Can the 76ers Win Going Big?
The Philadelphia 76ers, as we all predicted, have had a busy offseason. Nobody predicted the way they ended up going about their business, though. After the dust settled following a hectic two days of free agency, the Sixers signed Tobias Harris to a five-year max contract worth $180 million, shipped Jimmy Butler off to Miami for Josh Richardson (for now), and signed Al Horford to a four-year deal worth $109 million.
Their starting lineup is now presumably made up of Ben Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Horford, and Joel Embiid. That is a gigantic lineup in a vacuum, much less in today’s NBA, where the traditional big man has slowly been edged out by increased pace of play and smaller lineups. Can the Sixers succeed while going supersized?
It’ll be difficult. Philly will be getting two brand-new players off the bench as well, with Zhaire Smith returning after a lost rookie season (a Philadelphia tradition) and Matisse Thybulle as their latest draft pick; they’ll help fill the quick wing defender role they were missing in last year’s playoffs, and give Brett Brown a ton of lineup flexibility. Still, that starting lineup is a lot of bulk and not a lot of speed. The idea is everyone other than Simmons’ ability to shoot from deep will open up the floor enough that trotting out a lineup featuring four guys over 6’9″ won’t be a problem.
The one flaw in that concept is no player out of their current starting five can be considered an elite shooter going into the year. Embiid shoots only 30% from three, while Horford and Richardson top out at about 35%. Harris shot over 40% from deep while he was still a Clipper, but fell to only 32% in a Sixers uniform. Even if Harris shoots closer to his career percentage from deep (36%), the Sixers may not have enough shooting to survive, especially after J.J. Reddick’s departure, perhaps the biggest loss of the offseason. It’ll be tough to find space to operate, especially during the playoffs when the floor shrinks and the going gets tougher.
There are a lot of benefits to the Sixers bringing in frontcourt reinforcements. Embiid can rest for long stretches without things falling apart, and can even be placed on a Kawhi Leonard-style load management regimen to ensure his health remains a priority and he isn’t worn out by the end of the year. Simmons can be paired with just about any of their big men thanks to their ability to stretch the floor, and the two-man game with Horford is particularly enticing given they’re both prolific passers.
But there are problems that will rear their heads at the most important time of year. If they end up matched in the playoffs with a premier perimeter scorer, the going will get tough. Philadelphia will be one of the best teams in the league protecting the paint, but fast teams will be able to spread them out and take advantage of their relative lack of quickness. It’s hard to imagine a trio of Harris, Horford, and Embiid covering enough ground to stifle movement offenses like Brooklyn, or even Boston when things are going well.
The Sixers should end up as a top-three seed, and if they handle him correctly, the benefits of having a fully healthy and rested Embiid cannot be understated. But this lineup has clear issues, and it’ll be on the Sixers over the next nine months to fix them as well as they can.