Sixers' new starting five designed to be a defensive terror

Sixers' new starting five designed to be a defensive terror

There are still plenty of questions revolving around the Sixers after the chaos of Sunday night. Will Tobias Harris live up to his five-year, $180 million contract? Can the team replace JJ Redick’s shooting and Jimmy Butler’s clutch heroics? And, most perplexingly, what went wrong between Miami and Dallas in the sign-and trade that sent Butler to Miami?

One question, however, was answered. The Sixers have an identity: Elton Brand has designed a defensive terror.

The team’s new starting lineup should be Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid.

Horford and Embiid have both made All-Defensive teams. Simmons, with his unique speed and versatility, appears close to doing so. Richardson is renowned for his defense. Harris is not, but he’s capable on that end of the floor.

And, while the full roster isn’t yet complete, we know Zhaire Smith and rookie Matisse Thybulle will be options for Brett Brown off the bench. That pair of young wings takes pride in their defense and seem to have the physical tools to be very good at it. 

Little about the new version of the Sixers is traditional. The 6-foot-10 Simmons is an unusual point guard. Harris, at 6-foot-9, will likely have to slide from the power forward spot to the three. Horford, in his 13th NBA season, will need to shift to the four, though you’d expect he’ll see plenty of minutes at center when Embiid is off the floor.

For Horford, his three-point shooting ability should alleviate any concerns about whether he’s a viable power forward, at least offensively. He transformed his game after shooting 21 of 65 from three-point territory during his first eight seasons. Horford has taken 927 threes in the four seasons since, making 37.1 percent.

In the middle of the Celtics' five-game playoff series win over the Sixers in April 2018, Horford told NBC Sports Philadelphia that he thinks Simmons — then an opponent, now a teammate — can have similar growth.

He’s already difficult to guard. Like all players, we all make progressions. When I came in the league, I wasn’t shooting much outside the paint. And over the years, I’ve expanded my game — you can say that about a lot of guys. And I feel like with him, it’ll just be another weapon in his arsenal, that he will continue to develop that [jumper].

Simmons won’t be relied upon to make three-point shots in the short term, but it would be helpful for the Sixers if he does indeed expand his game, as he said he would in May (see story).

Richardson shot 36.6 percent from three over the past two seasons, a tick over the league average. Harris hit 32.6 percent of his threes with the Sixers last season, though there’s every reason to believe those numbers are more indicative of a slump by an excellent shooter than an accurate representation of Harris’ abilities. Joel Embiid has soft touch for a big man and Brown often encourages him to let it fly, but he’s been a below-average three-point shooter.

The sharpshooting Redick, meanwhile, is headed to New Orleans, and the Sixers’ point guard — an All-Star last year and the Rookie of the Year the season prior — has yet to make an NBA three. Though Simmons likely won’t supplement the Sixers’ long range shooting next season, the Sixers would sure benefit from him having an improved mid-range game. The perimeter shot has been a highly inefficient option for him — 25 for 99 from 10 feet and out (25.3 percent) last season — but it’s impossible to quantify what the impact of Simmons forcing opponents to respect his jumper would be.

Putting matters of shooting and spacing aside for a moment, it would be surprising if the departure of Redick and addition of Richardson didn’t boost the Sixers’ defense. 

The Sixers finished 14th in the NBA in defensive rating last season after placing third in 2017-18. The major personnel changes prompted by the Butler and Harris trades, their struggles implementing new defensive schemes and a lack of adequate bench defenders all contributed to that decline. Redick’s presence, though, didn’t help. He held his own in the playoffs but was successfully targeted often during the regular season. 

We’d be negligent if we didn’t mention Butler in this discussion of defensive identity. He’s a player who simply hates to be scored on. You sensed he got as much pleasure from poking away a steal and coasting the other way for a dunk as the ecstatic crowd at Wells Fargo Center did.

Still, if you look at the new Sixers’ starting five in isolation, you’re staring back at one of the best defensive teams in basketball. 

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Who will be Sixers' backup point guard in 2019-20 season?

Who will be Sixers' backup point guard in 2019-20 season?

With training camp getting closer, there are plenty of topics to discuss involving the 2019-20 Sixers. Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick.

In this edition, we ask: Who will be the Sixers' backup point guard this season?


This a tough call and should be a legitimate competition.

I like Trey Burke’s game and his ability to get his own shot. It’s a strong NBA skill and not one many of the other Sixers have. He also doesn’t turn the ball over — he’s averaged less than a turnover a game in 17.3 minutes a game the last three seasons combined. He also shot 37.4 percent from three during that span, meaning he could also play next to Ben Simmons. If it were me, Burke would get the first crack at the role.

But Raul Neto seems like the more likely candidate to get backup point guard duties. Neto is a pure floor general who will bring a calming influence that should delight Brett Brown. He started playing professionally overseas when he was 16 and has 20 games of playoff experience under his belt. Neto’s only issue the past couple seasons has been durability, but when healthy, he’s a decent offensive playmaker and shooter (37.7 percent for his career from three).

It should be nice for Brown to have options for once. I still like Shake Milton’s game and would like to see him get a little time as the backup point this season — despite a tough summer league experience. I could also see Josh Richardson getting a few minutes as the team’s primary ball handler. He had the most ball-dominant season of his NBA career last season and averaged 4.1 assists.

Whichever player gets the role will also be aided by Al Horford, an outstanding passer for a big man (4.6 assists per game the last three seasons) who can run some point forward.


This is an interesting sequel to the Jazz’s starting point guard competition in 2015-16, when Neto won the job over Burke. I expect that to happen again, but for Burke to still be in the mix and even preferred over Neto in some matchups. Here’s my thinking:

Neto was signed before Burke and his contract is fully guaranteed, whereas Burke’s deal is partially guaranteed, according to reports. Those details don’t indicate the spot is automatically Neto’s, but they do suggest the competition might be slightly tipped in his favor to start.

Burke is a positive in several areas offensively. He’s excellent in the pick-and-roll, has a good assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6 assists to 1.3 turnover for his career) and can create offense out of nothing. Defensively, he’s poor, to the extent that you’d be worried whether he can be picked on in a playoff setting. The 6-foot-1 guard has a defensive box plus-minus of minus-3 or lower each of the last three seasons.

Neto isn’t great defensively, but you figure Brown would be inclined to trust him over Burke. He doesn’t have Burke’s “I’ll get you a bucket” sort of game, but the Brazilian can also put pressure on a defense. In just 12.8 minutes per game last year, he averaged 7.1 drives, shooting 51.9 percent on those possessions.

It’s a luxury to have someone like Burke who can explode for 42 points in a game or go on a solo scoring run, and he could become a necessity if Neto deals with injuries, as he has the last three seasons. Even in the event both are healthy, if the Sixers are struggling to score from the perimeter and/or facing a small point guard who’s a weak defender, Burke might be the guy.

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Uh Oh: Stephen A. Smith is predicting HUGE things for Sixers this season

Uh Oh: Stephen A. Smith is predicting HUGE things for Sixers this season

Stephen A. Smith's track record of predicting things is suspect to say the least.

So it's with great trepidation that Philadelphia 76ers fans should watch the below clip in which he predicts an NBA Finals appearance for Brett Brown's club this coming season.

Smith made the prediction on ESPN's First Take on Friday morning while sitting alongside NBA legend Magic Johnson (the joke about tampering with Giannis may have been the highlight of the segment).

"The Philadelphia 76ers are going to the NBA Finals," Smith declares. "I'm going to defer to my man Jalen Rose when he points out that Boston arguably has the best perimeter shooting team. We can't ignore that. Toronto lost Kawhi, ain't nothing to discuss. The Greek Freak, as phenomenal as he is, the combo of not having a reliable perimeter shot combined with Malcolm Brogdon being in Indiana..."

"My attitude is, I don't like the fact that Philly lost JJ Redick, that's a big loss to me," Smith continues. "The fact that Boston no longer has Al Horford and the Sixers do, not only somebody to pair with Embiid but to spell him whenever he's out. I'm going to believe Ben Simmons has been working on his shot. I'm going to believe Tobias Harris doesn't have to worry about co-existing with Jimmy Butler and that's a plus. I'm going to believe Josh Richardson can play at both ends of the floor..."

"I'm a little suspect on their bench, but I think the Sixers are going to be playing in June."

On the bright side for Philly fans, it's not like Smith is making some bold proclamation here. FiveThirtyEight's prediction model actually gives the Sixers the best chances of making the Finals of any team in the NBA given the East's weaker make up than the West. In fact, they give the Sixers almost twice as good a chance of doing so than the next closest Eastern contender the Bucks (54% vs. 27%).

So Stephen A. isn't going out on a limb, but it never feels great when he picks your squad in anything.

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