The acquisitions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson have seemingly shut the forever-rotating door of starters in the Elton Brand era — for now. With what appears to be a stable roster going forward, Brett Brown and his staff will need to find a way to maximize this team’s ability to create offense late in games, principally filling the void left by two pillars of their success in close games last season: Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick.
Tobias Harris as the Closer
Tobias Harris isn’t Jimmy Butler. Their differences are magnified when you look at a similarity they share. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, both Butler and Harris have played for three different teams. Butler has spent these years forcing his way out of town as soon as he pleases, searching the NBA landscape for the optimal spot to play his brazen brand of basketball. Whereas Harris has been dealt from city to city, viewed as the locker room guy, a malleable piece whose diverse offensive package can fit into any team’s puzzle.
The narrative will be that these differences showed themselves again on June 30, with Harris signing up to be a Sixer for five more years, while Butler chose to continue his NBA journey in Miami by forcing his way to the Heat in a sign-and-trade, but the details on Butler’s departure and Harris’ return are a bit muddied. It’s likely we’ll never truly know what went down this summer — what was offered to whom, and whether either Harris or Butler were willing to return in tow with the other.
What we do know is that Jimmy Butler is a member of the Heat (a Heat? Heat Man? Hot Boy?) and Tobias Harris remains a 76er. We know that Tobias Harris felt underutilized in his initial run in Philly. And we know that despite their differences, the Sixers need Tobias Harris to be what Jimmy Butler was — a closer and an absolute killer.
Butler endeared himself to Sixers fans with his postseason performance. He arrived before the rest of his teammates with a 34-point explosion in a Game 1 defeat to Brooklyn, scored 30 in the Sixers’ statement Game 2 win in Toronto (12 in the 4th), and nearly sent Game 7 into overtime with his game-tying lay-up that set up Kawhi’s series winner. He was really good — all while living up to his reputation as a defensive menace and fierce competitor.
After a memorable postseason, it’s easy to forget the Jimmy Butler experience in the regular season. Butler’s fit with the Sixers ranged from contentious to wonky. His presence frustrated Joel Embiid initially (although those two eventually developed both a wonderful chemistry on-court as well as at the podium after games), and often marginalized Ben Simmons. His effort on defense waned and he went through long stretches seemingly refusing to take spot-up 3s. He clashed with Brett Brown at least once, and by January reporters were hearing whispers that some within the organization had already grown tired of Butler’s antics.
The Sixers are now banking on the belief that Harris can provide the same shot creation, without the noise. It’s certainly a risk. Butler is a two-time All-NBA performer and five-time All-Star. There were legitimate whispers of MVP candidacy during his first year in Minnesota, prior to a meniscus injury keeping him off the court for over a month towards the end of the season. Even with his steady improvement each year since entering the league, Harris has yet to appear in an All-Star game. While the All-Star selections aren’t the most effective method of judging a player’s worth and impact, it’s safe to say that if Harris has still never appeared in the February showcase at the end of his five-year deal, the Sixers’ risk did not pay off.
After all the chatter about his decreased role after his trade from the Clippers, the truth is that in a close game, Harris was just as likely to be spotting up while Lou Williams played the role of Jimmy Butler during his time in LA. While his overall usage dropped from 23.3 percent (94th percentile for forwards) to 20.5 (76th percentile) after the trade, his clutch usage was essentially the same, 15.7 percent with the Clippers and 15.6 as a Sixer. Harris’ last shot as a Clipper was a game-winner in Charlotte, but even that came after the Hornets trapped Lou Will near half court.
With the new jumbo-sized Sixers, Harris should get his best opportunity yet to prove his worth as a reliable late-game performer. This past postseason, late in close games, the Sixers would often turn to Butler as the pick-and-roll ball handler, a situation where Harris should be able to drive similar success. While his pick-and-rolls were less frequent and typically with lower stakes, Harris yielded a similar 0.92 points per possession to Butler’s 0.91.
We got a glimpse of what a crunch-time offense featuring more Harris might look like in Game 4 of the Brooklyn series. After Butler was ejected due to a brush-up with Jared Dudley, Brett Brown dialed up a steady diet of Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, with some Ben Simmons sprinkled in.
Harris showed good chemistry with both of the Sixers’ All-Stars in the pick-and-roll, and as the game got close down the stretch, Brown chose to operate with Embiid and Harris in the elbow area, with both players showing a good sense of how to play off the other.
Game 4’s lasting memory will be Mike Scott’s go ahead 3 with 18 seconds to go, and even that came off a broken play where Embiid lost the ball after a nice drop-off pass from Harris.
While neither Butler nor Harris is James Harden, both found a fair amount of success in isolation last season. Per Synergy, while in Philly, Butler netted 0.99 points per possession (76th percentile) on 10.2 percent frequency, and Harris posted a similar 0.978 ppp (75th percentile) on 9.3 percent frequency. However, one of the keys to efficient isolation play is being able to get to the free throw line and earn easy points — the aforementioned Harden has made a living doing so.
Butler is one of the strongest wings in the league and seeks out contact when he chooses to go to the rim, rather than pulling up in the mid-range. Since entering the league in 2011, the Heat wing has always been one of the most frequent guests at that charity stripe for his position — even though his 15 percent Shooting Fouled Percentage as a Sixer was the lowest of his career, it was still in the 91st percentile for all forwards. In the slugfest Game 2 victory over Toronto, Butler scored five of his 12 points in the final period from the line — the eventual margin of victory for the Sixers.
Harris is a less frequent visitor to the line, getting fouled on just 8.2 percent of his shot attempts (47th percentile for forwards) as a Sixer. An 86.6 percent foul shooter last year, Harris will need to up his trips to the line to ease the load in his increased role.
The New Guys
While the burden of replacing Butler will fall first on Harris, he will not be alone in the effort. Newly acquired guard Josh Richardson was a featured playmaker in Miami, and with a reduced role and an improved team around him, he should function nicely as a secondary creator. Depending on how Raul Neto and Trey Burke perform, there’s potential for Richardson to play the role of back-up point guard once the playoffs arrive — a position he’ll likely guard most evenings due to Philly’s size.
Richardson will also play a role in filling the JJ Redick-sized hole in the half-court offense. For a team loaded with as much top-end talent as the Sixers, Philly leaned too heavily on JJ Redick’s ability to shoot off screens and dribble hand-offs. Without Redick, the Sixers shouldn’t be running nearly as many DHOs, but they won’t disappear from the offense completely — Brett Brown loves using them to not only free up an open jumper, but as a misdirection play that can help get Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons easy looks at the rim.
Richardson is a prime candidate to replace Redick in these situations. Per Synergy, Redick DHOs averaged 1.101 points per possession (85th percentile), while Richardson averaged 1.006 ppp on DHOs (71st percentile). While Richardson’s output in this playtype could feasibly increase due to his new star teammates, Embiid and Simmons, he doesn’t hold the same gravity that Redick does and likely won’t be able to free Embiid and Simmons in the same way JJ did. Also of note, Tobias Harris was excellent in DHOs as a Sixer, yielding 1.259 ppp in very limited usage — just 27 total possessions.
Al Horford comes with a reputation for coming through in the clutch, dare I mention the Confetti Game?
While Brett Brown might not be directly dialing up many plays for Big Al, Horford’s ability to pick and pop for Ben Simmons could be featured down the stretch for Philadelphia. Horford is reliable as a catch-and-shoot option, and should give the drivers like Simmons and Harris a safety blanket as a floor spacer. A cerebral player, his composure will help cut down on the late turnovers often seen from previous iterations of these Sixers.
The Foundational Pieces
While the new additions have a part to play and can help raise the floor of the Sixers’ offense, they will need to find a way to get the most out of their best two players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, to reach their ceiling.
It’s yet to be seen what translates from Chris Johnson’s Los Angeles gym to the NBA, but it appears Ben Simmons is going to be more willing to shoot this upcoming season. Simmons being able to move off the dunker spot in the clutch alone would be a boost for the Sixers, but for now the thought of Simmons’ pull-up jumper as a viable late game option seems like wishful thinking. Simmons has found some success in crunch time, but that mainly has come via the one/two pick=and-roll with JJ Redick.
Both the two-man game between Embiid and Redick and Redick/Simmons pick-and-rolls were integral parts of the Sixers’ closing acts — especially when without Butler. Redick hit a go-ahead 3 in October off of a DHO with Embiid, prior to Butler’s arrival, and connected on a four-point play to complete a furious Sixers comeback after screening for Simmons in a January game against San Antonio in which Butler sat.
For as much success as Embiid has had with the two-man game with Redick, that well was prone to dry up in the clutch thanks to lazy passes and miscommunications. The same goes for his post-ups. For as crushing as Joel is on the block, these slow-developing plays become much harder to succeed late in games. With the loss of Redick, expect the Sixers to lean much heavier on the aforementioned Harris/Embiid pick-and-roll partnership.
Embiid improving as a roll man would not only help get him easier looks close to the hoop, but his vertical gravity would create more space for his PNR partner and the spot-up shooters on the wing. Embiid’s full potential as a pick-and-roll partner is still to be seen. He, at times, has seemed uneasy finishing lobs in the air and often looks to be more comfortable pulling the ball down and going back up with it, likely due to the awkward landings seen with alley-oops. When it comes to Embiid’s long-term health, this is a trade-off the Sixers would gladly take. Still, handling a grounded Embiid rolling to the rim is a handful for any defender.
These big and tall Sixers will also be able to hunt mismatches a fair amount, as opponents will struggle to be able to hide smaller players on defense. Even with last year’s huge starting five, opposing point guards were able to hide on JJ Redick — that will not be the case going forward. However awkward the fit could be to start, these Sixers are filled with highly talented and versatile basketball players. The 3-point revolution and the success of Golden State’s Death Lineup have helped miscast the current era of basketball as the “small ball era”, rather than the era of skill and versatility. As we sit in the crumbled ruins of the Hamptons Five dynasty, the Sixers are in a prime position to bring big back in vogue.