Backup center was looming as one of the Sixers’ biggest question marks heading into the 2022-23 NBA season, but that’s no longer the case after they signed Montrezl Harrell to a two-year, $5.2 million contract on Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. A team source confirmed the signing to Liberty Ballers.
It’s easy to see the upside of adding Harrell on a minimum deal. He was one of the top remaining players on the free-agent market, and he had his best years of his career under head coach Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers. Harrell won the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year award under Rivers after averaging a career-high 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in only 27.8 minutes per game off the bench.
However, Rivers’ handling of Harrell in the playoffs that season suggests this signing might raise the Sixers’ regular-season floor but lower their postseason ceiling.
In the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, the Clippers got outscored by 11.7 points per 100 possessions during the 134 minutes in which Harrell was on the floor. In the 172 minutes that starting center Ivica Zubac played, the Clippers outscored the Nuggets by 10.2 points per 100 possessions. The only time Harrell had a positive plus-minus mark in that series was the Clippers’ 23-point victory in Game 1.
Mitigating circumstances might have contributed to Harrell’s struggles in that series. He left the NBA bubble in Orlando in mid-July to tend to his ailing grandmother, whom he described as his “entire world.” No one should fault Harrell for not quite playing like his typical self after losing a family member amidst a global pandemic.
Then again, that wasn’t the only time in which Harrell struggled in the playoffs. His teams have been outscored by at least 12 points per 100 possessions whenever he’s on the floor in all five of his postseason appearances. He’s a glaring liability in pick-and-roll defense, which teams begin to relentlessly target once the playoffs roll around.
Rivers’ handling of Zubac and Harrell in that series against the Nuggets was a “philosophical point of contention” that contributed to his departure from the Clippers after the season, according to Jovan Buha of The Athletic. The other one was “his reluctance to develop or empower the team’s younger talent throughout his tenure.”
Prior to the Harrell signing, young bigs Paul Reed and Charles Bassey figured to battle it out for the right to serve as the primary backup to All-Star center Joel Embiid. P.J. Tucker can (and should) play some minutes as a small-ball 5 as well, but Reed and/or Bassey appeared ticketed for a much larger role.
Now, Harrell figures to slide in as Embiid’s primary backup, while Bassey’s roster spot suddenly might be in danger. Less than $75,000 of his $1.6 million contract is guaranteed until Jan. 10, and the Sixers are currently two players over the regular-season roster limit.
With the Sixers firmly in win-now mode, it’s easy to understand why they would want to bring in a more experienced big man. (Hell, I recently advocated for them to sign Hassan Whiteside.) While developing Reed and Bassey has long-term appeal, the former is heading into the final year of his contract, while the latter played only 168 minutes as a rookie.
Had Reed and/or Bassey not panned out as expected this year, Rivers might have leaned more heavily on Embiid and Tucker as his primary bigs during the regular season. The Sixers should be aiming for the opposite approach, as keeping both of them fresh leading into the playoffs will be key to their championship aspirations.
For all of Harrell’s potential flaws in the playoffs, he should be a boon in that regard. A second unit featuring him, De’Anthony Melton, Matisse Thybulle and Danuel House Jr. has the potential to run opposing benches out of the gym. That should help keep Embiid’s minutes in check throughout the regular season, as the starters might not have to help stanch the bleeding of the bench blowing leads as often.
That’s the glass-half-full outlook of this signing. But the glass-half-empty view goes right back to Rivers and his oft-questionable rotation decisions.
Even if Rivers learned his lesson from the Nuggets series and is willing to give Harrell a quicker hook in the playoffs, that likely won’t be the case in the regular season. He tends to prefer a set rotation pattern to allow specific lineups and combinations of players to develop chemistry. That isn’t necessarily how the Sixers should approach the regular season, though.
Health permitting, the Sixers have the talent to cruise to a top-six seed in the East. They should use the 82 games before the playoffs to experiment with different looks. They need to see which groups work and which don’t before the postseason rolls around. That way, they’ll have counterpunches in their back pocket whenever a playoff opponent stymies their typical offensive or defensive approach.
Even with Harrell in the fold, Rivers should still try to vary his lineups to see what each frontcourt option has to offer behind Embiid. Although Harrell might be the primary backup in the regular season, the Sixers still need to see what they have in Reed and small-ball units where Tucker plays at the 5. Getting them experience in those roles should only behoove them whenever they need to make adjustments in the playoffs.
Rivers could learn from Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who likewise came under fire for his rigidity and inability to adjust during the playoffs in recent years. Bud led the Bucks to the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed in back-to-back seasons, but two playoff flameouts finally convinced him to diversify his approach to the regular season in 2020-21. Although the Bucks struggled at times, they went on to win the title that year.
“There’s been conscientious effort to develop more variety, more diversity both defensively and offensively that you need in the playoffs, and so I think there’s a confidence in reps and building habits, doing different things during the course of the regular season,” Budenholzer said ahead of the NBA Finals, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.
Tucker, who joined the Bucks at the trade deadline that season, praised Budenholzer for deviating from his typical tendencies.
“He’s done more adjusting this year than he’s ever done before (with) schemes and some of the things that we’re doing,” Tucker said, per Zillgitt. “He’s getting a little more adventurous and I think the personnel, that gives him a freedom to do that a lot more and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful. It’s been good.”
Perhaps Tucker’s experience in Milwaukee can help convince Rivers to follow in Budenholzer’s footsteps. If not, Rivers should look across the sports complex to Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, who made waves this week when he spoke with WIP’s Angelo Cataldi about his ill-fated decision to draft wide receiver Jalen Reagor one pick ahead of future Pro Bowl wideout Justin Jefferson.
“I think one of my many weaknesses, is that I spend more time thinking about my mistakes than I do any of the successes we may have had,” Roseman told Cataldi. “I think it continuously motivates me to get better. Whenever we do something like that, I go back and I look at the process and how we came to that decision.”
If Rivers learns from his experience with Harrell in the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals and adjusts accordingly, the pros of signing Harrell should far outweigh the cons. But if Rivers continues to blindly stick with the same players and rotation patterns, matchups be damned, Harrell might be both a regular-season boon and a playoff Achilles’ heel.