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.