76ers

Don't forget about Josh Richardson, 'the secret' for Sixers' starting 5

Don't forget about Josh Richardson, 'the secret' for Sixers' starting 5

Brett Brown has two young All-Stars, a four-time All-Star and a borderline All-Star in his starting lineup.

Yet, you get the impression the least heralded member of that starting unit may excite him more than anyone.

I think Josh [Richardson] is almost kind of the secret — as important as any mortar,” Brown said at his annual luncheon last week. “He just holds us together. He really has a chance to hold us together.

Richardson was part of a sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler and will essentially take the starting position of JJ Redick. He likely won’t be the team’s go-to guy in the fourth quarter or hit crazy, off-balance threes with regularity, but he still has Brown buzzing.

The Sixers’ head coach called him a “do-all” because, well, he can do a little bit of everything.

“You know, I see him switch out on a four man and like really be tough enough — although he's wiry, he's tough — guarding into the post if they roll him,” Brown said after practice Wednesday. “You know, switching out easy on ones, twos and threes, stalking a ball — those are some defensive things. I think that offensively the ability to have the ball and play as a big point guard, if you will, with the ball, a playmaker — I think we've seen that.”

The idea of Richardson getting minutes as the team’s primary ball handler almost seems inevitable. Veterans Trey Burke and Raul Neto were brought in to compete for the backup point guard spot but a lineup with Richardson playing the one is much stronger defensively.

It’s not a foreign idea for Richardson, who ran the point during his senior season at Tennessee and spent time initiating the Heat’s offense last season. He set career highs in 2018-19 with 16.6 points and 4.1 assists a game.

The Sixers won’t demand nearly as much out of the 26-year-old. And that’s OK with Richardson. He suspects he’ll have more open looks and can help run — with obviously a different dynamic — the two-man game Joel Embiid and Redick had so much success with the last two seasons. On Wednesday, he lauded Embiid for his communication as the duo tries to develop chemistry.

Part of what’s made Richardson’s transition so easy is that the players in the Sixers’ locker room have welcomed him with open arms. All four of his NBA seasons were in Miami. It’s the only franchise he’s ever known.

The welcoming nature of his new team has been a huge help.

“It's not super different, honestly,” Richardson said. “The intensity is great here, so I appreciate that. I mean, there's a lot of great guys on the team in the locker room. You know, you get traded, you never know how you're gonna fit with the guys off the floor. But I mean, Ben and all those guys have been great in helping that transition.”

Richardson is still learning and getting acclimated to his new surroundings. He said he actually gave Tobias Harris a ride home after practice and the two had dinner Tuesday.

Even with his own adjustments, Richardson is still making an effort to help his younger teammates.

He can certainly relate to first-rounders Matisse Thybulle and Zhaire Smith. When Richardson was taken in the second round of the 2015 draft by the Heat, he couldn’t get off the bench for a veteran-heavy playoff team. By midseason, he earned a larger role and became part of the rotation for Miami’s postseason run.

Thybulle and Smith can relate as the young wings fight for minutes on a team with championship aspirations.

I've just been trying to take those guys under my wing a little bit and just make it easier because I know the game is moving fast for them right now,” Richardson said. “I think it's important for them to have older guys helping them out. …

“I've just been trying to keep them confident, honestly. That's like the biggest thing for the young guys like that is the confidence. Matisse made some good moves today and a couple of them didn't drop, a couple of them did and I just try to stay in his ear about keep attacking and stay positive. Zhaire did a great job on defense. He had one block over here and it was like he came out of nowhere. He can do a lot of things a lot of guys in NBA can't do, so I'm excited about both of them.

Whether it’s the two-man game with Embiid, playing backup point guard or mentoring young players, Richardson really is pliable.

There's more of a just willingness to fit in and do whatever it takes that I felt like he showed in Miami, and he was called upon with the team that they had to do more, and he did,” Brown said. “This year, with the team that we have, I feel like he's just so mindful of what he can do and his surrounding cast, his neighborhood, that he'll fit into whatever we need. He really is capable in a lot of ways.

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Sixers Talk podcast: Bring on the Bucks!

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NBCSP/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: Bring on the Bucks!

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Amy Fadool discuss Joel Embiid dominating, Alec Burks being a spark off the bench, and Saturday's huge matchup against the Bucks.

• Sixers win a weird one in their first game after the All-Star break (1:07)

• Alec Burks gives the Sixers exactly what they need (9:18)

• Al Horford's new role (12:55)

• Joel Embiid vs Giannis Antetokounmpo (25:08)

• Ben Simmons' defense has allowed the Sixers to really compete against the Bucks (29:42)

• Sixers' three-point shooting percentage against Milwaukee (32:32).

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With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers have 24 two-man lineups that have played at least 400 minutes together this season. The Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of them all, by a margin of 2.9 points.

It’s an important statistic and an obvious reason why it made sense for the Sixers to remove Horford from their starting lineup. Horford played only nine minutes with Embiid on Feb. 11 against the Clippers, seven minutes Thursday night vs. the Nets. Before that, the pair had averaged 14.3 minutes per game together. 

Is Brett Brown’s goal simply to minimize the time those two share the floor? 

At times when you see that number to be low, it will be driven because the matchups just, in my opinion, didn't allow it," he said Friday. "It's just a stone cold small-ball game. Some of it will be driven out of performance and my gut feel, but I feel like a large portion of it will be driven out of just the matchups that we have on the floor. 

“It is my hope that you see that number in a healthy way. It's still the desire to have those two guys play quality basketball and coexist whenever that is required. But I feel like the number that I was saying should be judged based on matchups. You're going to see if it's a tiny number, I'll be shocked if it's not driven completely because the game is really small.”

The Nets did indeed use ultra-small lineups against the Sixers, with 6-foot-8 Wilson Chandler seeing time at center. Horford also played poorly. He was a minus-26 in 18:33 which, though an extreme number, did not seem to be an outrageously inaccurate reflection of his performance. 

Putting Horford on the floor with Embiid at the end of the game would have been illogical — doing so would have removed a ball handler like Alec Burks or Shake Milton or forced Brown to take out Tobias Harris (22 points, 12 rebounds). Essentially, Brown would have been trying to insert an ill-fitting piece and using a lineup that made little sense in the circumstances. 

Still, one can understand the instinct to involve Horford as much as possible. The Sixers gave him a lucrative four-year contract this season with the idea that he could both back up Embiid and play next to him. To abandon one half of that equation could be viewed as admitting a costly mistake, even in the context of Horford still having value as an improvement over the team’s backup centers last year and as Embiid insurance.

Brown doesn’t see Horford as a lost cause and was insistent Friday that the five-time All-Star is still an important player for the Sixers. 

“There's a human side of this that I take a lot of pride in, figuring that side out as as best I can,” he said. “Relationships and communication rule our sort of worlds. … He's a prideful man, he's got a history that he has, he has been rewarded with the contract that he has, and just keeping it very straight, very clean, very quick, and this is how I see it, this is why I see it this way, and not being apologetic about it. … He knows that I am aware of it all. And I believe that things will settle. 

“We have seen the history of Al Horford, and all of us would be very naive to think that some of his signing wasn't driven to where we think we want to be in April, May and we hope June. Just progress out, look ahead to see the matchups. … I think the communication and how I speak to Al is for me driven with those sort of core tenants in mind that I try to stick to.”

Horford is shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range, his worst mark since 2014-15, and 33.1 percent on wide-open threes. A hopeful look at history would suggest those numbers will improve. 

He’s also accepted a bench role without any fuss, saying Wednesday, “It’s what the team needs right now, and that’s what we’re doing.”

There is certainly evidence to support the notion he can excel at a job that includes a few less minutes alongside Embiid but still has him featuring in late-game lineups, especially against teams like the Bucks. 

Brown will continue to track the success and regularity of the Embiid-Horford duo. Though he and the Sixers will be looking for signs of improvement, it’s feasible that he’ll eventually be best served by further decreasing the playing time of his original frontcourt. 

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