Did Losing in the Playoffs to the Celtics Make the 76ers Realize Importance of Grit and Physicality?
By Kevin Condit, Sports Talk Philly Guest Writer
It's May of 2018. Philadelphia 76ers management, players and fans alike are licking their wounds from a rather embarrassing 4-1 series loss to the division rival Boston Celtics. Boston dismantled the 76ers in devastating fashion using a combination of size, strength and physicality, which are all qualities Philadelphia seemed to lack this particular postseason. That is not acceptable and quite frankly embarrassing in the blue collar city of Philadelphia. They had “out Phillied" Philadelphia.
After getting dismantled by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the 76ers knew that they would need to make changes to become more physical and athletic in order to compete with Boston, a team they would be competing with for the next decade. The 76ers went into the following offseason with a clear plan to add some much needed athleticism and physicality, beginning by trying to “star hunt” in free agency.
76ers management sung tales of star hunting, led by the tune of head coach Brett Brown, who was currently acting as the team’s interim general manager after the burnergate scandal involving Bryan Colangelo. However, star hunting didn't go as planned, with Lebron James going to the Los Angeles Lakers and Paul George staying put in Oklahoma City. Free agency proved to be rather uneventful for the 76ers.
With free agency being a failure, the next opportunity for the 76ers to improve was the NBA Draft. With their first-round pick, the team selected hometown product Mikal Bridges. However, before the night was over they traded Bridges for the draft rights to Zhaire Smith. Smith, arguably the most athletic player coming out of that draft, filled the 76ers need for more athleticism.
The 76ers headed into the 2018-19 season with mostly the same team that they had the previous year. However, it didn’t take long for new general manager Elton Brand to make his mark on the team. In November, the 76ers finally succeeded in their quest to add a star when they traded with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. Butler came at a high cost, with the team losing a couple of players who had previously held big roles on the 76ers, Robert Covington and Dario Saric. By adding Butler, the 76ers become more physical and aggressive. He is known to have a pit bull mentality, and is one of the best two-way players in the NBA.
Later that season, Brand traded a haul to acquire Tobias Harris, a proven 6-foot-8 offensive weapon. An underrated addition that also came along as part of the Harris trade was Mike Scott, a physical stretch four who doesn’t mind getting in the face of opposing players. Scott quickly became a fan favorite in Philadelphia due to his play and attitude on the court.
Entering the playoffs, the 76ers were already a better, more physical team than the team that was demolished by the Celtics in the playoffs the previous season. Philadelphia makes the playoffs in 2018-19 and, after making quick work of the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, once again find themselves facing a division rival in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The 76ers put up a much better fight this time around, losing on a last-second shot in Game 7 against the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors.
The 76ers headed into this offseason with a vision to become a bigger, more defensive and gritty team. This offseason was crucial for the 76ers because it was their last chance to spend big money before having to extend All-Star Ben Simmons (he received a five-year, $170 million max contract earlier this week). Jimmy Butler didn't quite work out as planned, with his offensive skills not always meshing in the pass-heavy 76ers offense due to a lack of iso and pick-and-roll plays. It seems that both sides reached a mutual agreement to move on that led to a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat. In return, Philadelphia received an up-and-coming two-way star in Josh Richardson on a team friendly contract for an unrestricted free agent that didn’t want to play in Philadelphia. Richardson, at 6-foot-6, stands taller than Butler but also brings that same pit bull mentality. Some people would claim that Richardson is a better, more active defender than Butler. The 76ers believe that he will be a better fit on the offensive end of the floor with their superstar duo of Simmons and Joel Embiid due to his abilities as a spot-up shooter and the fact that he isn’t as ball dominant.
The 76ers made a tough decision to let three-point specialist JJ Redick, who put in some fantastic years with the team, walk. Redick provided floor spacing in the 76ers’ starting lineup, but his defense held the team back, especially in the aforementioned Boston series that still stung so deeply.
Perhaps the biggest move of the 76ers offseason was the addition of big man and former Celtic Al Horford. Horford, during his time with the Celtics, was one of the only big men who could give Embiid troubles on the offensive end of the floor. By adding Horford, the 76ers hurt the Celtics while also helping themselves in multiple crucial ways (defense, veteran leadership and playoff experience).
For the steal of a vet minimum contract, Philadelphia also signed big man Kyle O’Quinn. He is a perfect fit for the 76ers’ bench due to his gritty style of play and his attitude and willingness to accept any role on the team. Philadelphia fans will love O'Quinn because he plays with the hard-working, tough style that they want to see out of their players.
The 76ers also re-signed some of their own players. They brought back Harris on a five-year, $180 million deal. They followed that up by re-signing two of their top bench players, Scott and James Ennis III, two guys that were proven to be “Philly tough" in this past postseason. Ennis III took a pay cut in hopes of winning in Philadelphia.
The 76ers also used the NBA Draft to add another physical, defense-first player in Matisse Thybulle. He was one of the best defenders in college basketball last season and he put up record numbers in steals (3.5 per game) and blocks (2.3 per game) last season. Thybulle should be a good fit for Philadelphia if he can develop his offensive game. As a team, the 76ers now have the longest wingspan of any team in the NBA. Virtually every player on the team is a prototype of the type of body and athleticism you want in the NBA.
Whether it was drafting Thybulle and Smith, adding Richardson and Horford, or re-signing guys like Scott, Harris and Ennis III, all the moves that the 76ers have made over the last two offseasons have been made with the goal of becoming a physical, athletic and dominant team on both ends of the floor. This 76ers team will never lose in the playoffs because of a lack of physicality and toughness.
With Kawhi Leonard signing with the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston being weakened and no longer having that same hard-nosed, defensive-minded team, the Eastern Conference is now wide open and waiting for the new physical version of the Philadelphia 76ers.