The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the more active and exciting teams in the opening night of the NBA's free agency period. They are in the process of completing a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat that would net them Josh Richardson for Jimmy Butler, and they signed veteran big man Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million contract. Here are some of my observations from their moves in the opening hours of free agency.
76ers are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA
Through the additions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford, the 76ers have vastly improved the defense of the starting lineup. It's weird to say that, considering that they shipped out one of their best defenders last season in Jimmy Butler. Richardson is a good, not great, defender who can do a lot of the same things that Butler did on defense.
However, the biggest defensive impact was bringing in Horford to play power forward and spell Embiid when he needs to rest. Horford is one of the best defensive big men in the NBA. He averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.9 steals per game last season for the rival Boston Celtics. What allows Horford, who isn't the quickest on his feet, to be a great defender is his basketball IQ. He knows where to be and when to be there, and he has the defensive skills to be able to make a positive impact on that end of the floor.
The 76ers' starting lineup is long and athletic, and will be a nightmare for opposing offenses to score on. The shortest player in the starting lineup is Richardson at 6-foot-6.
More pressure on Ben Simmons to develop his offensive game
One of the key results of the 76ers' moves in free agency, and one that I don't think many people will be talking about, is that there will be more pressure on Simmons to expand his offensive game.
The addition of Al Horford changes how the 76ers can space the floor on offense. Horford, while he can shoot from outside, would best be utilized either in the mid-range or out of the post. That means that there will be less times where the 76ers can hide Ben Simmons in the dunker spot on offense when the ball isn't in his hands.
Simmons will have to expand his game to feature at least a threat of him shooting the ball from either mid-range or beyond the arc. With Horford and Embiid dominating both post positions, there simply isn't space for Simmons to try to run his offense out of the post whenever the ball isn't in his hands.
However, the loss of Jimmy Butler (who throughout the playoffs played the point guard role at times) should in theory allow Simmons more opportunities to have the ball in his hands as he runs the half-court offense. In that way, Simmons should be able to excel using his skills as both a ball handler and passer.
Al Horford's impact on the 76ers
Horford impacts the 76ers in a multitude of ways, including on defense (see above). He is being brought to Philadelphia to primarily be the team's starting power forward, which will mean that he will have to coexist on the floor with superstar center Joel Embiid. I don't think that there will be many issues having the two big men play together. Both of them excel and can score from anywhere on the court. This adds another option to the 76ers' offense. Horford and Embiid both can shoot the ball from outside, so this allows the 76ers to be able to bring one of them out to the three-point line while still maintaining a dominant threat in the post.
The 76ers greatly benefit from adding a guy like Horford. Horford, if the minutes are properly managed by head coach Brett Brown, should be able to play mostly power forward but then step in and play center either when Embiid rests or when he misses a game. Gone are the days of the team falling apart when Embiid isn't on the floor.
Another way that Horford impacts the 76ers is by the fact that he is a veteran who can impart some knowledge to this young team. Horford, a 12-year veteran, has experienced it all throughout his NBA career. He should be able to help Embiid improve his game while also helping the whole team learn how to go through the rigors of an NBA season and an NBA playoffs.
Josh Richardson is a less polished, younger version of Jimmy Butler
Josh Richardson and Jimmy Butler are two players who share a similar set of skills on the court. They both can defend. They both can pass. They both can shoot an above average percentage from outside. Look at the table below, which compares their numbers this season and with Butler's fourth season in the league (Richardson has been in the league for four years).
|Josh Richardson (2018-19)||Jimmy Butler (2018-19)||Jimmy Butler (2014-15)|
|Points Per Game||16.6||18.2||20.0|
|Rebounds Per Game||3.6||5.3||5.8|
|Assists Per Game||4.1||4.0||3.3|
|Blocks Per Game||0.5||0.5||0.6|
|Steals Per Game||1.1||1.8||1.8|
|Field Goal Percentage||41.2||46.1||46.2|
|Minutes Per Game||34.8||33.2||38.7|
*Jimmy Butler's 2018-19 numbers only include numbers with the 76ers
Butler measures out slightly better than Richardson in most statistical categories, but Richardson still provides a lot of the same skills as Butler.
The only place where losing Butler really hurts the 76ers is in their attitude on the floor. Butler is an alpha dog who doesn't mind taking over games and having the ball in his hands when it matters. Richardson served as the Heat's main option last season and he showed that he isn't equipped to play that role. His efficiency numbers went down from 45.1 to 41.2 in field goal percentage and from 37.8 to 35.7 in three-point percentage as he took a much higher volume of shots than he normally did.
However, Richardson won't be the first option on the 76ers. He slots in as either the third or fourth scoring option on the team, meaning that he will be able to just play his game without having the added pressure of being the main option.
76ers fans should be happy with the Butler sign-and-trade to the Heat that is in the process of being completed. Richardson, at a much younger age and with a much smaller cap hit, provides a lot of the same things that Butler does.
76ers need to add shooters to replace JJ Redick
The 76ers lost JJ Redick to the New Orleans Pelicans in the opening minutes of NBA free agency. It was a big loss for the team who had centered a lot of its offense around Redick's outside shooting abilities. Say goodbye to the Embiid, Redick two-man game that had become a staple of the 76ers' offense.
With the additions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford, the starting lineup is set and has arguably improved from last year's starting lineup. However, the bench leaves a lot to be desired, and the 76ers will need to add someone who can space the floor off the bench to avoid having major spacing issues as a team.
The 76ers have around $7.7 million in cap space still available after their moves on the opening night of free agency. There are still some names out there that could benefit the 76ers bench while not being outside of their price range. Danny Green, known as a 3-and-D player, would be a perfect fit for the 76ers. Seth Curry and Wayne Ellington are both shooters who would fit in well off the bench in Philadelphia. Over the coming days, don't be surprised to see the 76ers add one of these names to come off the bench and provide some outside shooting and floor spacing ability.