Sixers smart to reload with Tobias Harris and Al Horford after losing Jimmy Butler

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USA Today Sports

Sixers smart to reload with Tobias Harris and Al Horford after losing Jimmy Butler

It’s easy to see the logic behind the Philadelphia 76ers wanting to run it back. They could justify offering Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris five-year max contracts on the simple premise that they were a few bounces away from a Game 7 overtime against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. They were right there, even with an ailing Joel Embiid laboring through the series.

The so-called Phantastic Phive featuring Ben Simmons and JJ Redick alongside Embiid, Harris and Butler was a loaded crew. So loaded, in fact, that the five-man lineup posted the single best plus-minus of any postseason lineup, per NBA.com/stats. It posted a plus-98 in the playoffs, even better than the Raptors’ starting unit that registered a plus-87. No other team featured a lineup that was better than plus-55. Phantastic, indeed.

Even more promising, with Butler and Harris added midseason, the group’s chemistry was concocted on the fly without the benefit of a training camp or preseason. What if they actually got, you know, time to practice? With Kevin Durant hurt and in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson likely to miss most of, if not the entire season, Philly could have trotted out arguably the best starting lineup in the NBA, finally with time to marinate.

How can you turn that down?

For one, you need everyone to actually want to run it back. It’s not totally clear how much they wanted to do that. As soon as free agency officially opened (ha, officially), Redick reportedly left for New Orleans, taking a two-year, $26 million deal. Butler made it known he wanted out, so much so he flew down to Miami to begin free agency and make it clear that’s where he wanted to be. 

Butler’s trip to Miami was not a leverage play. A source close to the situation says Butler was indeed offered the five-year, $190 million full max from Philly, but Butler wanted to move on. And perhaps the Sixers put the offer on the table with the understanding that Butler wouldn’t take it.

Even if the Sixers deeply wanted Butler back, both sides can confidently say they’re in better places now. With a $141 million deal in hand, Butler will spend his early 30s in South Florida under Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley, two gym rats who seem to mirror Butler’s basketball DNA. 

And the Sixers? I really like what they did on Sunday. But holy smokes, the stones on this front office. 

Since taking over as general manager last September, Elton Brand has: traded Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless for Butler and Justin Patton; Traded Wilson Chandler (who was acquired in July), Mike Muscala (acquired in July), Landry Shamet (drafted 26th overall in June), a 2020 first-rounder (top-14 protected), Miami’s 2021 first-rounder and two seconds for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott; Traded former 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz for Jonathan Simmons and two second-rounders.

On draft night, Brand acquired Boston’s No. 20 overall pick in exchange for Nos. 24 and 33 so the Sixers could draft Fultz’s former teammate at Washington, Matisse Thybulle.

Brand wasn’t done reshaping the roster. On the first day of free agency, two blockbuster deals: the Butler sign-and-trade to Miami for Josh Richardson and then signing Al Horford away from Boston for four years and $109 million. 

It’s all a risk, but a worthy gamble, even if this wasn’t Plan A. The Sixers are building twin towers with Horford and Embiid, two of the most skilled bigs in the NBA. In his age-32 season, Horford was among the top-20 or top-30 players in the league last season, depending on who you ask or which metric you consult.

There’s not much that Horford can’t do on the basketball court. As I quickly detailed in my free agency tracker, it’s why Horford has given Embiid so many fits over the years. Over the last three seasons, he’s also shot 38.2 percent from downtown. Only one starting big, Karl-Anthony Towns, shot a higher percentage on at least 500 attempts. Horford is miles better defensively than Towns and a much savvier passer. Horford may not score 30 points a night, but that’s why you have Embiid.

But the best value that Horford brings for the Sixers is that he can be Embiid’s respite.

The Toronto Raptors don’t win a title if it wasn’t for Pascal Siakam filling in for Kawhi Leonard during Leonard’s load-management program. The Raptors famously went 17-5 in Leonard’s absence during the regular season, largely because they had a do-it-all replacement who could fill in and keep Leonard fresh for the postseason. 

Horford can be Siakam for Philadelphia. For the Sixers, the biggest hole all along was the one behind Embiid. The Sixers were plus-143 in the postseason with Embiid on the floor and an astounding minus-107 with him on the bench. The most extreme example of this came in Game 7 when Embiid played 45 minutes and 12 seconds and posted a plus-10. The Raptors won by 2, outscoring the Sixers by 12 points in two-plus minutes Embiid missed.

Basketball people around the league were puzzled by the Horford signing because the Sixers already have Embiid. Said one executive: “That’s a lot of money for a guy who plays the same position as your best player.”

But I think that’s precisely why the Sixers got Horford. He can be a relief for Embiid when he needs strategic rest throughout the regular season. This is a 7-footer with a history of foot problems who, according to ESPN.com’s Chris Herring, deliberately falls to the ground all the time in order to lighten the pounding on his feet.

"I know there are fans that are always thinking, 'No!' each time I fall, but that's why I do it," Embiid told ESPN. "The specialists for my foot told me to do it."

If you don’t believe in the role of the load manager, look at what the Golden State Warriors did on Sunday. Instead of taking next season off and keeping books clean, they reloaded by adding D’Angelo Russell, who, like Horford, plays the same position as the team’s best player, Stephen Curry. It’s possible that Russell is just a rental, as the New York Times’ Marc Stein suggested in a radio hit (although league sources were quick to shoot down that notion). Due to cap rules, the earliest the Warriors could trade Russell is December 15, if he indeed is just a talent acquisition to be moved later. Even then, every game that Russell relieves Curry from having to play 40 minutes a night can pay dividends down the road. 

It’s not just the Warriors and Sixers. After James Harden just about collapsed against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2017 playoffs, the Houston Rockets went out and acquired Chris Paul, who ostensibly plays the same position as Harden. Since bringing in Paul, no team has won more regular-season games than the Rockets, who might also be the favorites out West next season. 

The Sixers are making the bet that having two stars play the same position is not a bug, it’s a feature. With a high IQ and versatile skill set, Horford plays a brand of basketball that should age well. Horford has never needed to jump through the roof to make a big impact. He’s a year and a half younger than the similarly-skilled Marc Gasol, who just won a title with Toronto in his age-34 season and is due to make $25.6 million next season. Horford’s salary will be around that.

As for Richardson, the Sixers will be happy with his two-way game and a contract that pays him only $32 million over the next three seasons. Ironically, for years, Richardson drew a ton of Jimmy Butler comps internally among Heat staffers. 

It’s a fair parallel when you consider their stories. Butler was the last pick of the first round in 2011 and Richardson was drafted 40th overall in 2015. Richardson has increased his scoring average in each of the first four seasons in the league, posting 16.6 points per game last season while making 164 3-pointers at a 35.7 percent clip. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus, only seven shooting guards in the NBA posted a positive (better than average) impact on both ends of the floor, including Richardson and Butler.

Richardson may not be as good as Butler, but he’s cut from the same cloth. 

Perhaps most importantly for the Sixers’ calculus, Richardson is four years younger than Butler and can grow alongside Simmons and Embiid. He is able to guard multiple positions and can run the pick-and-roll sufficiently enough to play point guard in a pinch. Again, not a star, but he has some more room to grow. 

With Horford and Richardson, the Sixers have the ability to flaunt the best defense in the NBA next season. Their five starters are all average or better on that end of the floor. Embiid and Simmons have the potential to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. Rookie wing Matisse Thybulle is a freak defensive player, who was a block and steal machine at Washington. With Horford and Embiid manning the back line, Thybulle can roam for steals a lot like he did at Washington.

This deal still has some minor details to iron out from the Heat’s cap perspective. Either way, Richardson will almost certainly be on the way to Philadelphia, no matter who the Heat send to a third team to make the trade work from a cap perspective. On both sides of this deal, there’s no turning back now. That hasn’t scared the 76ers before.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Ben Simmons' injury puts Sixers at a crossroads

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NBC Sports

Ben Simmons' injury puts Sixers at a crossroads

Global pandemic aside, this was not the season the Philadelphia 76ers expected in 2019-20. On Monday, Ben Simmons reportedly underwent surgery in Philadelphia to remove a loose body from his left knee, all but ending his season. The Sixers are locked into the No. 6 seed in the East with Joel Embiid already dealing with a sore left ankle. 

Before this season, ESPN pegged the new-look Sixers as more likely to win the 2020 NBA Finals than the Los Angeles Lakers. In early October, Vegas placed their over/under at 54.5 wins, the Sixers’ most bullish rating in decades. Instead, they have the win percentage of a 48-win team and no Simmons to rescue their playoff hopes.

Now, the 76ers have some decisions to make. With the title out of reach, should they play Embiid the rest of the way or shut him down? If Embiid plays, should Al Horford replace Simmons’ spot in the lineup or will that push Embiid out of his comfort zone? 

But the bigger question looming beyond this season is: Why is the Simmons-Embiid era trending in the wrong direction?

With the playoffs around the corner, let’s dive into one of the great mysteries in the NBA.

Embiid’s dilemma: to play or not to play?

This was supposed to be Embiid’s postseason of redemption. After several bounces on the rim at the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid and the Sixers’ 2018-19 season ended at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors. The Sixers were right there.

And Embiid wasn’t even himself. Laboring through a bothersome left knee injury that limited him throughout the season, Embiid shot just 42.8 percent from the floor last postseason and missed a game in the Brooklyn series dealing with the leg issue. A healthy Embiid in the postseason meant the sky was the limit for the Sixers. It didn't come to fruition in 2019.

As a result, last offseason the Sixers front office shook things up and decided to bolster the backcourt to help keep Embiid fresh and healthy. They signed former Celtics big man Al Horford to a four-year, $109- million contract and traded Butler for Josh Richardson. But after last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Raptors, Embiid’s redemption tour hasn’t gone smoothly. On The Old Man & The Three podcast with his former teammate JJ Redick, which was recorded before Simmons’ injury, Embiid expressed that he hadn’t been in the groove this season.

“I won’t lie, during this season, I was not myself,” Embiid said. “I was not there. Like, I just wasn’t comfortable. The offense wasn’t the same. The basketball wasn’t the same to me. The way things happened last summer, it was just so frustrating. I was just mad at the whole world and I was just like, eh, whatever.”

Despite that discomfort, Embiid still thought the Sixers could take home the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.

“But I still believe,” Embiid added. “We’ve got a big chance to make it happen. We can win the whole thing.”

With Simmons sidelined, the calculus has inevitably changed. Now, the question becomes whether the unlikely reward of a deep playoff run is worth the risk of Embiid getting seriously hurt. The 7-foot center has already missed 22 games this season dealing with various injuries and we’ve already seen major injuries befall Simmons (patella subluxation), Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. (torn meniscus) and Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL). 

The good news is that injuries haven’t spiked beyond the norm in the Orlando bubble, according to injury tracking by InStreetClothes.com’s Jeff Stotts. Some of that might be due to the recent aggressive resting strategies by teams as they gear up for the playoffs. Unfortunately, in the opening minutes of the second game of Simmons’ absence, Embiid landed awkwardly on the stanchion and hurt his left ankle, ending his night. Embiid’s sore ankle kept him out of Tuesday’s game ahead of Wednesday’s juicy matchup against the Raptors, a game in which Embiid only played 14 minutes.

It’d be understandable if the Sixers decide to exercise caution with their franchise pillar and keep Embiid sidelined with his sore ankle and various ailments. This wasn’t the Sixers’ year, why risk it? But if the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana’s TJ Warren have taught us anything: crazy things can happen in the bubble. Maybe an Embiid-led Sixers squad can shock the world and take down the Celtics. 

If Embiid plays, what’s the best chance of a deep playoff run?

Horford will likely step into the starting lineup and replace Simmons next to Joel Embiid, an alignment that coach Bret Brown loathed to use this season. Before Simmons got hurt last week, Horford and Embiid played without Simmons for only 128 of the team’s 3,327 minutes this season, according to PBPstats.com tracking. (Brown’s intuition may have been onto something: the Sixers’ opponent actually outscored by exactly one point in those Simmons-less minutes with Horford and Embiid on the floor.)

Statistically, Embiid has been better off individually when he doesn’t play with Horford. And that brings us to the short-term dilemma facing the Sixers: the best thing for the Sixers might be bringing Horford off the bench, but the optics of putting a $100-million player in the second unit may not sit well.

The team’s decision to pivot away from the Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick era and sign Horford was met with mixed reviews. But I was bullish on the move simply because Horford would help rescue the hellacious Embiid-less minutes that torpedo’d the Sixers’ East Finals hopes last season.

Horford hasn’t been the Sixers’ savior. Perhaps that’s putting too much on his shoulders. But then again, nine-figure contracts bring high expectations. Ironically, by far the most successful Sixers look this season has been Embiid playing solo without Horford or Simmons on the floor at all. In 439 minutes this season, per PBPstats.com, the Solo Embiid lineups have blasted opponents 981-860, or 13.9 points every 100 possessions. 

If the Sixers are going to make a run, that’s how they’re going to do it: maximizing Solo Embiid time and turning Horford into the Sixers’ Montrezl Harrell. 

My suggestion would be to replace Simmons with Mike Scott, not Horford. The Sixers need to surround Embiid with as much shooting as possible. Simmons’ willingness to shoot 3s would have been such a game-changer but his injury means we won’t get to see whether the 24-year-old was going to finally add that weapon to his arsenal.

Scott won’t hesitate to let it fly, giving Embiid ample room to dominate in the post. Yes, Charles Barkley sometimes goes over the top with his Embiid criticism, but the notion that Embiid should spend more time on the block is a fair one. 

If you want Superstar Embiid, chances are Horford can’t be in the picture. With Horford on the floor, Embiid shoots 5.3 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. There just isn’t as much space for Embiid to operate when he’s flanked by the paint-dwelling Horford. When the former Celtics is on the floor, Embiid’s rates of basket attacks and free throws go south.

But when Horford is on the bench, Embiid’s launch rate from downtown falls to 3.4 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, which is a much healthier number considering Embiid is a below-average marksmen from downtown (33.1 percent). Perhaps most importantly, Embiid playing without Horford has far better results on the scoreboard (plus-147 without Horford versus plus-7 with Horford).

You don’t have to remind this phenomenon to Celtics fans. Back in December, Horford sat out the Sixers’ visit to TD Garden and Embiid destroyed Boston’s frontline, tallying 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and going to the free-throw line 14 times. The Celtics had no answer for Embiid and the Sixers won a road game in the toughest of environments, a rarity for this Sixers squad. When Horford and Embiid played in February in Boston, the Celtics blew out the Sixers while Embiid struggled throughout the night.

The Horford-Embiid partnership is awkward, but it’s easy to see why the Sixers want to make it work. Nine-figure salaries don’t typically go to reserve players. But the evidence is clear. If the Sixers want to raise their playoff ceiling, they should look to maximize Embiid first and the rest will take care of itself.

What about the Simmons-Embiid duo long-term?

No, I don’t think the Sixers need to break up the Simmons-Embiid duo. The team has them under contract for at least three additional seasons. Simmons just turned 24 years old. Embiid is 26. Their primes should be in Philadelphia.

But it’s fair to bring up the possibility, given their trajectory. After a breakout season in 2017-18, the Sixers have seen their win percentage fall in each of the last two seasons. With Simmons sidelineed, the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since the Allen Iverson era remains elusive.

And they may be stuck with what they have. Because the Horford, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris acquisitions haven’t worked out exactly as planned, the team has not only fallen short of expectations this season, but each player’s individual value around the league has also soured. Likewise, any attractive retool strategies will be gummed up by the lukewarm stock of Philadelphia’s supporting cast. 

This is the double whammy of having a down season. So, how do they get out of it? 

It won’t be easy. They need shooting, shooting and more shooting. Losing Redick’s marksmanship and two-man game with Embiid devastated the Sixers. Last season, the Sixers’ starting lineup with Butler and Redick scored a blistering 121.9 points per 100 possessions. This season with Richardson and Horford? It plummeted to 105.4 points. The defensive upgrade simply hasn’t stopped the bleeding on the offensive end.

The Sixers should  focus on Joe Harris this offseason. The Brooklyn sharpshooter is an unrestricted free agent and the Nets retain his Bird rights, allowing them to offer a higher salary than any other team. A sign-and-trade could be doable. The question is whether the Nets would want in return, supposing he’s even on the table.

The Nets have a hole at power forward and they could be interested in bringing home Long Island native Tobias Harris as a high-quality safety net for Kevin Durant, allowing the two-time MVP to ease back into the flow of things after his Achilles injury.

The Nets may have some motivation to find some value in return for Joe Harris. The team already has committed a three-year, $52.5 million contract extension to shooting guard Caris LeVert, which kicks in next season. With Spencer Dinwiddie already looking for minutes behind LeVert and Kyrie Irving, Harris might be the odd one out.

The Nets could orchestrate a complicated Joe Harris sign-and-trade to get him to Philly but it would likely require Philly giving up an asset like Matisse Thybulle in the deal. It’s hard to see the pathway to get a Harris-Harris swap (Tobias makes $34.3 million next season), but the Sixers should at the very least kick the tires on what it’d take to acquire the best free agent shooter on the 2020 market.

Another intriguing option is Sacramento’s Nemanja Bjelica. If Bjelica hadn’t made a last-minute reversal in 2018 free agency, he'd be on the Sixers right now. Bjelica is due $7.2 million next season and the Kings have an interesting offseason ahead with Bogdan Bogdanovic being a restricted free agent. Trading for Philly’s Richardson could be a fallback option if Bogie’s pricetag gets too high for Sacramento’s liking.

The Sixers may just stand pat and try to make it work with this group rather than retool for the third straight year. Trading Simmons or Embiid is not the right answer. The incessant noise about breaking up the Simmons-Embiid duo drowns out the real issue which is finding the right pieces around the star duo. Horford is an expensive battery for Embiid, but bringing Horford off the bench may be the best way the Sixers can salvage a lost season. No matter what happens in the bubble playoffs, another fascinating offseason awaits Philadelphia.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

Haberstat: What's causing the NBA's dunk shortage?

The bubble has revived a lot of the NBA's best rivalries and helped flame some new ones but one thing that's been missing during the regular season restart is elevation. 

Everyone seems to be a little less bouncy since they've arrived at Disney World, and that shows in the number of dunks per NBA game in the bubble being down 25%. 

What's causing this deflation in elevation? The biggest factor is NBA players not having their legs quite yet. 

Another big factor is how teams are responding to certain opponents. 

Don't buy that? The Lakers led the NBA with 7.8 dunks per game before March 11, but the bubble environment has sapped that element of their attack -- down to just 4.7 per game.

And perhaps most notable, the Lakers finished with 0 dunks for the first time all season against the small-ball Houston Rockets. 

Seems like someone is changing their plan of attack.