With Tobias Harris trade, the Sixers are officially going for the NBA title

With Tobias Harris trade, the Sixers are officially going for the NBA title

Back in November — which, if we’re being honest, feels like years ago in the often bizarre, always eventful world of the Sixers — we wrote that general manager Elton Brand “showed he wasn’t satisfied with merely being one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference” by acquiring Jimmy Butler.

Heading into Thursday’s trade deadline, the conventional wisdom was that Brand would build around the margins. We expected to be analyzing names like Reggie Bullock, Garrett Temple or Dewayne Dedmon. We even considered the possibility that the Sixers wouldn’t make any moves, that they’d prefer to just wait it out until the buyout market and do their best to complement their Big 3.

We were wrong.

That’s apparently not how Brand — in his first year as GM, we remind you, after assuming the role in the wake of a scandal involving Twitter burner accounts — does business.

The best starting five in the East

By acquiring Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott in exchange for Landry Shamet, two first-round picks and two second-rounders (see story), Brand created, on paper, the best starting lineup in the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Butler, Harris, and Joel Embiid are a big, long unit, with shot creators, sharpshooters and the NBA’s best low-post scorer. There’s just not a better starting five in the NBA outside of the Warriors'.

But the pressure to make all the pieces work together, and to string together a passable bench, is immense. In the short term, the Sixers’ depth, a season-long concern, is even weaker than it was previously. 

Marjanovic and Scott will slot into the Sixers’ rotation, but it wouldn’t be ideal for either to play major playoff minutes. The 7-foot-3 Marjanovic can be an asset in certain situations, but his leaden-footedness often makes him a liablity. Scott has never played more than 18.5 minutes per game in his seven-year NBA career. Brand likely needs to address the bench to turn the Sixers into true title contenders. 

What's next after the blockbuster? 

One edge Brand now has is that Philadelphia is a very attractive destination on the buyout market, with plenty of national attention, the prospect of high-stakes basketball in May and June, and an opportunity to take available minutes. 

The decision to temporarily decimate the bench is one Brand was smart to make. He added a stretch-four, a position of need for the Sixers, and an elite one at that. Harris is a borderline All-Star, averaging 20.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He’s shooting 43.4 percent from three-point range this season, sixth best among players with at least 200 attempts. 

Again, it’s worth emphasizing that the Sixers’ starting five is now incredibly good and, in theory, incredibly well-balanced.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Sixers are budgeting to keep a new Big 4 moving forward, though there are, of course, no guarantees. The Sixers will have Bird Rights on Harris and Butler, meaning they can go over the salary cap to sign both players. 

Could this backfire on Brand?

If the Sixers don’t win the Eastern Conference this year, a new Big 4 doesn’t materialize long term, and one or several of the picks the Sixers relinquished turn into a star(s), there’s a chance Brand’s boldness looks foolish in five years. 

But there’s also a decent chance Brand looks like a genius, a fearless leader who assembled a champion. 

As was the case with former GM Sam Hinkie, there’s not much middle ground in Brand’s approach. 

It’ll be fair to second-guess the trades for Butler and Harris — and, presumably, the moves that are to come —  if Brand’s all-in mentality doesn’t deliver the Sixers a title. Both trades are sensible, but both carry plenty of risk. 

But it won’t be fair to question the commitment to deliver a championship of the Sixers’ 39-year-old general manager, a man who has been rather active in his first year on the job. 

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Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

The Sixers will be down two starters Saturday night when they return to Wells Fargo Center to play the Cavs.

Josh Richardson will miss his fifth consecutive game with right hamstring tightness, while Joel Embiid is out with a left hip contusion.

A team source told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Embiid reported discomfort after the Sixers' 119-113 loss to the Wizards on Thursday night and is being treated for the injury.

Embiid had 26 points, 21 rebounds and eight turnovers Thursday.

Richardson and the Sixers have been cautious with his hamstring. He told reporters in Washington, D.C., that this is the first hamstring injury he's dealt with and admitted that it's been a frustrating process.

“A hamstring is one of those things where you can think that you’re fine and then you take a wrong step and it’s a week or two-week setback," he said. "I don’t really want to get into that whole cycle. ... It’s just one of those things where I just don’t really know where I’m at most of the time. It always feels like I’m tiptoeing, trying not to do too much.”

The Sixers' preferred starting five of Embiid, Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford have played just 102 minutes together this season, posting a plus-21.3 net rating. 

Furkan Korkmaz has started the past four games in place of Richardson. Without Embiid, the Sixers will need to plug in another spot starter and perhaps search for further big man depth. Kyle O'Quinn hasn't played since Nov. 23, but he might be called upon vs. Cleveland.

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How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 

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