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Are the Sixers Too Big to Succeed?

Philly will head into the 2019-20 season in a big way ... like enormous. It will be a defensive juggernaut, but has GM Elton Brand hamstrung Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Al Horford by not adding backcourt help?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Sixers’ season ended with the fourth heart-crushing boink of a Kawhi Leonard baseline jumper, but the sting of an Eastern Conference semifinals loss was soothed by optimism. Philly was seemingly talented enough to win a title—at least until a new superteam coalesces somewhere with palm trees or without state taxes—assuming the group ran it back with unrestricted free agents Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, and Tobias Harris. But that didn’t happen.

After the first day of free agency, a team that could have been the 2019-20 front-runner had already replaced two starters. Harris reupped with a five-year max contract; Butler is in Miami following a complicated sign-and-trade that brought back Josh Richardson; Redick has headed off to New Orleans. In a stunning twist, Al Horford, the 33-year-old five-time All-Star, was coaxed away from the reviled Celtics with a four-year, $109 million offer. On Tuesday, it was reported that Ben Simmons and the Sixers are working on a five-year, $170 million maximum extension—essentially locking this core in place for the foreseeable future.

At the moment, it appears the Sixers are comfortable heading into next season with a gargantuan starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Horford, and Richardson. But the tumultuous Sunday afternoon left questions unanswered. Seeing as how Philly just lost its best postseason performer and most lethal outside shooter, can we say it actually improved? How will one of the largest teams in NBA history work in an era of pace-and-space? And why hasn’t anyone told Sixers GM Elton Brand that guards exist?

There is a school of contemporary basketball theory in which the ideal lineup is a collection of whirring, interchangeable parts with speed, ballhandling, and shooting spread across every position. That is not the Sixers. Instead, Philadelphia apparently wants to be the mulleted drop-out who snatches away milk money and leaves victims pretzeled in a urinal.

Looking back, the fat tail of the Sixers’ fetish for big-boy units goes back to the Markelle Fultz debacle. The top overall pick in the 2017 draft was slated to start aside Redick in a conventionally vanilla backcourt, but was replaced by Dario Saric after being sidelined by a mysterious and career-jeopardizing shoulder issue. Simmons, in turn, became the nominal point guard, despite being a minotaur-sized forward who moonlights as a small-ball center.

Since then, the Sixers’ infatuation with size has gone from a quirk to an obsession. It’s a familiar spiral. Buy one leather jacket and wake up with a Bissingerian closet full of ostrich skin equestrian boots.

At last season’s trade deadline, Philly added Harris, Mike Scott, and James Ennis, all forwards, and Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 giant. After scooping up Greg Monroe in the buyout market, Philly went into the playoffs with five centers on the roster—although four of them proved to be unplayable against Toronto.

While Philly’s husky forces dominated the boards, lived at the free throw line, and used their length to challenge shots, they operated at a deficit of resources like quickness and ballhandling. Last season, they coughed up the rock a ton (24th in TO%) and rarely coerced miscues from their foes (28th in opponent TO%). They were torched by guards like Kemba Walker, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Collin Sexton, and posted a mediocre defensive rating (tied for 14th). The lopsided roster caused pundits to gripe about the team’s supposed lack of discipline and inconsistent effort—because, optically, that’s what being slow and unskilled looks like.

But in the playoffs, Philly’s jumbo-assed lineups shrunk the court, even against gnats who had previously eluded their hammy mitts. Brooklyn, which rang up an average of 121 points in four regular-season games against the Sixers, tallied only 111.4 in their five-game series. In Round 2, Toronto scored 12.8 fewer points than its overall season average. “I’m not saying Milwaukee isn’t talented, but Philly has so many talented guys across the board,” the Raptors’ Danny Green told ESPN during the Finals. “They are much bigger. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to find our rhythm against them.”

Where smaller men might have looked at the Sixers’ personnel and thought it wise to diversify, Brand (or whoever in the shadowy “collaborative” front office calls the shots) doubled down on thicc. Maybe, when considering that hypothetical debate about which lineup of identical NBA players would be best, he gazed into the mirror and whispered, “Five Elton Brands,” before noting, “I’m solid, not beefy.” Perhaps he looked at Eastern Conference rivals and saw mastodons like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol. It’s equally feasible that Brand’s moves are underpinned by a prevailing “big ball” philosophy—or that Elton is a strict traditionalist who can’t reconcile that a dude who dribbles and passes is also a power forward.

The Sixers, as currently constructed, are one of the strangest contenders in recent memory. Fudging it a bit, you could describe the hulking starters as two centers, two power forwards, and one small forward. Four bigs and a swingman. In 2020, they will look like the 1993 Pacers, but with Antonio Davis starting instead of Haywoode Workman.

It gets more wild. Thus far, the Philly bench includes Scott (power forward), Kyle O’Quinn (center), and Jonah Bolden (center/power forward), Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle (two recently drafted guards/swingmen who can’t demonstrably dribble, pass, or shoot), and probably Shake Milton (a former second-round pick who will likely be converted from a two-way deal). Early Wednesday morning, it was reported that Philly had given a two-way contract to Norvel Pelle, who is yet another center. Philly’s mulish scorn for anyone who can bounce a basketball is so antithetical to modern strategy that you have to respect it.

Richardson swaps in for Butler, but Redick’s departure leaves Philly’s thin stable of guards and reliable shooters even more depleted. Last season, the 12-year vet scored a career-high 18.1 points per game and was seventh in the NBA in 3-pointers made, sandwiched between Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard. He and Embiid developed nifty two-man chemistry, especially on dribble handoffs, contributing to the Sixers’ league-best 1.05 points per possession on that kind of play. The duo was rotationally joined at the hip, with Redick on the floor for more than three-quarters of the All-Star center’s minutes.

But there’s a reason that Redick was one of the few unitaskers to earn heavy playing time for a contender. Although he works hard and gets to the right spots defensively, he was ruthlessly targeted by teams like Boston and Toronto, both on the perimeter and in the post. And while Redick is a fantastic shooter, his lack of ballhandling and inability to get to the rack (only 8.1 percent of his shot attempts were within 3 feet of the hoop) made him more of a stretch-small than a modern guard. After Butler and Harris were acquired, Redick’s limited offensive toolbox wasn’t necessarily worth the cross-matching contortions required to keep him on the floor.

Still, it is not clear how the Sixers will replace the playmaking, spacing, and 33.9 points per game that Butler and Redick combined to contribute after the All-Star break. Richardson is not a particularly efficient scorer—his career true shooting percentage is below league average, let alone Redick’s lofty marks—nor does he have Butler’s chops as a creator and distributor in the half court. Horford hasn’t put up more than 14 points a night in four years. Presumably, Harris will accept greater responsibility as a scorer and ball handler; at the very least, there will be less diminishing returns in the overlapping strengths and weaknesses of him and Redick. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it: The Sixers lost a second-tier superstar in Butler and will try to replace him with guys who aren’t as talented. Best of luck.

Over the past two years, the Sixers have capsized when Embiid has gone to the bench. He posted cartoonish on/off numbers in the Toronto series, despite averaging just 17.6 points on 37 percent shooting and suffering from “the shits.” Part of that chasm results from the quality of the team’s backup centers. Not only were Amir Johnson, Marjanovic, and Monroe borderline NBA players, that prototype of post-oriented sloth smothers Simmons’s ability to operate in the lane. During the playoffs, Simmons averaged 14.3 points per 36 minutes with only six free throw attempts in 107 minutes aside any member of that grim trio. He doesn’t need a jumper to be great, but requires specific surrounding personnel (i.e., stretch centers and guards without thoracic outlet syndrome).

Horford changes that. Not only is he an exceptional defender, but his ability to shoot from deep and clever passing make him an ideal fit with Simmons when Embiid is on the pine. With every meaningful center minute occupied by an All-Star-caliber wide-body, Philly should see a significant uptick in consistency and have ample opportunities to rest each. And when Simmons feasts in the decongested paint, be sure to credit Horford’s sage veteran leadership or the benefits of breaking up with Kendall Jenner while livestreaming League of Legends.

Despite the potential offensive stumbling blocks, Philly’s hefty lads could be the most suffocating defense in the NBA. Embiid and Horford are upper-echelon rim protectors who can stay on the floor against speedsters; Simmons is among the most versatile defenders on earth; Richardson is lanky and disruptive; and Smith and Thybulle project convincingly as glass-chewing specialists. Though foul-prone, O’Quinn is one of the league’s best shot blockers and a delightful bearded goon. Philly will still be vulnerable against slippery guards, but culling minutes from Redick, Johnson, and possibly yet-to-be-re-signed T.J. McConnell will cover up soft spots that opponents have been spearing. If the Sixers are not a top-five defensive squad, things have gone awry.

At the moment, the NBA is wide open. Margins for error are less narrow. The Sixers may not have had a strong draft, managed assets wisely, or consolidated cap space into a third superstar. There’s still a bizarre fixation on brolic shares per 100 possessions. But when you’ve got Embiid and Simmons on the rising side of the developmental curve, it might not matter—Philadelphia should still be one of the best teams in the league. Think big, get big.