You can blame a lot of things for the Sixers not being able to take down the reigning NBA champion Raptors.
Joel Embiid’s health or Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris not giving them enough or just bad luck for a ball bouncing off the rim four times — whatever you want to blame, the season ended in disappointment.
But while the above reasons are clear, there was one thing that happened before Kawhi Leonard sunk that shot and Sixers fans’ hearts in Game 7.
Before Jimmy Butler made a layup to tie the game with 4.2 seconds left, the Sixers hadn’t made a field goal for over three minutes. Toronto turned up their defense and bullied the Sixers out of the gym to help close out the series.
Fast forward to July, and Elton Brand has decided to build a bully of his own and not give in to the #RunItBack crowd.
JJ Redick’s deal with New Orleans was one of the first signings to get reported at 6 p.m. Butler was looking into a sign-and-trade with Miami and eventually got his wish.
Wasn’t it interesting, though, that the Al Horford signing was announced almost immediately after the Butler sign-and-trade to the Heat that got the Sixers Josh Richardson? Reports were surfacing almost immediately after Horford declined his player option with the Celtics on June 18 that a team was prepared to offer him a four-year deal for over $100 million. It seems as though the Sixers were that team all along.
The plan seemed to be to build a defensive bully — even going back to the draft when the team had targeted Matisse Thybulle, the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and traded a pick to move up to No. 20 to get him.
The starting lineup will be long and feature essentially four elite defensive players and perhaps an underrated one in Tobias Harris. In the era of positionless basketball, they’re at the frontline with a 6-foot-10 point guard, a 6-9 wing, two extremely skilled centers and their smallest starter standing at 6-6. If ever a team looked like a bully on paper, this is it.
Even the bench moves by Brand signal an obvious focus on the defensive end of the floor. The team brought back Mike Scott and James Ennis, two switchable, tough and versatile defenders. Thybulle will join 2018 first-round pick Zhaire Smith as another young, bouncy perimeter player that has tremendous defensive potential. Even the signing of veteran center Kyle O'Quinn represents an upgrade over any player Brett Brown used to spell Embiid last season.
It likely won’t all go swimmingly. Harris will be tasked with guarding wings on a nightly basis, something that may be a challenge against quicker swingmen. In theory, the idea of Embiid and Horford sounds like a nightmare for players driving to the rim, but the two will likely have to get used to playing with each other. Even Richardson, for as talented a defender as he may be, will likely be matched up with opposing point guards as the shortest Sixer on the floor. And the Sixers will miss Redick's shooting and Butler's shot creation ability and clutch shotmaking.
The Sixers were painfully close to beating the Raptors with Redick and Butler in the fold. Taking the champs to seven games is great, but it doesn’t bring you hardware or a parade. Brand knows that, which is why the status quo wasn’t good enough. Butler is a star. Redick has been a huge part of the fabric of this team for the last two years.
But Brand had a different plan this season. While most would’ve been on board for the #RunItBack philosophy, he was not.
And no team will be able to push these Sixers around.
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