When Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick bolted the Philadelphia 76ers for the Miami Heat and New Orleans Pelicans, respectively, many wondered how the Sixers were going to replace them. Almost immediately, they answered the questions by signing Tobias Harris to a 5-year, $180 million contract, the richest in franchise history, and Al Horford to a 4-year, $109 million contract.
But since the Heat needed salary cap flexibility to match the contracts in the Butler trade, the Sixers had the chance for more. In return, Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson were (seemingly) on the table. Ultimately, the Sixers brass preferred Richardson and the well-roundedness of his game, and thus, acquired him as the only asset returning to Philadelphia in what amounted to a four-team trade.
Even with the addition of Richardson, Butler and Redick — both starters on a team one bad bounce away from a championship appearance — aren’t completely replaced. Surely, Harris will garner more touches, but he offers a vastly different skill set. Neither Zhaire Smith — who is coming off a life-threatening allergic reaction that held him out for a year — or Matisse Thybulle — a historically-dominant collegiate defender in a 2-3 zone — are ready.
Rather, it’s Richardson who will largely help alleviate the pain. Elton Brand summed it up best:
“We are thrilled to welcome Josh to the 76ers family,” he said in a statement, per Jon Johnson of WIP. “He has worked diligently and improved each season. As one of the NBA’s best young two-way talents, Josh’s ability to space the floor while also effectively guarding multiple positions at an elite level will bolster our lineup immediately. We look forward to seeing Josh’s continued development as we strive to win a championship for the city of Philadelphia.”
Defense is largely why the Sixers — who were 13th in defensive rating last season — made the deal in the first place. Off-ball, Richardson is attentive and terrifying — unlike Butler, whose help defense fell off a cliff near the end of the regular season. He swirls his 6-foot-10 wingspan into passing lanes. On-ball, Richardson isn’t shaped in the mold of Butler, but he is twitchy — he can switch onto bigs with great success thanks to a workhorse mentality. His body never moves faster than his mind. As he angles his feet to slide around screens, Richardson simultaneously squares his broad shoulders. And he contests jumpers right as his feet launch off the ground. Like a soccer player, the former Heat maximizes his energy, sprinting strictly in straight lines.
Josh Richardson is going to be really good for the Sixers.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) July 5, 2019
A few defensive highlights: pic.twitter.com/3S8FM59cnr
But that attitude also lends to over-aggression — sticking his nose into passing lanes and swiping for steals too often. Because the Sixers have a jumbo lineup (Richardson has the smallest wingspan at 6-foot-10), his daredevilish tendencies have a safety net on which to rely. The Heat simply didn’t. The center to whom he was tethered, Hassan Whiteside, is not mobile (despite averaging 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes). On the other hand, there was a case to be had for Joel Embiid as DPOY. He will make up for Richardson’s gambles, and when he sits, Horford has more mobility and a similar interior presence (as Sixers fans are by now probably aware). In the clip below, one of Embiid or Horford would “rotate” earlier on the helpside rotation.
Richardson’s defensive versatility also gives Philadelphia the freedom to experiment with lineups. He won’t have to be paired next to Embiid and Simmons like Redick. On offense, this allows Richardson to play off the ball, not play the primary or secondary role he had to be for the Heat.
But can Richardson be elite like Redick was in DHOs? Unlike most elite 3-point shooters, Redick excels at shooting off the dribble. It’s what made him at least half the reason the Embiid-Redick play worked so well. Tobias Harris will be the main beneficiary as the DHO ball handler, but Richardson figures to get some burn, too.
While Harris was in the 22.5 percentile in handoffs, Richardson placed in the 70.6 percentile. He recorded slightly fewer than half the possessions as Redick (2.4 to 5.2), which is still a ton (fifth in the league for players who appeared in more than 50 games). He was willing to launch 3s when defenders sunk under, and cannonballed to the rim when they trailed.
There were times, however, when Richardson would refuse to back-cut, instead, looping back to receive the hand-off. That was mostly because the Heat needed him to create: there was no second option into which the play flowed.
In fact, Richardson’s willingness to fire manifested itself in multiple ways last season. Per 36 minutes, Richardson averaged 6.5 3-pointers, 2.0 more than last season.
Of those shots, he took more “catch-and-shoot” shots than total 3-point shots (4.6 to 4.5). In other words, he was more comfortable without the ball in his hands, so don’t expect reports to surface of him demanding more pick-and-rolls in a heated film room session a la Butler.
He won’t be the secondary creator like he was last season next to Justise Winslow. Goran Dragic came off the bench last year due to an ailing knee injury. Once the Heat shipped Tyler Johnson at the trade deadline, the Heat distributed playmaking duties between multiple creators. In name, Winslow was point guard, but that also meant Richardson took over. It caused a ton of end-of-shot-clock heaves, which is partly why his efficiency dropped last season (his true shooting percentage went from 55.1% to 53.6%, despite career-high free throw and layup percentages and fewer mid-range jumpers).
Philadelphia has the requisite offensive firepower to maximize Richardson’s skill set, allowing him to play off-ball. While Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra preferred playing Richardson and Winslow next to two bigs at a time, the addition of Horford creates options. When Simmons sits, Horford can be the secondary creator. Not only can Richardson take fewer off-the-dribble shots, but he can also hoist more spot-up 3s. It’s the one area in which he’s better than Redick on offense: per NBA.com, he recorded 86 more possessions, and had a slightly higher percentile (68.7 to 68.1). The infamous film room session also resulted in Butler taking less catch-and-shoot 3-pointers categorized as “wide-open.” Richardson is a master relocator and sets his feet especially fast and smooth.
If Richardson’s 3-point shot doesn’t fall, he still has a defined role on the Sixers: elite defender. He is capable of defending the opponents’ best guards and small forwards. It won’t be like Tobias Harris — who as a Sixer shot 33.1 percent in the regular season and playoffs combined — who struggled defensively, incapable of switching onto smaller guards. Harris was one of the Sixers Brett Brown had to hide in last season’s playoffs; J.J. Redick was the other. Harris had to be shifted down low to defend Marc Gasol in the second round of last season’s playoffs while Redick defended Danny Green. If Simmons is tired, Richardson can switch onto Giannis. For longer periods of time, he can defend Jayson Tatum and Khris Middleton or Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving.
Richardson isn’t a star like Butler, but he is much cheaper. With three years and $33 million remaining (player option on the final year), Richardson’s contract gives the Sixers wiggle room for multiple options. Whether he was offered the 5-year maximum or not, Jimmy Butler was going to be a major blow to the Sixers’ cap space. If another star demands a change in scenery near the trade deadline, Richardson can be the centerpiece of another package, like Saric and Covington were in the trade for Butler in November, or to a lesser extent, Shamet was (or the bundle of first-round picks were) in the trade for Harris in February.
Even without Butler and Redick, the Sixers are returning three of the five starters from last season’s best starting lineup. Even if the Sixers didn’t technically run it back as so many fans pined for, Richardson (and Horford) are more than replacements; they’re integral pieces to a team gunning for a championship in a depleted East.