The Philadelphia 76ers were already huge, and they just got bigger. Now that the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade with Miami acquiring 6-foot-6 shooting guard Josh Richardson is complete, to go along with the signing of 6-foot-10 Al Horford, the Sixers’ starting lineup is ready to tower over opponents.
Philly’s rare size helped them last season, including in the playoffs, and they’ve leaned into it as much as possible.
“I’m not saying Milwaukee isn’t talented, but Philly has so many talented guys across the board,” Danny Green said to ESPN’s Zach Lowe during the Finals. “They are much bigger. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to find our rhythm against them. With Milwaukee, we knew the [fast] pace they played was in our favor. They weren’t as big. We knew we could defend them.”
On their run to the Finals and eventually a championship, it was losing Game 3 to the Sixers that had the Toronto Raptors feeling “unnerved,” as Lowe described, not going down 2-0 against Milwaukee. Joel Embiid could overpower anyone not named Marc Gasol, and the Sixers’ hulking lineups, starting with a 6-foot-10 ball handler in Ben Simmons, brought a level of physicality and crossmatch-creating headaches that could give smaller opponents nightmares.
Matchups often decide how playoff basketball goes. In the past, the Sixers were at the losing end of this, such as the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston. T.J. McConnell could be attacked on switches, as could JJ Redick, the weak link defensively in the starting lineup who had to stay due to the importance of his shooting.
Now, that problem is gone. No starter is shorter than 6-foot-6. No player currently on the roster has a wingspan under 6-foot-10. They have length everywhere, with what is likely the best defensive frontcourt in the NBA in Horford and Embiid, and two more All-Defensive- caliber players to lead the starting five in Simmons and Richardson (Simmons could get there next season if he’s consistently locked in).
Tobias Harris is the new worst defensive player in the starting five, and while he only hovers around just below average/average level, he still provides sturdy post defense, helpful work on the boards (7.9 rebounds per game last season, with 9.1 in the playoffs) and size at 6-foot-9. The only drawback to the Sixers' starting lineup change is Harris shifting to the 3 when he's better suited as a 4, but he can't be singled out like a slow, 6-foot-4 guard, and he's surrounded by terrific defenders at every other position. Horford also has recent experience spending plenty of time at the 4 — in 2017-18, he spent 43 percent of his minutes there and helped lead Boston to a plus-8.8 net rating in that time, per Cleaning The Glass.
Richardson and Horford bolster the team's overall versatility, in terms of both switching defensively to the lineups Brett Brown can play with. Simmons can switch across every position if he needs to, Richardson can be used to cover both guard spots and some small forwards, Horford can hang fairly well with smaller players when shifting to the perimeter, and Embiid, for someone of his size, is fairly switchy in his own right with his agility to pick up drivers away from the basket.
That said, staggering Horford and Embiid effectively to maximize their individual strengths at center, and ensure at least one of them is always on the floor (or close to it), will be key. This utilizes the fact that Horford can serve not just as a playmaking, floor-spacing center for stretchier lineups, but as an elite defensive anchor for smaller lineups, where he can spend more time near the paint and won’t be tested as much against quicker 4s. Groups such as Simmons, Matisse Thybulle (more on him in a moment), Richardson, Harris and Horford could be dynamic at both ends.
Adding Horford's rim protection to this team seems unfair for opponents. They already had the 7-foot-2 Joel Embiid, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, to anchor the defense. Embiid contested more shots at the rim than anyone last season at 8.2 per game, and still forced players to shoot a measly 53.3 percent there (a hair away from Defensive Player of the Year winner Rudy Gobert at 53.2 percent). Embiid completely changes the way teams attack the paint.
Horford may not boast gaudy shot-blocking numbers (1.3 per 36 minutes for his career, and 1.6 last season), but he’s long, agile, active, highly disciplined, and, most importantly, always knows exactly where to be. Horford thrives first and foremost by being one of the smartest players in the league. He knows just how to position himself, from moving his feet correctly against drivers to rotating and helping around the floor without missing a beat.
Horford is a brilliant pick-and-roll defender, too. He has enough quickness to hedge and pressure ball handlers, shift his feet to help contain drives, or put himself in prime positions when dropping back to account for the ball handler and be ready for potential passes to the roll man:
It should scare opponents that Horford only needs to be a secondary defender and helper at the rim when he’s sharing the floor with Embiid. Horford is fully over qualified for that role. And when Embiid takes to the bench, opponents hardly get any respite when Horford steps in to anchor the defense. This new reality addresses one of their main problems last season: falling apart defensively without Embiid.
The Sixers’ 104.9 defensive rating with Embiid on the floor last season would have tied with Milwaukee for the best in the league, compared to 110.5 when he was on the bench (tied with San Antonio for 20th).
With Horford being able to take on plenty of minutes at the 5, and new center Kyle O’Quinn stepping into the mix as a far more reliable rim protector than last season’s backup options, the Sixers' non-Embiid minutes are going to be vastly improved. The fact this makes it easier to give Embiid more rest is another bonus.
Before opponents even cautiously make their way into the paint to try their luck against the Horford-Embiid roadblock, though, Josh Richardson will be around to help solidify another big weakness from last season: poor point-of-attack defense.
Before upping their game in the playoffs thanks to Simmons entering All-Defensive mode and Butler increasing his effort after coasting through most of the regular season, the Sixers were burned by guards all year. Whether they were coming off screens for pull-up 3s or driving in the pick-and-roll, they often had their way. The combination of Philly's small guards like Redick or McConnell getting caught on picks or left behind off the dribble and the team's drop coverage scheme didn't work.
This is where Richardson can help make an impact. With good speed, quick hands, and a 6-foot-6 frame with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Richardson has all the physicality needed to give the Sixers more resistance against guards. He’ll chase shooters, fight past screens on and off the ball to bother drivers and break up dribble hand-offs, and with consistent effort, provide an upgrade over Butler through the regular season.
Having a new duo in Richardson and Horford to team up with stingy pick-and-roll defense when Embiid needs to rest will be a welcome luxury. If Richardson can’t stay in front of his man around a screen, he can still break up possessions with his length and persistence:
Plays like this block against 7-footer Lauri Markkanen demonstrate how Richardson is comfortable using his strength and size to switch up at times to hold his own in the post as well:
And there’s more to Philly than its starting unit. Beyond familiar faces like the returning James Ennis and Mike Scott who add to the endless size, there are young, exciting pieces on the bench, too.
While they likely won’t be featured rotation pieces right away (what guard depth the Sixers can add in free agency will also impact this), Matisse Thybulle and Zhaire Smith are both excellent defensive prospects.
Smith only played in six games to end last season and had some of the rookie troubles you’d expect in terms of positioning (especially on offense), but there were a lot of good flashes on defense. He fought hard around screens, moved with serious quickness on the ball, contested well around the floor without fouling, and showed all the flashes Philly could ask for that could help him become a valuable point-of-attack defender. He continued to hint at the All-Defensive upside he showed in college.
Thybulle is still good on the ball, but more so than Smith, disruptive off-ball play is where Thybulle shines. His game is Robert Covington-esque, in that he has fantastic combination length (a 7-foot-0 wingspan), razor-sharp instincts, timing and energy. Even though Thybulle won’t be able to roam as much as he did in Washington’s zone defense, he has the IQ and physical tools to succeed. And if Simmons and Richardson are taking on tougher defensive assignments, Thybulle can be left to play off lesser threats and be his disruptive self by breaking up passing lanes or snatching opportunistic blocks. To go along with Richardson, the Sixers’ young bench duo can also do their bit to help ramp up the team’s transition opportunities after ranking just 19th in steals last season.
Similarly to Smith, Thybulle’s 3-point shooting will help determine how much he plays. Despite Thybulle's 3-point shooting being overly criticized at times (he still shot 37.9 percent from 3 on 3.9 attempts over his first three years) and Smith at least being very willing to fire from deep when he appeared last season, they need to prove themselves as reasonable floor spacers before playing significant minutes. But when they do find roles, there's a lot to like about their defense.
Here's two minutes of Matisse Thybulle playing awesome defense: pic.twitter.com/cxTK4mvntU— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) June 25, 2019
There’s no denying there are some offensive concerns for the Sixers. Losing Redick hurts. His elite shot-making and dribble hand-off connection with Embiid was a huge part of the offense. Even if you thought Philly should have become less reliant on that action, it worked. And Redick’s constant movement and gravity in general was huge for the team’s spacing. Exactly how Horford (who's better as an offensive center surrounded by shooters, with more post/elbow passing opportunities and pick-and-roll play) operates with Embiid is another question that can't be fully answered by staggering. A new backup point guard is needed, too.
The Sixers have also lost their lead off-the-dribble creator in Butler, which will be present more struggles in late-game situations. While Harris can still create and will be able to handle the ball more, he simply isn’t at the same level as Butler as a driver, shot creator or playmaker off the bounce as a lead option. How effective the Sixers can be off the dribble and in the pick-and-roll largely rests on the shoulders of Richardson, Harris, and Simmons, and how they can continue developing.
Those concerns are for another discussion, though. The Sixers have still locked in enough talent and depth to be a top team next season, with their new personnel turning some of their main defensive weaknesses into strengths. And there's no reason they can’t compete to be the best defense in the NBA.