(Note: This article was written before the Philadelphia 76ers’ 114-109 loss to the Phoenix Suns. It was an off game for Josh Richardson at both ends of the floor, but his first five games proved how much he can help defensively. All stats are up-to-date as of November 5.)
The Philadelphia 76ers needed a defender like Josh Richardson. As talented and versatile as Ben Simmons is defensively, they needed someone else to provide more resistance at the point of attack. Dynamic guards burned the Sixers far too often last season.
Richardson’s offense has been a little slow so far. Taking on backup point guard duties hasn’t been too pretty yet for him (serving as a lead ball handler isn’t where he’s best), while his 3-point shooting is off to a cold start. He hit a big 3 down the stretch to help finish the Sixers’ 21-point comeback against Portland, but his overall shooting splits for the early season are underwhelming with a 37.8 field goal percentage and 22.2 3-point percentage.
Richardson’s defense has been another story, though. Through six games, he’s been (mostly) brilliant in every area the Sixers could ask for defensively.
Richardson’s versatility is a welcome change in place of JJ Redick on defense. Richardson can comfortably switch onto wings and hold his own, with the size (6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan), strength, and footwork to switch and contest opponents at the perimeter, on drives, and in the post.
In the play below, Jayson Tatum finds himself switched onto Richardson after initially being guarded by Ben Simmons — the Sixers’ defense is relentless towards opponents who want a remotely favorable switch. Richardson smoothly slides his feet to stick to Tatum and hold him to an off-balance floater from no closer than a step inside the free throw line:
Richardson’s ability to contest shots from behind is a valuable weapon, too. Even when he gets put a step behind the play due to an explosive first step or good screen, Richardson is often able to force opponents into rushed (or blocked) shots with rear contests.
On this play, Gordon Hayward made the mistake of thinking he could just keep Richardson on his hip and dribble into the paint to finish, but Richardson gave him no breathing room and blocked the shot with a perfectly timed and placed contest:
The biggest change for the Sixers with Richardson on board, though, has been point-of-attack defense. The ability to cover guards, apply physical pressure on the ball, frequently deny passes and hand-offs, and fight around screens has given their team a new dynamic. It’s where the team’s smaller guards like Redick and T.J. McConnell struggled mightily last season.
These two steals against Minnesota in the clip below are good examples of what Richardson can do. First, Richardson takes a wide angle to dart around Karl-Anthony Towns to pursue Shabazz Napier and break up the pocket pass to Towns on the roll. On the second play, Richardson takes some contact and persists around Towns’ screen again to shut out a pass to a cutting Andrew Wiggins:
If Richardson doesn’t beat the screen on the second play, Tobias Harris is left alone to contest Wiggins at the rim. Too many players slipped through the cracks of the Sixers’ perimeter defense against good screens last season, but there aren’t nearly as many openings now with Richardson flying around the floor. He’s just too agile, physical, and persistent fighting around picks.
This element of Richardson’s defense stood out most in the Sixers’ 105-103 win over the Atlanta Hawks. After Trae Young’s hot first quarter (13 points on 4-of-7 shooting), he was contained about as well as any opposing coach could ask him to be. He proceeded to score just 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting over the last three quarters, and attempted only two more 3-pointers. From denying passes to some hounding play on the ball, Richardson’s defensive arsenal was on display. (Credit to Matisse Thybulle for impressive defense in this game, too.)
Here, Richardson combines with Al Horford to stop Young in a pick-and-roll, darting around the screen and hanging close by to make sure Young knows any pull-up jumpers will be contested from behind. Richardson soon recovers in front of Young, and with Horford in position to contest at the rim, Young is forced to pass:
More so than just forcing bad misses, giving opponents no chance to shoot to begin with and encouraging them to pass is the best outcome for a defender. Richardson is a pest who can often achieve that desired result.
This play demonstrates his persistence and lateral quickness as he shifts across the court. Richardson gives Young no space to operate around screens or get inside the arc to drive:
This is exactly the kind of play the Sixers were missing last season. Then, with 40 seconds left in the game to help secure the win, Richardson had no trouble taking on a bigger assignment. He switched onto the 6-foot-7 De'Andre Hunter, walled off the paint, and blocked Hunter's rushed jumper:
With the game still very much up in the air in the final minute, it was a welcome reminder for Philly of just how much Richardson can be relied upon defensively. He has been terrific against everyone from point guards to small forwards, averaging 1.3 steals and 1.0 block per game for good measure.
Now, as the Sixers experienced on November 2 against a red-hot Blazers team, they just need to implement the right mix of pick-and-roll coverages depending on their opponent. Their narrow win, following a huge comeback and Furkan Korkmaz’s heroics, was their first game of the season with less imposing defense. Portland shooting lights out didn’t help either. Despite Richardson’s efforts and good shot contests at times, Damian Lillard received a host of strong, high screens and had no trouble dribbling into pull-up 3s whenever Philly used drop coverage and their bigs sat back. Lillard’s elite range and shooting off the bounce were on full display as he scored 33 points, shooting 8-of-11 from 3.
Having Joel Embiid would have helped, and some more aggressive hedges and blitzes later in the game were more effective. With Horford’s mobility at center opening up new options, we’ve seen more varied coverages already this season. As the Sixers look to establish themselves as the best defensive team in the NBA, they’ll be able to polish their schemes and consistency to refine how they defend players like Lillard.
As for Richardson specifically, his overall value will increase when he begins making a bigger impact offensively — when he has built up more of a dribble hand-off partnership with Horford and Embiid, isn’t given too much responsibility as a lead ball handler, and some positive regression with his jumper hits. It’s also important to remember that we’re just six games into the season. The Sixers have suffered a significant drop in shooting and perimeter creation with the departures of Redick and Jimmy Butler. Building chemistry on a team with so much roster change takes time.
But for now, Richardson is making his presence felt on defense in every way the Sixers needed. Outings like his performance against the Suns shouldn’t be common. If he maintains his high level of play, which he’s fully capable of, he has a chance to enter the discussion for the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.