for the Sixers offense. Often, while Butler danced with his defender, Simmons sat on the baseline, allowing his man to clog the paint, making life harder for Butler. Now, Simmons will have a higher usage rate than last season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him average double-digit assists per game next season.
While losing JJ Redick does hurt the 76ers’ shooting, the addition of Richardson adds another elite defender to their lineup. He is strong, quick, and athletic, unlike Redick, who was a defensive liability last year. This makes the Sixers’ defense even more versatile, with their backcourt of two staunch defenders in Simmons and Richardson being 6’8 and 6’6, respectively.
Elton Brand wasn’t done making moves, however. After trading Butler to the Heat, Brand and his front office went out into the free agent market and signed twelve-year veteran Al Horford to a four-year deal.
The Sixers front office’s thinking was clear. Signing Horford gives the team a capable center to let Joel Embiid rest. While Horford will start at the power forward spot, head coach Brett Brown can stagger Horford and Embiid’s minutes. Embiid has missed 35% of his regular season games in his career. Keeping him healthy for the playoffs should be the Sixers’ number one priority this season.
Horford is more than just a good replacement for games when Embiid is out for “load management.” He is a high IQ big man who has adapted to the modern NBA, shooting from beyond the arc 36% last season and 43% the season before. He can space the floor for Embiid and Simmons and work down low, with the ability to shoot from the three-point line or anywhere inside.
Horford is also a good passer for a big man, as he averaged 4.2 assists per game last season. He can initiate offense from the elbow, dishing to Embiid in the low post or to Tobias Harris for three-point shots. The 12-year veteran allows Brett Brown to draw up a new playbook with another piece added to the puzzle.
Defensively, Horford, similar to Richardson, provides versatility, as he can defend different positions at a high level. We have seen him stifle the likes of big men, such as his current teammate Joel Embiid, or superstar forwards, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This 76ers team is going to be huge. With a starting lineup of Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Horford, and Embiid, every player is over 6’6. Simmons and Richardson can lock up any opposing backcourt with their length and quickness, while Embiid will continue to be the brick wall in the paint as he has been his whole career, averaging two blocks per game last season. This is an extremely big team, but are they too big?
The biggest question mark defensively is Tobias Harris. Can he guard the likes of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George? Over his career, he has been labeled as a power forward for the simple fact that he is too slow to guard quicker small forwards. He is far from a liability, but come playoff time, teams could be looking to exploit Harris on the defensive end.
Offensively, the 76ers have few holes, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid running the show. Their biggest problem is shooting, especially off their bench. Richardson and Harris must be consistent from the perimeter for this team to go far into the playoffs. Horford will need to make teams guard him out at the three-point line to space the floor for Simmons and Embiid.
Their bench is also one of the weaker benches in the NBA, with the only viable option being Mike Scott, who was great for the 76ers last season. He shot 40% from beyond the arc with the team, leading to him re-signing with the team in free agency. While the free agent class is drying up and the 76ers completely capped out, Elton Brand could look at players for the minimum like Jamal Crawford, Ian Clark, or Kyle Korver, if bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies, to provide shooting and scoring off the bench.
After four bounces from a Kawhi Leonard corner fadeaway shot sent the Philadelphia 76ers home packing, general manager Elton Brand decided he didn’t want to run it back in free agency this year. He did not want to bring back the same players and have another go at it, only to fall short again.
Brand decided to change it up, trading arguably his best player and adding a veteran presence to a young team. But the Sixers came away from this free agency a better team with a legitimate shot at the 2020 NBA title.
With no superteam poised to win the championship, this is their chance. This season will be the 76ers’ best chance at their first title in thirty-seven years.