The Philadelphia 76ers have outgrown the Process. That term may now be better suited for the Los Angeles Lakers, whose process begins again after the team struck out on Anthony Davis at the trade deadline. Both franchises were active ahead of last Thursday’s buzzer. But after Philly’s 143-120 victory on Sunday, the Sixers look reborn as a result of their bold trade for Tobias Harris, while the Lakers, forced to make do with their young core, look stuck in the mud.
In his first season as general manager, Elton Brand has pushed all of the Sixers’ chips in. He dealt two franchise favorites to acquire Jimmy Butler three months ago, and last week he landed Harris for Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick, Miami’s 2021 first-round pick, and Detroit’s 2021 and 2023 second-round picks. There’s still more to pay this summer, as Harris will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely command a max deal. But two games in, it’s clear that the 76ers’ Tobias Harris experiment is a success.
On Friday, in Harris’s—and Boban Marjanovic’s and Mike Scott’s—debut in Philly, the Sixers bested the Denver Nuggets, the second-best team in the West. And on Sunday, the Sixers blew the Los Angeles Lakers off the floor. Joel Embiid pummeled the Lakers’ slight frontcourt, putting up 37 points and 14 rebounds, but this was more than Philly’s giant All-Star dominating an overmatched opponent. The Sixers simply overwhelmed the Lakers with talent (Harris chipped in 22 points on 64.3 percent shooting, six rebounds, and six assists). A two-game sample is pretty meaningless, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by Philly’s 124.4 offensive rating over the past two games.
Harris is a safe bet in a 6-foot-9 frame. The Sixers can trust him to push the ball down the court, and they know that he’ll be ready to spot up at the arc when they need him to. He won’t demand the ball, and he doesn’t need it in his hands all the time to succeed. The Sixers were already flush with star power—with two of their best players flirting with the “super” prefix. Harris, based on talent and his production this season, is another player on the fringes of stardom. But unlike Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid, Harris’s best skills enhance those around him more than showcase his individual brilliance. So even though Harris’s opportunities may dip some with the Sixers, the Sixers have never looked better.
Even before they traded for Butler in mid-November, the Sixers offense needed someone other than JJ Redick who could spread the floor. Butler can do many things well, but he hasn’t shot well from 3 over his career and he takes fewer 3s than Brett Brown would like. Simmons put up the first 3-point shot of his career that wasn’t caused by a dwindling shot clock on Sunday, which is a start, but his reluctance to shoot shrinks the court. Throughout Sunday’s game, you could find LeBron James “guarding” Simmons by standing in the paint and daring his young Klutch Sports counterpart to do something about it. Harris is basically Butler-and-Ben-proofing. The 26-year-old wing is shooting a career-high 44 percent from 3 this season, and he’s just as proficient on pull-ups (48.6 percent) as he is off the catch (41.2). If the defense wants to sag off Simmons and protect against one of his trademark thunderous dunks, Simmons now has the option of kicking it out to two of the deadliest shooters at their positions. Harris can set screens for Butler, or, eventually, be the one handling the ball some. Harris is the skeleton key for the Sixers offense. Even Embiid stepped into three 3-pointers with confidence and drilled two of them.
With Harris, the Sixers essentially have four All-Stars. (I’m choosing to believe Butler would’ve been voted in had it not been for his off-court antics, and Harris most likely would’ve made it had he played in the East all season.) The number of teams with that amount of high-end talent in recent history is a very short list. It’s the formula the Warriors have been working with for the past three seasons, and the Hawks managed to get four players into the 2015 All-Star Game en route to a 60-win season. It cost the Sixers a lot to get to this point, but it’s hard to argue with the results so far.
The Lakers, meanwhile, needed to make a trade at the deadline, but after playing a roundabout game with the Pelicans for Davis, they ended up back at the beginning. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise when it comes to Kyle Kuzma. The oldest member of the Lakers’ young core and the one who has looked most comfortable next to James was the high scorer on Sunday, with 39 points. But the same issues that have slowed down the Lakers’ high-speed attack this season came right back into focus against the Sixers.
The Lakers’ signings this summer and their deadline acquisitions aren’t convincing enough to even be considered fool’s gold. Recent trades for Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala give coach Luke Walton new shooters with which to tinker, but there still isn’t a clear pathway to a lineup that’ll properly support James. Bullock started over Rajon Rondo against the Sixers in an attempt to address two Lakers woes, defense and shooting, but went 1-for-5 from the field in his debut. The shooting Bullock (a 38.5 percent 3-point shooter) and Muscala (34.3 percent) provide may help once both settle in, but L.A. is still over-reliant on ball handlers who can’t hit those shots, and on stars-to-be like Brandon Ingram who have not yet reached their potential. Magic Johnson signed Band-Aids for a roster that desperately needs stitches.
Philadelphia may have given all the goods for Harris—an unrestricted free agent this summer—in an effort to win now, but no one can deny the new advantage it has rounding the corner toward the playoffs. The Lakers, meanwhile, are dealing with the same problems, and will be forced to for the remainder of the season.