We may never know the full circumstances of what happened with Jimmy Butler. Butler has teased that one day it will come out. Brett Brown and Elton Brand have avoided talking about it.
In any event, Brand had to do something to fill the void of a player like Butler and saw an opportunity when the mercurial star had his sights set on South Beach. Brand was able to snag Josh Richardson in a complex sign-and-trade.
After the Sixers’ offense had looked so stagnant through much of the season, Brown decided to do some things to get more “organized.” One of them is having Richardson initiate the team’s half-court offense, much like Butler did last postseason.
On Thursday night against the Celtics, the plan was at its most optimal as Richardson ran the show and had a huge night in leading the Sixers to a big win without Joel Embiid (see observations).
“You look at his attitude and his attack mentality right out of the gate, it was impressive,” Brett Brown said. “He just was extremely aggressive on both sides of the ball immediately.”
The man they call J-Rich came out firing, dropping a game-high 29 points (9 of 16) and seven assists. He also went 10 of 10 from the line.
It hasn’t always been as easy it looked Thursday for Richardson. As the Sixers have been clunky on offense, you could see that the 26-year-old has struggled to find his place. We’ve seen flashes of his potential. He had a six-game stretch in which he was averaging over 21 points a game before a hamstring injury cost him six games.
Just a couple contests into his return, he suffered a wrist injury in Boston that clearly affected his shot. From there, Richardson was up and down offensively — until the Sixers snapped their four-game losing streak Monday.
Coming off a 2-for-10 performance in Houston, Richardson has posted back-to-back 20-point games and has the Sixers’ offense humming. Though Richardson admitted that Embiid's absence made him more aggressive, it's a mindset he and Brown have talked about.
“Sometimes, like in Houston, I kind of get caught up in being too unselfish and passing, which isn’t a bad problem to have,” Richardson said. “I talked to Coach a little bit and he just said it gives our offense a different look when I’m aggressive like that. It gives people more space to work.”
One of the beneficiaries of Richardson’s aggressive play and ability to run the offense is Ben Simmons. Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot from outside the paint has been well documented. With that in mind, Brown has strayed from a traditional offense.
The basic idea is Simmons will grab the ball off the rim or catch a high outlet pass and run. Good luck stopping him if he’s got daylight. If there’s nothing available or on made shots, Richardson will run half-court sets. One of the more successful actions Richardson has run is the pick-and-roll. That’s also allowed Simmons to play to his strengths as a screener and a roller.
You may remember that Brown tried to use Richardson as his backup one earlier in the season, but it didn’t work out. A lack of chemistry with the players around him seemed to be one of the bigger issues.
Now, Richardson is running the show at times with the starters and has looked good doing so.
“He's getting better and better just the more I play with him,” Simmons said. “Just his reads, throwing the ball up for lobs or whatever it is — take those midrange shots. He's reading the game a lot better from the start of the season to now.“
The skill sets always made sense working together. Defensively, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better backcourt duo.
Adding chemistry to that mix is getting the most out of both players.
“Whether it’s in practice — because we’re starting to go over that in practice — or in the games,” Richardson said, “when it’s little stuff that we see, we’ll talk about it and then try to do it the next play, see what happens. Today we were just kind of trying to exploit those switches. It’s kind of easy to do it when you’ve got a guy that’s 6-10 and runs like a deer and jumps like he’s a 6-foot guard. You just kind of throw it up there around the rim and he’ll usually make something positive happen.”
But he’s adding an offensive dimension this team has missed in Butler’s absence.
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