Sir Isaac Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion famously states that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. While this notion was made discussing physics, we in the modern-day have taken it and applied it to many, non-physics-related situations. It helps us find a sense of balance, like everything will pan out how it should in the end.
This very same concept can be applied to the offseason dealings of the Philadelphia 76ers. After their activity at last season’s trade deadline, many pointed to this year’s Free Agency period as a potentially catastrophic time for the Sixers. Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler both had expiring deals, and they would each be seeking a max contract. Rumors had been swirling about a potential contract extension for budding Point Guard Ben Simmons, which would without a doubt make the cash situation even tighter. J.J. Redick was going to once again be available to the masses, and without him on the floor, Philadelphia had struggled mightily from 3-point land. Several role players were also on expiring deals, and all this came with little to no chatter of Philly luring any other big fish away from their current teams.
And yet, here, after Free Agency has drawn to a close, fire has not begun to rain from the sky in the City of Brotherly Love. General Manager Elton Brand has successfully navigated his franchise out of the treacherous waters that had previously lied ahead, and although the roster certainly looks different, the 2020 campaign looks to be a promising one for the 76ers.
How did this happen? How did a Free Agency period that, by all accounts, did not go perfectly for Philly, still supply them with a roster capable of picking up where last year’s left off? It came as the result of quick adaptation, ambiguity, and a little bit of luck. However, it is impossible to deny that all the losses and acquisitions the organization has undergone have a sense of neutrality. A sense that, despite all the turnover, the overall talent level on the roster has remained lethal.
The first “domino,” effectively fell for Philly when veteran deadeye J.J. Redick took his talents to New Orleans on a 2-year deal worth about $26.5 million. This came as a shock to the majority of the fanbase, as earlier that morning reports had surfaced saying Redick wanted to resign with the franchise, and he wanted to end his career in a blue and white jersey. Although the 35-year old couldn’t do much but shoot the ball, he did that with both great volume and deadly accuracy. Over his 2 seasons in Philadelphia, the former Duke Blue Devil knocked down over 40% of his triples, while nailing about 3 per night. He also made up for Simmons’ shooting-based shortcomings, and worked well as one of the key cogs in Philly’s fast-break.
It’s unknown exactly what caused Redick to balk from another contract with Philadelphia. Even after the deals they gave out in the rest of Free Agency, they still would’ve been able to offer a contract comparable to what the Pelicans gave Redick for his services. Given his success with the Sixers and his exuberance to resign with them, it’s surprising he chose more money over the security he could’ve had. The Pelicans desperately needed a knockdown shooter to compliment their new young pieces, and they got one in Redick. Unfortunately, that came at the expense of Philadelphia, and it’s a loss they will certainly feel for seasons to come.
After J.J.’s surprising departure, Philly suffered another blow with the announcement that Jimmy Butler intended to leave for the Miami Heat. He needed a sign-and-trade in order to head to South Beach, however it was a foregone conclusion that whatever the Heat could offer wouldn’t make up for the loss of the scrappy 4x All-Star. Jimmy’s first couple months with the Sixers had not offered much promise for his fit with the franchise or his Free Agency. He clashed with all of the team’s main pillars, and especially with Head Coach Brett Brown. It was assumed he would walk in Free Agency, and that Philly wouldn’t necessarily be too upset about it. However, once the playoffs rolled around, Butler showed just how valuable he was.
Although Simmons and Embiid had been to the playoffs before, neither were exactly veterans when it came to the bright lights of the postseason. Fellow trade acquisition Tobias Harris had only been to the tournament once before, and that was when his Pistons were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. That left Butler as the group’s playoff elder statesman, and he showed comfort when handling the ball in the halfcourt. All his totals rose from the regular season, including a new average of 19.4 PPG, and he inspired confidence in each of his teammates that they could do the same. With Butler taking on a larger role, many believed that the possibility of him staying put had become drastically more likely.
Unfortunately, Butler turned down a max contract from the 76ers to join the Heat, and many have speculated that the decision was more related to the cities the respective teams are located in than the quality of the organization. Disputing this rumor, Butler recently explained his decision to sign with Miami, saying “I think the culture that this organization is about, obviously the players that they have, the players they have had in the past, it fits who I am, what I’m about, how I think, how I go about every day.”
Whatever the cause, the potential catastrophe spelled by this offseason had come true for the Sixers thus far. At this point, it was unknown what they would be receiving from Miami, so all they had to show for their efforts was the loss of 2 key starters. At this point, the concept of a net-neutral offseason seemed like a fantasy.
The Harris Relief
In the tense, multiple-hour window between when Butler’s intentions were announced and before Tobias Harris was resigned, the 76ers management and fanbase were put in a position of limbo. Because of their faith in Butler resigning, they didn’t offer Redick the most money they could have, and ended up losing their SG-SF duo altogether. A promising season in which they pushed the eventual champs to 7 games seemed meaningless now; the likelihood of fielding a roster even close to as good as the previous season’s seemed lost.
In this period of despair, the future of the Sixers seemed to be up in the air. They had suffered for so long, been terrible for so long, all for some short-lived time in the limelight. The Process was supposed to deliver a championship to Philly, not 2 second round exits. Fortunately, before long, hope was restored in the hearts of the Sixers faithful.
Harris, whom had been acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers at the trade deadline, resigned with the Sixers on a 5-year, $180 million deal. At just 26 years old, Harris offered far more future upside than Butler, who is set to turn 30 in September. Additionally, Tobias had contributed much more positively to the locker room atmosphere, as Butler had seemed to disrupt team chemistry from the moment he landed in Pennsylvania.
Resigning Harris was vital, as without him Philly would’ve not only lost out on what he specifically contributes, but they also would’ve effectively lost everything they gave up in trading for Butler and Harris. The latter’s fat new deal validated the Sixers’ midseason aggression, and gave Simmons and Embiid a worthy co-star.
On the downside, the general public has not been 100% supportive of Harris being given a max contract. His PPG and shooting saw a noticeable dip in the transition from the Clippers to the 76ers, dropping 2.7 PPG, 3.7 FG%, and 11% 3P%. The points are to be expected after going from being the main option to potentially the 4th, but many were surprised by the way Tobias’ perimeter shooting cratered given the extra space he had to operate. His VORP also saw a significant drop, from 1.5 with LA to 0.3 with Philly. He also saw a performance dip in the playoffs, although this mostly arose from Jimmy’s enhanced presence. His rebounding improved, and his scoring was solid, with the exception of Game 1 against the Nets and Game 2 against the Raptors.
It’s easy to forget that Harris played just 27 regular season games for the Sixers, so not only do we have a small sample size, but with more assimilation and Butler out of the picture, Harris could be one of the NBA’s most surprising players next season. Resigning him is an enormous win for Philadelphia, and one they needed after the heartbreak brought on by the day’s earlier news.
With a nucleus of Simmons, Harris, and Embiid, the 76ers are still in an enviable position moving forward. They still don’t know exactly what the Heat will give them in exchange for Butler, and looking at Miami’s roster, the piece they give up could very well be the shooting and defending compliment the starting lineup needs. The roster may not be quite as good after the departure of Redick and Butler, but it’s still one that may be able to contend in the Eastern Conference.
Just when everyone had settled into that very mindset about Philadelphia moving forward, they shed their ambiguity as the mystery dealer for one of the league’s best veteran Free Agents.
34-year old Al Horford had plans to resign with the Boston Celtics going into his Free Agency. Head Coach Brad Stevens had allowed him to age gracefully, and he still had enough left in the tank to accrue a large new deal from Danny Ainge and Co. However, for an unknown reason, long-term contract talks between the Celtics and Horford fell apart before 6:00 on June 30th had even arrived. It was largely assumed that Big Al would no longer be suiting up for Boston, however, reports of who exactly was courting him were nowhere to be found.
The Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, and Los Angeles Clippers had all been linked to the veteran big man, however there was a reported “mystery team,” that was not only the most likely to sign Horford, but was the one willing to offer him the most money. It was unclear which that mystery team was, ad some NBA executives even believed it was the Celtics. However, on Sunday evening we learned that the mystery buyer was none other than the 76ers.
Horford joined his Eastern Conference rival on a 4-year, $109 million deal, with a large chunk of it reportedly being tied to Philadelphia’s season performance. Signing Embiid’s cryptonite changed the entire outlook on Free Agency for the team. What was once supposed to be Sixers management sitting idly by and hoping their players didn’t spurn them had turned into an active pursuit of pieces to make up for what they had lost. They were prepared for a world in which Butler and Redick said no, and they had a brilliant contingency plan.
At the same time, we finally received word on what Miami would be giving up. The Heat would be sending SG Josh Richardson to Philadelphia, and although the loss of Jimmy still stung, the return of Richardson certainly eased the pain. A 6’6” defensive stud of a guard, Richardson put up nearly 17 PPG in 2019 and knocked down 36% of his 3-pointers. He won’t fill the hole left by J.J. in Philly’s perimeter shooting, but the extra 2-3 triples a game he’ll surely contribute certainly won’t hurt.
Finally, the Sixers ended Free Agency on a sour note, losing two of their most important bench pieces in Boban Marjanovic and T.J. McConnell. Neither of their deals, with the Mavericks and Pacers respectively, exceeded $10 million, so many are unsure why Philly didn’t just pull the trigger on the inexpensive task of shoring up their bench unit. For one, it appears the team has increasing confidence in 2-year PG Shake Milton as their backup for Ben Simmons. McConnell is already 27, and played under 10 minutes per game once the playoffs came around. Perhaps the shift to the younger, more athletic Milton as Simmons’ primary backup will prove prudent.
In another case of Philly choosing the younger player, they may have let Marjanovic walk because of the late-season improvements of Jonah Bolden. At 6’10”, he’s a tad undersized as a backup Center, but fills the Power Forward slot well and has a reliable stroke from 3. HE nailed 35% of his 3s in his rookie year, and made 5 in a game against the Timberwolves where he started while Joel rested. Philadelphia conserved cash in their veteran role players taking more money elsewhere, but only time will tell if letting them do so was the right choice.
Next Season’s Outlook
When I say not much has changed in Philadelphia, do not take it to mean they are the same team with the same style. Next season, the team you see occupying Wells Fargo Center will be much different than that of last year. I simply mean that, although this Free Agency period offered many chances for talent level fluctuation, the 76ers have somehow managed to stay around the same level of skill. The possibilities for next season’s group are, frankly, limitless.
If Joel Embiid can stay healthy, he could be one of the league’s strongest candidates for MVP. With another year of experience under his belt (not to mention mentorship from his greatest counter, Horford), the Cameroonian giant should pick up right where he left off last playoffs. If it hadn’t been for an illness plaguing their star Center, Philadelphia may have been a city of champions, and that’s a missed opportunity Joel will likely not take lightly.
Simmons and Richardson will without a doubt be one of the league’s premier defensive backcourts. With an average height of 6’8”, the two will cause problems for any guards they face. Richardson may not carry the raw shooting chops that Redick did, but he’s much more dangerous in terms of creating his own shot. At 25 years old, there’s also a chance he, Harris, Embiid and Simmons remain as the Sixers’ core 4 for many years to come. With another offseason to develop his 3-point shot, hopefully Ben Simmons can become a semblance of a perimeter shooting threat, which could be the key to his team taking the next step.
The Small Forward position is one that offers little concern for the Sixers, after resigning Harris and drafting Matisse Thybulle, perhaps the draft’s most skilled defender. The Naismith DPOY claimed 2.3 BPG and 3.5 SPG during his senior year at Washington, and will be a reliable foil for Harris against the league’s most lethal Small Forwards.
Finally, the addition of Horford was one of the off-season’s most unpredictable, and he could very well be the X-factor for the 76ers next season. There are few areas of the game that Horford isn’t extremely familiar with and adept at. Offensively, he is still a threat even a 34. He has a reliable stroke from 3, which will no doubt be needed in Philly’s starting group, and is a threat both in the post and from mid-range. The other hidden gem in Horford’s offensive repertoire is passing ability. He averaged 4.2 APG last season, which is something of a Red Herring. Unlike most of the league’s big men, Horford is routinely relied on to initiate plays and passing sequences. He sneaks up to the top of the key, catches a pass from the ball-handler, and gets to work. In some scenarios, he may just let a triple fly, but more often than not he zips a pass to the open man and continues to fly around the play, setting screens and getting open wherever he can. He’s one of the league’s most active players on both ends of the floor, and this is best exhibited in his 4.64 RPM, 4th among NBA big men.
Cohesively, many have expressed excitement in the collective height and wingspan of the Sixers starting lineup and roster as a whole. Josh Richardson is the shortest starter, and even he is oversized for a shooting guard at 6’6”. If we count Center Joel Embiid as his listed height of 7’0” (although he’s most likely closer to 7’2”) the starters are about 6’9” on average. There’s a myriad of stats to delve into about their average wingspan and height, but the main point of it all is to communicate one thing: Philadelphia is the tallest, longest team in the NBA, and that could help them become the best defensive team in the NBA. In an era of small ball, Philly has fully committed to the opposite, and the ramifications of such devotion will be very interesting.
This year’s Free Agency was a taxing experience for the 76ers, with many different series of ebbs and flows. It began with heartbreak with Redick and Butler saying goodbye, but those losses were made up for and then some with the additions of Richardson and Horford, as well as the retention of Harris. Finally, they were brought firmly back to the level of talent they had begun with after losing Marjanovic and McConnell. With such a wild course of events taking place, it’s a wonder that the franchise ended up so close to where they began Free Agency.
After Kawhi Leonard went West, the Sixers and the Milwaukee Bucks have emerged as the leading contenders to make it out of the Eastern Conference next playoffs. That move, even though it did not directly affect the 76ers’ roster, was a huge win for the organization, as well as all the other East contenders. The Sixers may have come one rim-bounce and overtime period away from toppling the Raptors, however it’s always nice to no longer have to worry about the reigning Finals MVP in your conference anymore.
This off-season has been a time of change for the Sixers organization, however, they’ve successfully remained elite through what could’ve been a doomsday-like scenario. We’ll have to wait until the season begins to truly see if their acquisitions truly make up for what they lost, or perhaps take them further than they ever could’ve imagined.