Did the Sixers Upgrade From “Running it Back”?

By Kevin McCormick, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

After the tragic quadruple-bounce buzzer beater by Kawhi Leonard ended the Philadelphia 76ers postseason run, fans began the trend of "running it back." This was referring to the team's upcoming free agents Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and JJ Redick re-signing with the Sixers and giving this group a full season to play together and make a run at a championship. 

As we know, things did not play out this way. In the initial frenzy of free agency, Redick decided to move on from the Sixers and sign with the New Orleans Pelicans, while Harris signed a huge $180-million extension to return to Philadelphia. Just hours after, the team sent Butler to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade that netted them Josh Richardson in return. 

Just minutes after news broke about the trade sending Butler to Miami, the 76ers went out and shockingly signed veteran big man Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million contract. Now, as we sit here weeks before the regular season is getting ready to kick off, there is one question to be asked: Did the 76ers outdo the “run it back” idea with this new-look lineup?

"Run it back" lineup's shooting abilities result in better offensive lineup than the 2019-20 76ers lineup

Last year’s version of the 76ers starting lineup had more offensive firepower than the potential starting lineup of the 2019-20 76ers. The “run it back” lineup had an elite 3-point shooter in JJ Redick and a guy who could be the closer on offense in Jimmy Butler. All while complementing the skills of the 76ers two superstars, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

One advantage this year’s lineup will have over last year is in the half-court game. The Sixers’ offense has struggled in the half-court in recent years, partially due to the limits imposed by having a point guard, Simmons, who does not shoot from outside. The skill set Al Horford provides as a big man who can stretch the floor while also being able to play out of the post should help improve the 76ers' half-court offense.

Surrounding Simmons with shooters provides the best situation on offense to allow him to spread the floor and showcase his elite passing ability. The 76ers finished eighth in the NBA in team 3-point percentage (35.9%) last season. The "run it back" version of the 76ers had more shooting, and that is why it is better offensively than this upcoming season's starting lineup.

This offseason showed the Sixers are making defense a priority

Over the summer, the 76ers began to adjust their priorities, moving defense to the top of the list. Whether it was the additions of Horford and Richardson or drafting Matisse Thybulle in the first round, most of the team's changes revolved around adding players who can play defense. With the additions of Richardson and Horford in the team's starting lineup, the Sixers look like they are ready to become a defensive juggernaut that has the potential to be one of the best defensive teams in the league.

NBA wisdom says that defense wins championships. The 76ers finished 19th in the NBA last season in opponent's points per game (112.5). It was clear the team needed to make changes to improve on that end of the floor. Adding size and length is important to improving on the defensive end of the floor, and that is what the Sixers did this offseason. Their starting lineup consists of Simmons (6-foot-10), Richardson (6-foot-6), Harris (6-foot-9), Horford (6-foot-10) and Embiid (7-foot), the biggest starting lineup in the NBA. 

Adding size and length to the roster is also crucial when thinking about the 76ers' competition in the Eastern Conference, led by superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets). Both of those players present obstacles in Philadelphia's path to the NBA Finals over the next couple of seasons. With all of this size, it will allow the 76ers to be able to throw different guys and schemes against opposing teams to keep them guessing at all times. Redick, as great as he was on offense, was a liability on the defensive end of the floor and him signing with the Pelicans is a big reason why the 76ers have the potential to be a much improved defense this upcoming season .

Bench retooling leaves not much change between the two lineups

The biggest debate between the two versions of the 76ers is the benches. Both teams have a lot of the same names coming off the bench including James Ennis III, Mike Scott, Jonah Bolden, Furkan Korkmaz and Zhaire Smith.

One spot where the bench did see an upgrade is the backup point guard position. Although it was sad that the team walked away from TJ McConnell, the additions of Trey Burke and Raul Neto provided a good mixture of athleticism, scoring and defense that McConnell failed to consistently provide. Burke can be brought in as a guard to space the floor when Simmons is off the floor (career 34.0% shooter from deep) and Neto is a good facilitator who will be able to run the offense when Simmons is not on the floor. 

The 76ers' bench this season is smaller than it was last season due to the subtraction of a trio of veteran backup big men (Greg Monroe, Amir Johnson and Boban Marjanovic). However, they did add veteran Kyle O'Quinn to the roster to help spell Embiid when he gets the occasional night off for load management. 

However, this year's bench unit better complements the team's big starting lineup and as a result is better than the bench the 76ers had last season. Also, giving roles to younger players like Smith and Thybulle, who both pride themselves on defense but can still score in limited roles, is going to help the 76ers hold onto leads when the starters are off the floor (something they struggled with at times last season). 

Overall thoughts

The 2019-20 version of the 76ers is a better team than the "run it back" version of the team. The team added a young wing in Josh Richardson who is going to be a stud on defense, but can still space the floor with his jump shot, albeit not like JJ Redick did. The addition of Al Horford is going to be huge in helping Joel Embiid take the next step into superstardom.

The only big question mark that this team has heading into the season is the lack of a true closer. In losing Jimmy Butler, the 76ers lost someone who had the ability and the desire to close games and take the last shot. For a team with championship aspirations, as general manager Elton Brand said many times throughout the offseason, losing a closer could come back to haunt them as the season progresses and the playoffs arrive. However, the 76ers have multiple players on their roster who have the ability to step into that role in this upcoming season. 

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