This summer, the Philadelphia 76ers locked up their starting five of the future. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson are all under contract for at least the next two seasons (Embiid, Simmons, Harris and Horford for three-plus). Overwhelmingly, that’s a positive development. Each of those players is capable of starting on a title contender and a few will notch All-Star appearances moving forward. Embiid is already a superstar, while Simmons has the chance to blossom into one. The group isn’t perfect, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best five-man pods in the entire NBA.
At the same time, the financial commitments made to that quintet handcuff management’s flexibility as it pertains to constructing a bench. It’s a trade-off you accept when given the opportunity because front offices should trust in their ability to assemble a competent reserve unit. The downside, though, is the absence of requisite funds for a bench engine, a la Lou Williams or Eric Gordon, who helps spearhead the offense in conjunction with a starter or two.
While Philadelphia’s bench appears to be an upgrade from years past, it remains flawed. Guys like Mike Scott, James Ennis and Trey Burke can be cast into serviceable roles, filling the gaps where necessary, but serving them much on-ball usage to buoy the offense isn’t prudent.
It’s imperative the Sixers uncover the most harmonic lineup groupings when their starters are surrounded with lesser talent. This is a topic I’ve thought extensively about since Philadelphia’s roster took shape. One option I’ve settled on — and grown optimistic about — is tying the minutes of Harris, Horford, and Richardson together for long stretches. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a divisive stance, but this is a trio that theoretically connects the dots for one another.
Obviously, unifying those three leaves Embiid and Simmons to share the floor separate from the starting five. For all the hair-pulling about their fit, the numbers are quite impressive. As rookies, they generated a plus-15.5 net rating in 1,306 minutes together. Last season, it was plus-7.9 in 1,433 minutes.
Because of their ball-dominant styles, they clash schematically, but talent often wins out and that’s the case here. Those two are the team’s best players and franchise pillars. Bet on the chemistry evolving and bank on past results.
Dividing the starting five into Embiid-Simmons and Harris-Horford-Richardson lineups splits minutes between the team’s top two facilitators — Simmons and Horford — ensuring that Philadelphia is armed with a high-level distributor as often as possible.
It also reduces the time in which Harris is displaced from his natural position. Take a look at the difference in net rating for Harris between small forward and power forward over the past two seasons:
Harris’ impact is maximized at power forward, a stance supported by both the numbers and the eye test. He can drag slower, traditional 4s beyond the paint and exploit them offensively; his interior defensive chops far outweigh his perimeter mobility.
There will undoubtedly be periods where Harris plays the 3. His viability in that role is one of the more pressing questions that looms over the Sixers’ season. Establishing a rotational pattern that affords him time at power forward is crucial.
Not only does that slot Harris into a position he’s better suited for, it pairs him with a front-court partner who lessens his playmaking burden. Harris is a skilled and malleable scorer, but he’s not fully equipped to tackle primary ball-handling duties. Horford is one of the NBA’s best passing big men, comfortable in organized or impromptu situations.
Even better for Harris is Horford’s space-creating screens that will allow him to waltz into pull-up jumpers. Last season, Harris shot 41.3 percent on pull-up 3s (44.4 percent on all pull-ups, seventh among 68 players with 250-plus attempts). As Horford carves out real estate, Harris is going to cruise as a pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off scorer:
The Sixers periodically experimented with this Horns Flare action for Harris last season. With his shooting and Horford’s screening, this should emerge as a common set moving forward:
Off the catch, Harris can rise for 3, ambush hasty closeouts or flow into ball-screen tangos with Horford. Just imagine Richardson in place of Simmons in the clip above, stretching the floor for a potential drive or pick-and-roll from Harris.
While Harris and Horford act as this trio’s primary scorer and distributor, Richardson projects to enjoy a secondary workload. Too often last season, the Miami Heat entrusted him with lofty perimeter creation standards and his efficiency dropped as a result.
His 53.6 percent true shooting ranked 74th among 84 players to average at least 15 points per game in 2018-19. He ranked in the 48th percentile in pick-and-rolls, 13th percentile in isolations, and shot 39.5 percent on pull-up jumpers (33rd among 68 players with 250-plus attempts). Philadelphia would be wise to avoid any lineups that rely on him as the No. 1 perimeter option. Binding the majority of his minutes to Harris promotes that idea.
Richardson’s offensive numbers describe a player most comfortable functioning on the periphery, finishing in the 50th percentile or better in hand-offs (71st), cuts (70th), spot-ups (69th), transition (51st) and off-screens (50th). He and Horford should form a symbiotic relationship in the dribble hand-off game:
The focus has been on how Horford’s presence aids Harris and Richardson. But there will certainly be instances when the Sixers pull out the emergency brake that is Horford post-ups (64th percentile last season). It’s here where Harris’ and Richardson’s virtues as shooters provide value for Horford, affording him room to act as a capable release valve when possessions grow stagnant. Flanking Horford with Simmons and/or Embiid doesn’t offer the same floor-spacers, furthering the value of a Harris-Horford-Richardson grouping.
Despite the offensive potential and opportunity with Harris, Horford and Richardson, lulls are going to occur. Harris will succumb to cycles of frigid jump-shooting and Horford isn’t a live-dribble creator with omnipresent playmaking. That’s less an indictment on their specific synergy/talent and more rooted in the team’s personnel, which seems primed to breed a dominant defense and middling offense.
Even then, the best route for Philadelphia to keep itself afloat — particularly on offense — when the starters diverge is to tether Harris, Horford and Richardson together. Their offensive skill sets magnify one another in a way that doesn’t exist next to Embiid and Simmons.
Championship teams excel on the margins. For the Sixers, how they intermix their starters with the bench is the type of decision that can distinguish them from other title-caliber contemporaries. Engineering lineups around Harris, Horford and Richardson is an important stepping stone on the path to maximizing both the roster and championship odds.