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The Terminator: Closers And the 2019-2020 Philadelphia 76ers

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Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

As often happens with me, this post got a little long, so at the suggestion of some thoughtful friends and commenters, I will summarize the core arguments for those who just want the gist:

  • The Sixers have made some excellent moves this offseason and have solved many of what appeared to be significant roster-construction issues
  • The core remaining potential issue is the lack of a “closer” who can get the team a bucket against bear-down defenses at crunch time and in the playoffs
  • In my opinion, the closer concern is legitimate
  • And the Sixers will have great difficulty obtaining a closer for this year’s playoffs, for reasons I explain
  • But the history of high-quality no-closer teams is not nearly as worrisome as I would have thought, and so there’s a good chance the problem is one of manageable proportions, rather than a crisis.

OK, now we’ve gotten rid of all the lazy readers, let’s dig in!

Angle of attack

Sportswriters gotta write, podcasters gotta cast, and just repeating over and over that the Sixers’ offseason seems to be going very well does not make for exceptionally interesting content. So all the scribblers and talkers out there, local and national alike, have been searching for an angle of attack, to borrow a term from the world of aviation. The problem has been that, time after time, the attacks have fallen victim to events. The first big assault was over the supposed foolishness of the Sixers for trading some second-round picks. I’ve already written over 5,000 words on that subject here on LB, on how ridiculous those attacks were, and believe me I have lots more coming about that! The wrongness of the criticisms is now obvious for all to see, but I’ll get into that in a separate post. Then people were outraged that the Sixers were planning to overuse Embiid and Horford since there weren’t any other playoff-worthy centers on the roster. But then we added the excellent Kyle O’Quinn. I probably won’t take the time to write a whole post on KOQ — though you never know! — but he is a longtime favorite of analytically-minded folks like me. Last year his adjusted plus-minus was poor, but that tells us little since he played only a few hundred minutes and regression-based stats need more data than that to give accurate results. The year before, when he was healthy and played significant minutes, he put up an RPM of around +2. That was probably a bit of a lucky year, but I’d say his true ability is in the range between 0 (borderline starter) and +1 (average starter). If you’re dubious about Kyle, I recommend you look at his astonishing per-36 counting stats. Counting statistics can mislead, and indeed I think in O’Quinn’s case they do; if they told the whole story he’d be a star-level player! It’s pretty typical for him to deliver around 12 rebounds and 5 assists per 36. 12 is a lot of rebounds, though hardly unheard of. But 5 assists per 36 minutes?! That’s not a crazy number for a point guard! It’s about what Kyrie Irving delivered in Cleveland, or Tony Parker with the Spurs. It’s absolutely extraordinary for a center.

And then you look at steals and blocks; KOQ gives you around 1 of the former and 2.5 of the latter, a bit less than that, say 3.3 stocks. That’s the kind of number associated with either a) superstars or b) defensive specialists. O’Quinn gets close to 15 points per 36 and adds that stellar passing. Other than not being a “stretch 5,” and fouling rather more than one would like, Kyle doesn’t have obvious-from-basketball-reference holes in his game. In my extremely humble opinion, our third-string center Kyle O’Quinn is a better basketball player than projected Celtics starter Enes Kanter. Most observers wouldn’t go as far as that, but getting KOQ on the veteran minimum silenced any criticism of our big-man rotation.

Other Criticisms

So then the critics turned to point guard. What, oh what, are we to do?! Our front office is so hideously blinkered that they think we don’t need a single point guard who’s willing to shoot a three more than once a week. The Sixers are doomed, doomed I say!

Except then Philly added high-quality veteran backup PG Raul Neto, who has shot 37% from 3 for his career on solid volume. He was a cap casualty in Utah, understandable as they obtained Mike Conley who is terrific. But their loss is our gain, as Neto is just what the doctor ordered, a skilled passer who can shoot, but who, unlike most low-cost players of that description, has very solid advanced defensive metrics. Neto has delivered both offensive and defensive on-off-type numbers around zero in recent years, and +0 defense for a guy who can run the point and stretch the floor is awfully useful.

My theory of playoff basketball is that the two most important determinants of how things go at any given point in a playoff game are “who is the best offensive player each team has on the floor?” and “who is the worst defensive player each team has on the floor?” If the answer to the second question is “Marco Belinelli” or “Quin Cook,” well, you’d better hope it’s the other team that has them. Raul Neto is not a star defender, but he was more than adequate in Utah, and if he can keep that up in Philly it means we have a backup PG, experienced but, at 27, in the dead center of his prime, who won’t be played off the floor come the Spring. Some folks out there were losing their minds when we failed to bid higher than Dallas’ 4-year, $32 million offer to Seth Curry. Of course now we know we had essentially zero dollars available at that time because of the structure of the Horford deal. But in the end, we got a player who is of similar quality to Seth for a small fraction of the cost. And some of the smartest basketball people I know think Neto, solid as he is, will not be able to take the backup PG position away from Shake Milton, whom the team obviously has high hopes for given the four-year deal they signed him to. Shake did not impress in Summer League, which is not a good sign, but one never wants to base too much on Vegas since the coaches often ask players to work on areas of weakness in these exhibitions, rather than play their best ball. We’ll see what Shake has in store for us come autumn.

So, the desperate backup-point crisis has, mercifully, come to an end. And along with the re-signing of the quality vet James Ennis to go with O’Quinn, Neto, and Mike Scott, the team now has a solid backup at C, PF, PG, and Wing... not counting the group of exciting young players, especially recent first-rounders Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle. The team has quality youth in development while not needing them to deliver in order to contend.

So what meat does that leave on the bone for the critics to gnaw? The team, with the departure of Jimmy Butler, no longer possesses a “closer.” It took about three minutes after the Butler trade was announced for this to go from bon mot to CW. And, let me just say right up front: I am not here to dismiss the concern! This may indeed be a vital flaw come the playoffs, or even in the regular season. Jimmy Butler is a fantastic player, and we will miss him. So unlike with the other criticisms discussed above, which I thought were either obviously wrong when made or else premature and eventually wrong, this one merits serious consideration. What makes a closer, do we need one, and if so where can we get one?

Bearing Down

“Closer” is not a term that has been widely used in basketball until recently, so no doubt different people have different things in mind when they use it. But at its heart is a simple idea about how the sport is played, which is that there are two kinds of basketball, normal ball and the ball that is played when the defense bears down. Bear-down defense makes up only a small fraction of NBA possessions, as playing that way every minute of a long season is too exhausting. But the bear-down possessions are essential because they include, first, a large fraction of possessions in close-and-late situations and, second, a substantial fraction of playoff possessions. So if a player, or an offensive scheme, is effective against normal defense but not against bear-down defense, then it may help you score a lot, may even help you win a fair amount in the regular season, though not as much as one might think, because such players and schemes will lose a lot of close games. But in the playoffs, such players and schemes will, the theory goes, tend to disappoint. They are, it is said, regular-season players, or schemes, or coaches.

Now, I think that a fair amount of nonsense is peddled under this way of thinking. For years we were told that LeBron James was missing some essential element that the true greats had, because he hadn’t won a title. Then he won a whole bunch, and we were supposed to believe it was a new LeBron, now with the heart of a champion. At the extreme this leads to laughable moves such as the Eagles overpaying cornerback Cary Williams; he’d played on a title-winning Baltimore team, leading some to feel he now had champion pixie dust. Then he skipped OTAs because, he explained, he had to “pick out sconces,” and the magic seemed a little less glimmering.

It’s wise to be cautious when interpreting claims of special sauce, those of my generation well recall that the original mass use of that phrase was in a 1970s series of McDonald’s ads in which they described the ingredients of the Big Mac. Very rapidly and set to a catchy tune, it went:

“Two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame-seed bun”

But you know what? It turned out the “special sauce” on a Big Mac was, um, ketchup mixed with mayonnaise!

That said, just because there’s an irresistible human tendency to erroneously think that players and schemes associated with titles must have some kind of special sauce, doesn’t mean that special playoff sauce doesn’t exist! Or even that it’s just ketchup + mayo. We just need to be a little more rigorous in our thinking.

Semi-obligatory baseball-research analogy

Since the writer who has most influenced my life and thought process is baseball stats maven Bill James, I often see NBA issues through the lens of baseball research. Decades ago James did a study of the common characteristics of title-winning teams. He worked from no theory, just looked to see what the data told him. I think he called the outcome the World Series Prediction System, something like that. The findings were fascinating. Some were expected — teams that hit a lot of homers, threw a lot of shutouts, and struck out a lot of batters tended to win championships, while other playoff teams, even those with equally-good regular-season records, did far less well in the postseason. Not shocking. But it was the other side of the ledger that caught the eye: among the strongest correlates of winning in the playoffs was hitting a low number of doubles. Similarly stealing few bases was a common characteristic of winners. James developed a compelling theory that explained much of the data: basically, in the regular season you can win a lot of games by being aggressive, taking the extra base on a liner to left field, stealing bases, etc. But in the playoffs you’re up against consistently-excellent opposition, and, guess what? They throw you out!

You can actually see this mathematically; suppose one team makes only doubles and outs; they can score with two out and nobody on in only one way, by hitting consecutive doubles. Just so we can do the math in our heads let’s say these guys hit doubles one time in three with two outs and nobody on, so in that situation they are 1/9 to score (1/3 * 1/3). Now say another team never hits anything but a homer (or an out); they hit a homer one at bat in 9; they are also 1/9 to get a run with two out and the bases empty. That’s regular season.

Now it’s the playoffs, and you face only top pitchers; lousy pitchers are either home watching on TV or safe in the dugout; this is the big time! So say all percentages drop by a tenth. Team Double is now 30% likely to hit a double, or 9% likely to score by hitting them back-to-back (down from 11.1%, which is 1/9. Team Homer, on the other hand, has fallen from 1/9 to 9/10 * 1/9 which is of course 1/10 or 10%). Team homer didn’t get any better in the playoffs, but because their strategy requires only one good thing to happen instead of multiple, their effectiveness deteriorates less in the face of stiff competition — they score 10% of the time vs. 9% for the Double team. Compounded over a seven-game series, that sort of edge has a big impact. Please note that this effect is entirely separate from the “Moneyball” effect in which walks and homers were, in the past, underestimated and batting average and stolen bases overrated. That’s totally true to, but that’s not what this is about! What we’re saying here is that even though two teams are equally good against typical competition, the team with the more direct method of scoring is more effective against top competitors who are 100% focused on winning due to the big stage. Because Bill James is the very best, he ended the essay with a long, extraordinary pull quote from the postseason baseball guide from back around a zillion years ago, like 1916 or something if memory serves. In it, Albert Spalding or some other early sportswriting great explains exactly this, that one team kept applying the aggressive strategies that had gotten them to the Series, but that it didn’t work because, and here I can almost remember the quote, something like “at each moment of the game, past masters of throwing and handling the ball were extant, and this rendered the strategems of the Chicago nine futile.” It probably wasn’t Chicago, but you get the point; this is an old idea.

And it probably applies in basketball as well. If the defense is, first of all, near-champion quality and, second, paying careful attention and delivering maximum effort, well then, whipping the ball around looking for an open shot may be quite dangerous. It may be that what’s called for is the direct approach, the hoops equivalent of a home run. Give the ball to LeBron or Kawhi or Dame and tell them to either get a layup, get fouled, or, if the defense plays back to prevent those from occurring, take an open jumper. And of course if a double-team comes (here I mean the basketball double-team, not the Team Double from above), then find the open man for an easy shot.

Oh, the doubles thing reminds me of my all-time favorite sports nickname; hope I haven’t written about this before. Way back in 1931 the Boston Red Sox had a player who mastered the art of banging doubles off Fenway’s Green Monster; sort of a proto-Wade-Boggs. His name was Earl Webb, and he set the all-time record for doubles in a season with 67 (and that was back when they played only 154 games). Incredibly, the record still stands. Given his batting proclivities and the heavy Irish influence in Boston at the time, it was inevitable that he would be known as... Earl Webb, the King of Doublin’!

What is a closer?

So, now we see what is wanted. A closer should be able to:

  1. Drive the lane effectively with sufficiently tight handle to avoid having the ball stolen or deflected
  2. Get foul calls frequently
  3. Pull up and shoot if that’s what the defense offers
  4. Pass out of a double-team with hardly any turnovers

The challenge for the Sixers in finding a closer can be summarized thusly:

1) If the Sixers introduce a quality point guard with closer skills, Ben Simmons is probably going to be very upset and, by word or deed, demand a trade. So we need to look at non-PG closers; there’s no point in trying to add a Mike Conley or Kemba Walker unless the team is ready to give up on Ben which, given that he is only 22 and still has MVP potential, I counsel against unless it’s going to bring in a Kawhi-level talent. To keep things clean I’m going to discuss only scenarios where we keep Ben Simmons, and therefore I’m not going to think about cases where we add an elite PG closer.

OK, one quick digression: there’s actually a possible Ben trade that wouldn’t be obviously crazy. Let’s make it a three-teamer so I can get my favorite player back in the red, white and blue:

Sixers give Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris; recieve Chris Paul, Robert Covington, 3-4 juicy unprotected first-round picks

Minnesota gives Robert Covington; receives Danilo Galinari and a pick of some sort

OKC gives: CP3, Galinari, and picks, receives Ben Simmons

plus minor players as needed to make the cap numbers work, of course; I am not a Master of the Trade Machine!

As they say: who says no?!

Longtime readers know that I am an adjusted-plus-minus truther. Chris Paul was around +5 last year, and if you knock off the first month when he was working his way back from injury, it was probably over +6. Which is the level he’s played at for years. He’s old but I think if we added him and Cov (around +3 last year, even higher the year before), we might have the best starting lineup in modern NBA history, or maybe behind only one or two recent Golden State squads. Joel +7, Al +4, CP3 +5, RoCo +3, Josh +2, total +21. Wow! Plus everyone naturally fits, in my humble opinion; I think PF is Al’s best position.

Oh, and we’d have three additional picks to reload the gun when CP3 and Al age out. Nice!

I know, I know, it’s ridiculous; it’s just fun to play around with this stuff. If you hate this trade, ask yourself this: OKC has 15 first-round picks and I think 5 swaps in the next 7 years; if 3-4 of them along with CP3 wouldn’t get it done for you, is there a higher number that would?

OK, now I really am going to assume we don’t add a star PG; I’ll even exclude guys who are PGs that are capable of playing off-ball, like Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry. I’m just taking it as given that adding such a player is off the table because of what it would do to the team’s relationship with Ben. That takes us to...

2) If you are really good at basketball, and also have closer skills, you’ll be a huge star, and therefore exceptionally difficult to obtain. Remarkably, the Sixers managed to do just this, trading for elite closer Jimmy Butler. But the reason he was available at an affordable price was the same reason, it appears, we couldn’t keep him — he has a mind of his own, and that mind changes with some frequency. Fare thee well, Jimmy Buckets, you’re as free as a bird now, and this bird we cannot change!

I love to make lists, so let’s make some! Here are all the non-PG closers I see out there, let me know in comments if I missed anyone important.

Superstars we are unlikely to be able to obtain:

Jimmy Butler

Victor Oladipo

Paul George

Kevin Durant

LeBron James

Kawhi Leonard

Giannis

Blake Griffin (obviously not quite at the level of the others on this list but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt)

Young players who aren’t at superstar level but who are perceived as on their way there so are as unattainable as superstars:

Donovan Mitchell

Jason Tatum

Luka Doncic

Devin Booker

Pascal Siakam (not sure if he has closer skills but threw him in for completeness)

Plus maybe some rookies; we’ll see what Zion and others bring to the table.

Players who aren’t really all that good but who are pretty good and who have legitimate closer skills:

Bradley Beal

CJ McCollum

DeMar DeRozan

Lou Williams

Players who are good but not superstars and who kinda sorta have closer skills but maybe not quite:

Josh Richardson

Khris Middleton

Tobias Harris

Rudy Gay

Justise Winslow

Eric Gordon

Al Horford (borderline case but my friend who sits in the front row at Celtics games says he really can close, and there are stats that back this up, so I’ll go broad and include him)

Two injured players who probably fit on one of the lists above if they return to full health are Klay Thompson and Gordon Hayward; both are pretty unattainable if they get back to their best selves.

OK, what have we learned? Basically we’ve learned that there are three options. And looking at those options explains a lot about the chatter around the Sixers.

1) Hope another superstar becomes disgruntled, or is old and his team wishes to tank, or something and so he comes on the market. In my view this is the hidden benefit of the Tobias Harris signing. If we’d had Tobias when Kawhi Leonard was on the market, it might have been possible to package him in a deal to get KL. Sometimes you need to have the overrated asset, the guy with the skills people care about. I bow to no one in my admiration for Robert Covington, but that was the problem: Pop and RC Buford didn’t see him as a very attractive asset. They wanted DeRozan, who I think is worth less than his contract! What if the KD experiment in Brooklyn fails miserably; suppose that post injury he’s still great, but great like Jimmy Butler rather than great like Kawhi. And say he’s unhappy and BKN wants to deal him. A package of Tobi, Zhaire and picks has a chance to get it done. Whereas if we’d spent that money on a bunch of Al-Farouq Aminu and the like... well, you’ll never get KD for those guys, teams need to be able to tell their fans they got a star back!

Looking at the superstar list, it’s hard to imagine any of them ending up in Philly (without us trading Ben Simmons) except that:

  • You never know; who thought Paul George was heading to LA at the beginning of July?! What we’re learning about the NBA is that nothing is set in stone.
  • It probably doesn’t make any sense because he’s another power forward, and we are awfully heavy at PF, but Blake Griffin is probably not unattainable. They traded Tobias Harris and draft picks for him two years ago; would it be so completely crazy to swap them back again?! Too crazy I suppose, but a lot less crazy than the Lakers trading us LeBron James!

Upshot is, it’s quite unlikely the Sixers can add another superstar soon.

2) Settle for a closer who’s not actually great at basketball

As I say, a lot of things make a lot more sense when you look at this list. Aficionados of advanced metrics, especially on-off statistics, have long questioned the superstar status of Beal, McCollum, and DeRozan, and the star status of Sweet Lou. These are all players whose recent on-off numbers have averaged in the range usually associated with average starters, about 1 point per 48 minutes better than the average player (recall that average starters tend to be around +1, solid bench players around -1, so the average player, at 0, is between these two). Indeed this group, over the past few years, has averaged below 1.0, without checking I’d guess the group is closer to 0.0 than 1.0.

So why, then, has there been such a constant drumbeat of desire for us to add one from this list? Three of the four — Beal, CJ, and Lou — have been among the most-demanded of all players in fan comments and media discussion. And now the answer is clear: because these are the players — arguably the only players — that have legit closer skills while a) not being a PG who would dislodge Ben Simmons and b) not being so ridiculously good that suggesting the Sixers get them makes the writer seem like a fantasist.

But the problem is three-fold. Lou Williams is really not that good a basketball player anymore, having him on the floor is a major negative compared to a strong performer like Josh Richardson, and so by playing him 25 minutes in the playoffs you are making an implicit bet that this closer thing really is a huge issue; that even though Josh is 2-3 points per 48 minutes better than Lou in the regular season, in the playoffs that flips. This absolutely may be true, but I haven’t seen the evidence to support it, so we need to recognize it could just as easily be false.

The second problem is that, other than Lou Williams who signed a weirdly modest contract with the Clippers, these players all make approximately max money. Maybe they are overrated or maybe the league properly recognizes the huge importance of closers. But fundamentally if you get a McCollum or a DeRozan or a Beal you’re looking at paying around $30M/year for a player who delivers regular-season, non-crunch-time performance equal to an average starter. So you’re really paying up, salary-wise, for the closer concept.

Finally, while not unattainable in the way that LeBron or Giannis is, these players will not be inexpensive to obtain in a trade. Hell, DeMar recently got traded for Kawhi Freaking Leonard; that gives a pretty good sense of how highly closer abilities are valued league-wide.

The upshot is, it’s probably impossible for the Sixers to add one of these players without giving up one of their starters. And it can’t be Richardson, since he earns so much less than all but Williams (and if they trade Josh Richardson for Lou Williams I will be unspeakably sad!). A deal involving Harris plus draft picks for McCollum or Beal would seem like the most likely option, and by “most likely” I mean “extremely unlikely but less unlikely than any other possibility I can think of.”

3) Instead of having one true closer, try to make it work with a handful of semi-closers.

This is the path the Sixers are on. Take a look at the list of non-PG, non-superstars who have closer-ish skills but who are not true closers. There are seven names on there, and in the last few weeks we added or signed three of them! I probably exhibited some Sixer bias there; if people who can see tell me that a few others are as much semi-closers as Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris, and so this list should have 8 or 12 names on it, I’ll take their word for it. But any way you slice it, we came as close as humanly possible to cornering the market on sub-superstar wings with medium closing ability. And Joel Embiid, while not the ideal closer since he works best near the basket, definitely has some closer in his game, more than probably every center beside Jokic. And then there’s Ben Simmons; obviously his complete inability to shoot has kept him from being a Butler-level closer, but if he ups his FT% from 60 to 70 and improves his (right-handed!) baby hooks and floaters a bit... well, combined with his skills as a penetrator and passer, it won’t take him to the Dame level, let alone Kawhi, but it will mean that all five of the Sixer starters have meaningful closing skills.

I tend to be optimistic in general — hey, when you go blind and you still get to enjoy the privilege of working as a sportswriter covering your favorite team, it tends to make you feel that the world is not just doom and gloom! But I’m not going to dive deeply into the fourth possible solution, which is that with all three of the semi-closers we have at the 1-2-3 positions being young enough to still make a leap forward, we could solve our problem the old-fashioned way — by having one of those guys develop closer skills. Over the long run I believe Ben will be a closer, and the other two have a shot but not a huge one as they are both in their mid-20s already. As to this coming year, which is mostly what this essay is about, I’d say I do have hope, given that we have three bites at the closer apple; maybe one of those guys steps up big time. But while I can hope, I can’t bring myself to expect!

Is it enough?!

Can a team thrive in the playoffs with five semi-closers? Honestly, I don’t know. If people have historical examples, in either direction, please share them in comments. I guess the closest parallels would be teams whose best players are big men, so that they had legit superstar talent on the team as well as high overall quality, while not possessing a superstar initiator. This sort of historical sorting is not my specialty, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that maybe some of the Spurs title teams had this flavor. Let’s look at some of the key players on their first champion, the 1999 team; hey, it’s their 20-year anniversary; feels like only yesterday!

Bigs

David Robinson

Tim Duncan

Wings

Sean Elliot

Jerome Kersey

Steve Kerr

Ballhandlers

Avery Johnson

Mario Elie

Antonio Daniels

I don’t see a star initiator there at all! Now, that was a long time ago. The team won three more titles in 2003, 2005, 2007. The key non-Duncan players on those teams were Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Parker was a very good player, and Manu is an all-time great, one of the most underrated players in history, but I wouldn’t call either of them a closer in the mode of Jimmy Butler or LeBron James or James Harden. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Now, maybe even those teams are too far in the past to be comparable to the current NBA, maybe we need to focus on the 2010s only. San Antonio did win one title this decade, in 2014, but that was the year Kawhi Leonard busted out in the playoffs, winning the Finals MVP, so arguably that team can’t serve as a no-closer example. Instead I commend to your attention the 2012-13 Spurs, the team the year before that lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Heatles. Kawhi scored less than 10 points a game for that squad. I don’t have a good enough memory to comment on how exactly that team played, but I’d be surprised if 21-year-old Kawhi was a closer for San Antonio that year. I think that team is probably the most recent title-worthy team that didn’t have a clear closer.

That said, there’s only one champion this century that didn’t have a superstar, the Larry Brown 2004 champs that out-gutted the ultimate star vehicle (the Shaq-Kobe-Mailman-Glove Lakers) in the Finals. That Detroit team was another closer-free champion from the previous decade; they featured Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and the Wallaces, Rasheed and Ben, none of whom really qualified for the closer label. But they were a true historical oddity. Every other title winner had a superstar, and virtually all of them had two. And those superstars fall into three categories:

  • Closers
  • Superstar Bigs
  • Superstars who are neither closers nor bigs

The closers include LeBron, Wade, Kawhi, Kobe. The superstar bigs include Duncan, Robinson, Shaq. The superstars who are neither closers nor bigs... well, there are some possibilities, but I haven’t thought of a clear case. Steph Curry? I’d say he’s a closer. Same for Jason Kidd. Dirk? I’d say he’s a big, and perhaps a closer too, but if you tell me he was neither in his title year of 2011 I’ll accept it. Same with KG. I personally think Manu deserves to be seen as a superstar, and people who watched him play tell me he was not generally used the way we’re calling “closer,” so for those who share my opinion of Manu, maybe he qualifies.

It’s just awfully tough to be a true superstar if you don’t handle the ball or dominate the middle; even the very best non-ballhandling shooters, like Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, reside on the tier below true superstars like Kawhi.

So then maybe we’re just saying this: you need at least one and probably two superstar-level players to win, and virtually all such players are either closers or bigs, and it’s going to be pretty unusual to have all your superstars be bigs, though in fact it has happened. So in general teams that win titles, or come close to doing so, have a superstar ballhandler. But maybe not because you need one; maybe it’s just a spillover from the fact that most superstars are also closers, something like that.

And then there are the 2019-20 Philadelphia 76ers, who are likely to have their two most effective players be two big men, Joel Embiid and Al Horford. Can they win the way that, in recent memory, only Spurs teams have managed? Time will tell. But it’s encouraging that there actually are a number of years in the past 20 where teams with this sort of construction were champs or near-champs, and it’s additionally encouraging that the team that was consistently effective with this approach is the team where Philly’s coach learned the NBA game.

My conclusion is that all else equal, it really is better to have a closer, but that not having one is more a problem to be managed than a crisis to be averted; more eczema than skin cancer. And that’s good news, because unless we’re ready to give up on Ben Simmons as a long-term Sixer, there really aren’t any easy solutions, or really any rather-difficult solutions, that I can see. If the Sixers want to be champions, they’ll either need to develop a closer (Ben? Zhaire?? Josh??? Tobi????) from within, or use smarts, ball movement and defense to create a situation where, like the Spurs before them, they can defeat fully-focused playoff defenses without a traditional closer. We’ll get some early evidence in crunch time of games this Fall as to whether this is the right group to pull this off — I can hardly wait!