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The Sixers Overhauled Their Roster—Again—to Remain Contenders in the East

By shipping out Jimmy Butler for Josh Richardson and acquiring Al Horford, Philly is going big on another reboot

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Would it surprise you if I said Sixers fans were a bit on edge? Philadelphians are famous for keeping their cool and all, but this could have gone sideways fast. Even for a franchise that has recently been a league leader in never-ending drama, the pressure heading into this offseason was pronounced—and it was largely of the Sixers’ making.

A year ago, head coach Brett Brown openly declared the Sixers were “star hunting”—only for the organization to face-plant in free agency. The Sixers had designs on Paul George and didn’t get a meeting, which was only slightly less humiliating than getting a meeting with LeBron James’s people but not LeBron himself. As it turned out, star hunting and star acquiring are two decidedly different things. The latter required the Sixers to offload all sorts of assets that they had hoarded. That came with complications. The Sixers traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler. Then they traded a whole lot more—Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, their own protected 2020 first-round pick, the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder, and two Pistons second-rounders in 2021 and 2023—to pry Tobias Harris away from the Clippers. And they did all that knowing that both Butler and Harris would be unrestricted free agents this summer, which could’ve left the Sixers with nothing to show for their gamble but a painful second-round loss to the eventual NBA champs.

General manager Elton Brand only added to the collective civic anxiety in the run-up to free agency with how he handled the NBA draft. The Sixers traded up to get Matisse Thybulle—scary stuff considering they did the deal with the Boston Celtics, who have taken advantage of them at every turn—then basically punted on the rest of the draft. Brand insisted to reporters that he needed every available dollar to focus on free agency. To his mind, young, cheap talent was fine, but not for the Sixers. Not when they had “championship aspirations.”

So, yeah. The Sixers and their fans white-knuckled things a little bit. Maybe more than a little, since Brand and the front office opted to juggle free-agency knives and hope not to hurt themselves in the process. The Sixers hit on one of their two main priorities, an outcome they probably would have happily jumped at if presented with the option ahead of time. Harris agreed to a five-year deal for $180 million. There was initially some question about whether the Sixers would have to give Harris the full five years to keep him in the fold, but they didn’t get much of a financial discount for the overture: Harris’s contract was just $9.9 million shy of the full max he could have earned. Harris penned/collaborated on a Players’ Tribune–esque story explaining why he stayed with the Sixers. I’ll save you the click: It was the money.

Butler will get his payday in Miami. He took a four-year, $142 million max deal in a sign-and-trade that shipped him to the Heat, where apparently his “mind was totally blown” by how they handled Dwyane Wade’s final game and where he’ll evidently be free to foot race Chad Ochocinco on a sun-soaked beach with nary a care in the world. The Sixers didn’t waste any time letting it be known, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, that they didn’t want Butler and had planned to “move on a while ago.” That seems like convenient spin from the Sixers, considering managing partner Josh Harris repeatedly said the organization wanted to re-sign both Butler and Harris and would be willing to dip into the luxury tax to do so. Butler was also an integral part of the team’s postseason, when he emerged as the emergency point guard and go-to pick-and-roll ball handler while Ben Simmons was put in timeout in the baseline dunker spot.

The sign-and-trade component here is significant for the Sixers. At the time I’m writing this, reports on the haul are a bit murky, save one detail: Josh Richardson to Philly. That’s a great get for the Sixers. As my Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks detailed earlier this year, Richardson is an ascendant 3-and-D wing with a bright future. He’s 25, four years younger than Butler, and on the same timeline as Harris (27 on July 15), Embiid (25), and Simmons (23 in July and reportedly in discussions with the Sixers to sign a rookie extension). Even better, Richardson’s contract is almost criminal by comparison with what Butler has coming. Richardson will make a little over $10 million next year, and he’s under control through the 2020-21 season.

The Sixers used the money they didn’t spend on Butler to sign Al Horford to a four-year deal worth $109 million, with $97 million guaranteed, according to Woj, and the rest tied up in championship bonuses that the Sixers would no doubt be delighted to pay out in a post-parade scenario. I’m not wild about giving four years to a second center who is 33 years old, but Horford does a lot of things well. He is an excellent passer, rebounder, and defender. He shoots the 3 and is universally hailed as a good human and positive locker room presence. He can play with Embiid, or Brown could stagger their minutes, and he’s the load management Joel insurance policy that the Sixers lacked last season when they were trying in vain to squeeze a few good minutes out of Greg Monroe in the playoffs. Maybe the back end of that contract won’t look so good as Horford gets older, but Philadelphia is trying to win sooner rather than later anyway. It also makes the Sixers really big and a potential matchup nightmare for lesser teams that might otherwise prefer to go small. (Even better: Sixers fans who previously killed Horford and called him Average Al are now forced to root for him; local sports talk radio will completely short circuit, and I want to hear all of it.)

In the aggregate, the Sixers turned Robert Covington and Dario Saric into a Butler rental, then flipped Butler for Richardson and the cap space to grab Horford. That’s a fine result for the front office—though their work isn’t done here and they took some L’s too. The Sixers retained fan favorite Mike Scott on a two-year deal worth just shy of $10 million, but they lost sharpshooting podcaster JJ Redick to the New Orleans Pelicans, where he reportedly agreed to a two-year deal worth $26.5 million. Redick is 35, but he led the Sixers in 3-point attempts and makes by a considerable margin last season. Here, again, there are lingering effects that can be traced back to the Harris trade with the Clippers. No one has been able to give me a good reason the Sixers had to include Shamet in that transaction. During his time with the Sixers, Shamet emerged as a mini-Redick starter kit. They had JJ’s replacement in house on the cheap, but now the Sixers will have to find someone other than Shamet to fill Redick’s role and fly off screens and hoist 3-pointers.

For all of this to work, the Sixers are betting they get a version of Harris that is closer to what we saw when he was with the Clippers—someone who can pour in points and take over offensively when his team needs it. And the Sixers figure to need it. By virtue of what the team no longer has, as well as the giant bag of cash it just handed over, Harris has been elevated on the offensive options depth chart to a spot just below Embiid.

That is not without risk for the Sixers. There were moments in the playoffs—such as in Game 4 against the Raptors when the Sixers were up 2-1 in the series and had a chance to put a stranglehold on the proceedings—when Harris did not perform well. (He went 7-for-23 in that game from the floor and 2-for-13 from 3; the Sixers lost by five. You know the rest.) The fact that the Sixers lost to Toronto is not all on Harris or even mostly on him, but Philly will need more from Harris to make it a true contender and justify the contract—and the trade that came before it. At the time of the deal with the Clippers, one longtime league exec predicted to me that paying so much in that trade for Harris when he could walk away this summer meant the Sixers were “pot committed” and would have to do everything possible to keep him—otherwise it would be an awful look. He was right.

Optics aside, Brand and the Sixers have to feel pretty good. They overhauled the roster on the fly—again—and remain in position as Eastern Conference contenders for the foreseeable future. Considering all the variables, that’s a win—especially because there was a real chance they’d come out of free agency with two max slots to offer and nobody willing to take their money. That would have been a disaster. Who wants that? Nobody wants that.