The Philadelphia 76ers have one concern that stands above the rest when looking ahead to the 2019-20 season: how to replace Jimmy Butler’s perimeter creation, especially in crunch time. It’s the biggest offensive obstacle the team will have to overcome. Something that's lower on the list but still important? The departure of JJ Redick’s shooting.
Redick’s artistry in dribble hand-offs with Joel Embiid was an integral part of the Sixers’ offense over the last two years, resulting in Redick having the two highest scoring seasons of his career. He used more hand-offs than anyone else in the NBA last season and it wasn’t even close (second-place was Jamal Murray at 218, miles behind Redick's total of 395). There’s no doubt Redick’s movement flying off screens, gravity, and production will be missed, particularly early on as this new-look team comes together.
There are a few ways the Sixers can try to combat this, though. More touches for Tobias Harris is a start, giving him more hand-offs (and pick-and-rolls) of his own. He's the best shooter left on the team. Entrusting him with more opportunities to lead will help him get back to his Clippers self (I wrote last month about exactly how Harris can return to top form). Pick-and-roll play with Al Horford is another new weapon to utilize. His 3-point shooting provides pick-and-pop ability that the Sixers didn’t have at center last season, while his nimble, highly intelligent play as a roll man and passer out of short rolls will add another new dynamic to the offense. Even though Butler will be missed as a lead ball handler, the Sixers can still look to Harris, a hopefully improving Ben Simmons, and (to a lesser extent) Richardson.
The latter was overworked as the Miami Heat's leading scorer last season. He put up 16.6 points per game, but with a career-high 20.9 usage rate, his efficiency unsurprisingly faltered — 41.2/35.7/86.1 shooting splits with a 53.6 True Shooting Percentage. It was inevitable as his pick-and-roll frequency soared (accounting for 23 percent of his possessions in 2017-18 and 31.8 in 2018-19, with a ranking in the 47th percentile) and isolation duties ramped up.
4.7 of Richardson’s 14.1 field goal attempts per game were pull-ups, which he made at just a 39.5 percent clip. Despite his significant improvements to produce more as a creator, at this point in his career, he isn’t a top option capable of beating an opponent's best wing defender each night. In Philly, he'll be able to step firmly back into his comfort zone.
It goes without saying that Richardson isn't near Redick's level as a shooter or spacer, but a glance at Richardson's 35.7 3-point percentage from last season probably doesn't give him the credit he deserves. For a start, his percentage sounds better when you consider the fact he upped his overall attempts well past his previous career-high (6.3 3s per game, compared to 4.3 in 2016-17) and a fair amount of those were off the dribble. 1.6 of his 3-point attempts were pull-ups, made at a 28.8 percent rate — this is a huge leap in volume from the 0.2 he attempted per game in 2017-18.
Richardson’s catch-and-shoot numbers in recent seasons have been good, too. He has shot 38.5 percent on 4.2 such shots per game over the last two seasons, and now has upgraded playmakers like Simmons and Horford to create good looks for him. Catch-and-shoot triples should make up the majority of Richardson’s 3-point shot profile, which bodes well for his transition to Philly. He ranked in the 68th percentile on spot-ups last season and the 49th in shots off screens — an area where he should receive a few looks.
Richardson’s dribble hand-off play stood out last season. He ranked fifth in total hand-offs used at 174. Even with that high volume, Richardson was able to maintain strong efficiency, ranking in the 70th percentile at 1.01 points per possession.
When he's using dribble hand-offs (or pick-and-rolls at a more suitable frequency) with Horford or Embiid, Richardson is going to be receiving all the rock-solid screens he needs to spring himself open. And after being the top option in Miami, having less defensive attention pursuing him will only help. Along with a drop in volume, Richardson could well see his efficiency increase. And while he hasn’t been effective from deep off the bounce yet, he has at least looked increasingly comfortable taking more shots like those in the clip below when working around ball screens:
If he can make that development, it’ll be a real help to Philly’s offense to ease the creative burden on Harris a little.
This is where Richardson can be a clear upgrade over Redick. For all his marksmanship at the perimeter, Redick's game isn’t nearly as pretty around the rim. Richardson, even as someone who isn’t a highly dynamic creator, possesses good size and far more explosiveness as a ball handler to attack off the dribble and drive.
Redick simply couldn't deliver plays like those below, from the high finishes off glass to overcome shot blockers to the craftier hesitations and changes of direction:
It’s also worth noting that Richardson will have a size advantage in many matchups. As the Sixers’ smallest starter at 6-foot-6, opponents will often have no choice but to use their point guard to defend Richardson. With every other Sixers starter standing at least 6-foot-9, there’s nowhere else for smaller guards to hide. Of course, the Sixers won’t want to keep isolating Richardson in these scenarios. That’s not where he excels. But he’s going to have some chances to utilize his size for easier finishes on drives and occasional post-ups.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Richardson’s fairly modest shooting at the rim from last season (56.9 percent) improve when he’s asked to attack less in Philly and has the likes of Horford and Simmons to hit him on cuts.
Richardson has some nifty passing to utilize as well. Even when asked to deal with the pressure of being a number-one option last season, he demonstrated good ball security (averaging a career-high 4.1 assists per game to only 1.5 turnovers) and the ability to make some sharp reads to roll men, cutters or shooters when running the offense. With less pressure as a Sixer, Richardson will have more than enough complementary playmaking to deliver in his role with a smaller dose of hand-offs and pick-and-rolls:
As Jackson Frank discussed in this great piece for us at Liberty Ballers, stagger patterns of a Richardson-Harris-Horford trio and the Simmons-Embiid duo could be the best way for the Sixers to unleash their starters. Simmons-Embiid lineups, despite fair comments about less than ideal fit/spacing, can continue to thrive together (they recorded a plus-7.9 net rating in 1,431 minutes together in 2018-19, and plus-15.5 in 2017-18).
Meanwhile, Harris can spend more time at his best position at the 4 as a lead scorer, Horford can shift to the 5 and spread the floor as a lead playmaker, and Richardson can be used in a secondary/tertiary role. If the Sixers pursue this strategy, Horford’s passing and shooting to open up the floor will create wider driving and cutting lanes for Richardson (he ranked in the 70th percentile on cuts last season).
The Sixers will have some offensive kinks to iron out next season. They'll miss Redick's shooting, honing the fit of Horford and Embiid together will take some time, and, first and foremost, Butler’s exit leaves them without an elite perimeter creator. Their options in clutch situations won't be the same. But they can still establish themselves as a Finals-worthy team with what could be the NBA’s best defense, improved depth, Horford fixing non-Embiid minutes, and their sheer mass of talent.
Josh Richardson’s arrival is exciting for Philly. His defense and much-needed tenacity at the point of attack alone will make a difference. If he can accompany that by playing to his offensive strengths in a reduced role and raise his efficiency as a result, continuing to further his 3-point shot off the dribble, he’s going to be a fantastic two-way fit with the Sixers.