The NBA’s current breakneck pace of player transaction can make even a single season feel like ages ago. There was the Clippers’ coup of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Lakers’ acquisition of Anthony Davis, the Nets’ addition of Kevin Durant and the Celtics’ Kemba-Kyrie point guard replacement.
The Sixers have done plenty of shuffling of their own as the league changes around them. They received Jimmy Butler in November 2018, then traded him to Miami in July. Philadelphia chose to commit to Tobias Harris, shelling out $180 million over five years for the 27-year-old forward. Elton Brand and Co. have completely reshaped the Sixers’ roster since 2017-18. Robert Covington and Dario Saric were sent to Minnesota. Markelle Fultz is in Orlando and J.J. Reddick is now with Zion Williamson in New Orleans. Even the beloved T.J. McConnell is gone.
The cupboards obviously aren’t bare, though. Al Horford left Boston for its Eastern Conference rival, and Josh Richardson was the jewel of the Jimmy Butler trade after a breakout year in Miami. The Sixers fell one Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater short of the Eastern Conference finals last year. Have their offseason moves paved the way for the franchise’s first Finals since 2001? The talent appears to be in place.
Philadelphia’s turnstile of player movement has resulted in one of the NBA’s most imposing starting fives, one that when healthy, could rate as one of the league’s best five-man lineups. The Sixers outscored opponents by 19.5 points per 100 possessions with Reddick, Harris, Butler, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the floor last season. That mark ranked fourth in the league, and best among all starting lineups. Richardson is expected to replace Reddick in the backcourt, and Horford could slide to the four as Tobias Harris moves to the three. Such a lineup may suffer a touch offensively without the sharpshooter of Reddick, though its collective length should wreak havoc throughout the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia’s starting five allowed 103.1 points per 100 possessions last year, eighth best among the 48 units to log 100 minutes. The Sixers should vault into the top five this year.
Butler was a true two-way force for Philadelphia last season. He embraced the unsung work on the boards and on the defensive end, drawing the toughest assignments in the NBA on many nights. Butler deferred shots to defend Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, shedding a shaky reputation after an ugly exit from Minnesota. Butler was a flexible defensive piece and a reliable option late in the shot clock. Philadelphia will miss his presence.
Can Richardson approximate 70% of Butler’s value? The Tennessee product could prove vital to the Sixers’ title aspirations. Richardson is an athletic defensive wing, and he’ll contribute to Philadelphia’s impressive length. He’s a passable three-point shooter, and he improved as a shot creator with added responsibility in 2018-19. Philadelphia will likely miss Butler most in late-game and isolation situations. He was at times a more effective option than Embiid, and a necessary outlet as teams sagged off Simmons at will. Perhaps Horford can help fill that void. Richardson isn’t the player to solve Philadelphia’s late-game woes.
Horford is perhaps the chief reason for Finals optimism in Philadelphia. Previously a Sixers killer, Horford appears to be a snug fit for Philadelphia on both sides of the ball. Horford’s offensive malleability will be critical to the Sixers given Simmons’s limited game and Embiid’s ball dominance. Horford excels as a screener and pick-and-pop specialist, and he’s an excellent fulcrum from the elbow. He doesn’t need the ball, but he’s decisive and smart when he receives it. His calm could settle Philadelphia’s youthful jitters.
The defensive pairing of Horford and Embiid could be elite. Embiid finished fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2018-19, improving as a rotational defender to complement his prowess defending the tin. Horford should help cover for Embiid’s shaky standing on the perimeter, rolling his coverage toward the conference’s more mobile bigs (namely Brook Lopez). Horford was finally given an All-Defense selection in 2017-18, a nice recognition of his efforts, albeit a few years too late. There may not be a smarter defender in the game outside of Draymond Green. Embiid is a generational talent, and Horford should be a crucial cog to keep the Sixers’ machine rolling.
Philadelphia appears to have a solid window to compete for the Finals well into the next decade. Tobias Harris is in Philadelphia through 2024. Ben Simmons is signed through 2025. Joel Embiid’s contract expires in 2023, though a lucrative extension could be down the line. Constant contention is a viable path. But the Sixers may need to strike while the iron is hot in 2020. Durant and the Nets should return to title contention by 2020-21. Boston could rise after a brief reset. For 2020, though, the contenders in the East are slim. It’s now Finals or bust in the City of Brotherly Love.