When watching through the beer goggles of disillusionment supplied by the Sixers’ maddening 65 regular season games, it became difficult to properly judge the team’s players in a vacuum.
Did Al Horford forget how to play basketball, or is he just a clunky fit?
Ben Simmons is great on defense, but he’s still not shooting. Does he have a scapular imbalance?
Is Shake Milton already better than Michael Jordan, or not yet? (Sixers lose)
One of the players most obscured by this season’s tremendous weight of expectations has been shooting guard Josh Richardson. While the 2015 second-round pick out of Tennessee has had his moments, Richardson has largely struggled to live up to the player comparisons foisted upon him. He is neither the pick-and-roll ball-handler, foul drawer and ISO scorer of Jimmy Butler — the man for whom he was traded — nor the off-movement, dead-eye 3-point shooter of JJ Redick — the man whose position he now occupies in the starting lineup.
Even by his own standards, J-Rich was having a disappointing overall season when play was suspended indefinitely:
Richardson’s catch-and-shoot numbers have taken a dip as well. This season, he has made only 34.6 percent of his 3.4 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game, whereas last season with Miami, he made 38.5 percent of 4.6 attempts, per Derek Bodner of The Athletic.
The dip in efficiency, of course, has hamstrung the Sixers’ offense. The JJ Redick-Joel Embiid two-man action that became so effective during the duo’s shared time in Philly is now gone. So is the Sixers’ late-game, ‘clear out and give it to Butler’ look.
Offensively, what Richardson provides is being somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. During the season, he’s had games where he’s been on fire from beyond (32 points on 6-of-7 from 3 against Miami in November) and masterful at getting to the free throw line (29 points on 10-of10 from the charity stripe against Boston in January), but his overall numbers just about line up with the eye test, on the whole.
He’s a decent shooter from 3, but not great. He’s an okay passer, but certainly not the secondary ball-handler the team had hoped when they acquired him.
The real problem with Josh this season — in my view — is that he simply isn’t skilled enough, offensively, to be the only guard in the starting lineup of a contender.
Think about it.
Richardson’s co-starters at the beginning of the season were: a 6-foot-10 point guard who doesn’t shoot, a 6-foot-8 tweener playing out of position at small forward, a 6-foot-10 33-year-old big man who really ought to be a center, and a 7-foot-2 do-it-all center who primarily dominates in the post.
He was not set up to succeed, individually, because what the team needs from its only guard in the lineup is simply not what Richardson has proven to provide.
Let’s say Shake Milton was the Shake Milton we now know (think?) him to be at the beginning of the season, and Brett Brown instead started Simmons, Shake, Richardson, Tobias Harris and Embiid, with Al off the bench. (Forget, for a moment, that this would include the Sixers signing a player to a $100 million deal and immediately benching him). In this unit, Shake now shares secondary ball-handling, catch-and-shoot and perimeter creation duties with Richardson. By doing so, you not only cobble together a facsimile for what Redick and Butler brought, offensively, but you return Tobias Harris to his most natural position at the 4, and remove the plodding big man in an effort to unclog the lane for Simmons and Embiid.
Now that we’ve discussed what he isn’t, let’s talk about what Josh Richardson is.
He’s an all-out, every game, tenacious defender and effortful player on a team that can occasionally wane in that very trait. Defensively, Richardson makes heady, intuitive plays more often than not. He comfortably switches between guarding point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. His 6-foot-10 wingspan also allows him to body up some bigs in a pinch. Richardson, Simmons and Matisse Thybulle give the Sixers a tenacious trio of defenders to deploy versus opposing teams during crunch time.
In the locker room, Richardson (a graduate of the lauded Heat culture) has been an excellent presence, by all accounts. It makes sense that in early February, with the Sixers sputtering, he would be the one to call a players-only meeting behind closed doors, in an effort to get everybody on the same page. Despite only being in his fifth month with the franchise, J-Rich exhibited true signs of emerging leadership on a team that could certainly use a voice.
He’s also on a team-friendly contract. Next season (the final guaranteed year on his current contract), Richardson is set to make only $11 million — a bargain for his services when compared amongst similar players in the league. Many point to his contract and offensive performance this season as the reasons to explore trading the guard during the offseason. Some, of course, theorize that you might be able to attach him to Horford in order to recoup at least some value in a deal that unloads the big man.
The Sixers, as presently constructed, will almost certainly not be able to extend Richardson’s contract after the 2020-21 season (he has a player option that he’ll almost certainly decline). Sixers ownership will likely be unwilling to venture far enough into the luxury tax to keep Richardson around. Should the Sixers find a way to shed Horford’s contract without sacrificing Richardson, that calculus could change.
Year in and year out, the archetype that Richardson fills is well-worn and basically ever-present when you scan the rosters for championship contenders. Look around the league: whether it’s Marcus Smart on the Celtics, Patrick Beverley on the Clippers, or Tony Allen on the ‘Grit ‘N Grind’ Memphis Grizzlies, high-priced, contending teams find great value in defensive-minded, dirty work, A+ effort players in their rotation— even if they’re offensively imperfect.
For a team that has consistently fumbled away their prized assets and any semblance of optionality in recent years, the team should hold onto Richardson, a player who is entering his prime (he turns 27 in September) and can provide real, tangible value to the right Sixers team built around Simmons and Embiid. Prior to the beginning of the season, Brett Brown deemed Richardson the team’s “mortar,” the glue that would hold the group together. I hope the Sixers’ front office values him as such, because he’s the exact type of guy Philly fans can get behind.