The phrase “bully ball” will likely haunt Sixers fans for a long time. The words that Brett Brown uttered at his annual luncheon before the season made headlines. It wasn’t long before it became a punchline for the way the Sixers went about their roster construction.
A disappointing regular season and a first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics later, the Sixers face an uncertain future. It seems clear in watching the contrast between Boston and the Sixers that one team is built for the current NBA and one is not. For the Sixers, their first priority should be to modernize their roster.
One of the biggest question marks will be about Al Horford and the four-year contract he signed last offseason at the age of 33. Horford surprisingly opted out of his player option with the Celtics and signed a contract with the Sixers that guaranteed him $97 million. Instead of looking to replace Horford with another big, GM Danny Ainge opted to sign Kemba Walker. There will be times going forward where Boston will get hurt by Walker’s defense, but his ability to create and make shots was evident in the series — and in previous matchups against the Sixers.
The Sixers went with Horford, hoping the veteran could space the floor enough to help Embiid while also serving as an elite backup to the All-Star center. While Horford did help mitigate the sting when Embiid wasn’t on the floor, the trio of Horford, Embiid and Ben Simmons just never worked offensively. Horford and Embiid had the worst offensive rating of any two-man lineup the Sixers used that played at least 300 minutes together. The trio of Horford, Embiid and Simmons? You guessed it, the worst three-man lineup offensively that played at least 300 minutes together.
The other big contract the Sixers doled out before the season went to Tobias Harris, who signed a near-max deal at five years and $180 million. For several reasons, the Sixers brought back Harris and worked out a sign-and-trade with the Heat so Jimmy Butler could go to his preferred free-agency destination.
Harris struggled a bit in the playoffs last season but seemed to be an ascending player that was shooting the three at an elite clip before he arrived from the Clippers. There were questions of whether Harris was worth paying like a star. Harris also wasn’t a shot creator and closer like Butler was.
From a personality standpoint, it was easy to see why Elton Brand would look to lock up Harris instead of Butler. Harris is the ideal face of a franchise with his cordialness and community efforts. Unfortunately, it was clear during the series against the Celtics that he doesn’t have the skillset the Sixers need and struggled to help Embiid shoulder the offensive load. Butler may not have been the right choice for this team long term, but not doing anything to replace his ability as a creator and closer was a mistake.
So, what do the Sixers do from here? A coaching change seems likely. A front office change might happen. No matter what happens, one of the team’s first priorities needs to be to find a way to shed Horford’s contract. You have to give Horford credit. He was a pro and never complained or griped about his fit or role. It seems like it could be in everyone’s best interest to move on. Horford could still help a team in need of a veteran five.
While the Sixers should look into moving on from Harris’ money, it seems like there’s a greater chance for Harris to fit. He’s not likely to live up to the near-max deal he signed, but there is a path to him possibly having success here. He's six years younger than Horford and if the team can acquire a player with the ability to make plays off the bounce, Harris could conceivably play a role as a combo forward next to Simmons. Him regaining the shooting consistency he found in L.A. would help.
If the Sixers have any hope of moving either contract, they’re likely going to have to give up something of value. Though he disappointed a little offensively against the Celtics, Josh Richardson showed how strong he can be defensively and is on a team-friendly deal. Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton are promising young players on cheap contracts. The Sixers will have the Thunder’s 2020 first-round pick (21st overall) and could also look to move a future first-rounder.
The price of Horford and Harris’ contracts is high. So too could be the price to get rid of those deals.
Apparently “bully ball” comes at a high cost.