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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