The Philadelphia 76ers try on identities like a college student. Last season, 26 players suited up for them, and only 57 percent of their regular-season minutes were logged by players who were on the roster the previous year. If you listen to JJ Redick's podcast, you know that they felt like they had three distinct teams: one with Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the starting lineup; one with Jimmy Butler and Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup; one with Tobias Harris as part of a Big Four.
Change has been the only constant in Philadelphia since the Sam Hinkie era. At that time, young guys on 10-day contracts and non-guaranteed deals came through the revolving door; in the last year, it was a mix of veterans and inexperienced players. (The Corey Brewer era was brief, but memorable.) This summer, it said goodbye to Redick, Butler and Process legend T.J. McConnell, among others, and supersized its starting lineup by adding Al Horford and Josh Richardson and re-signing Harris. Cornerstones Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the only Sixers who were part of their rotation at the beginning of 2018-19. Furkan Korkmaz is the only other one who was on Philadelphia's roster in 2017-18.
During games, the Sixers do a delicate dance to get the most out of Embiid and Simmons. Their rotation, which involves quick substitutions, is not merely the domain of Brett Brown's coaching staff -- Sergi Oliva, their VP of strategy, provides a template for staggering the stars' minutes and keeping an adequate amount of shooters and versatile defenders on the floor. This might be a reason to be optimistic about Philadelphia's new configuration, which will require Horford to start at power forward and Harris at small forward. In a larger sense, though, it is relevant because management has been doing something similar: cycling through a bunch of different looks as it tries to field a roster that can contend for a championship for multiple years.
The shapeshifting Sixers reflect a larger trend, as about 40 percent of the league hit free agency this summer and most of the premier free agents changed teams. They also, however, represent a somewhat traditional model of team-building: find two stars in the draft, then do everything you can to maximize them. Ideally, having Horford around will accelerate Embiid's growth and make the team less dependent on him. Ideally, when Simmons and Embiid are both on the court, Harris and Richardson will tie the lineup together. Brown's job, however, will not be easy.
Philadelphia's returning players accounted for just 45.2 percent of its minutes last season, but the lack of continuity is not the only challenge facing the coaching staff. Can the Sixers get comfortable playing big and small, fast and slow, running their system and exploiting mismatches? Last year, they seemed determined to address the playmaking problem that revealed itself in the 2018 playoffs. This new group will have its own problems to solve, and it will spend the whole season getting playoff-ready.
The glowing quote
"This offseason was incredibly important, as you all know, and they really nailed it. They hit it out of the park. [They] have put us in position to do some serious winning next year." -- owner Josh Harris, at a press conference
What could have been
Philadelphia was Toronto Raptors were at risk of losing Kawhi Leonard and the Milwaukee Bucks could not possibly retain all of their free agents. The Sixers' starting five was killer, and Butler proved his value in the playoffs, becoming their primary playmaker when offense was hard to come by. No team comes back exactly the same, but, if Butler had wanted to return, Philadelphia could have re-signed him, Harris and Redick and tried to make smart moves on the margins to address its lack of depth.from the conference finals, so some observers expected it would run it back, especially since the
Alternatively, the Sixers could have pivoted, reorienting the team with an emphasis on peaking when Embiid and Simmons are in their prime years. Instead of signing Horford, they could have tried to get someone like Malcolm Brogdon. Instead of re-signing Harris, they could have explored sign-and-trade possibilities. The problem here, though, is the same one that motivated them to make most of the moves they've made since their failed attempt at star-hunting in free agency a year ago: Simmons' max contract extension will kick in next year, effectively eliminating their financial flexibility.
Taking the temperature
A hypothetical conversation between someone who trusts the Sixers' process and someone who doesn't:
Positive fan: The backup center situation is solved. Harris is no longer a glorified fourth option. This team is going to bully opponents that try to go small, and the spacing should still be pretty good. Re-signing Mike Scott was smart, and I love the bench now. Underestimate Matisse Thybulle, Trey Burke and Zhaire Smith at your own peril.
Skeptical fan: Teams are going to run off of makes against this big, slow starting five. Butler's absence will be felt not just because he was their closer, but because Harris is going to have to defend small forwards. They'll miss Redick, too -- they can't replicate the chemistry he had with Embiid. As for the bench, I'll believe it when I see it.
Positive fan: If the Sixers are going to go anywhere, they need Simmons and Embiid to be the best versions of themselves. I want to see Simmons run more pick-and-rolls and Embiid make more plays off the dribble. Sure, they'll miss Redick's misdirection stuff and Butler's scoring, but I'm fine with giving Embiid and Simmons more responsibility. Also, did you forget that both Harris and Richardson spent significant time as the No. 1 option on offense last season?
Skeptical fan: I absolutely did not, and I wonder if Richardson will be cool with being the fourth banana after spending years working toward a featured role. Is it weird that I simultaneously think he might not be able to create the way they'll need him to in the playoffs and he's overqualified for the job he'll have during the regular season?
Positive fan: Look, Brown will figure it out, and Horford is basically another coach. The Sixers are obviously going to the Finals.
Skeptical fan: I'm not sure anything is obvious here, other than the need for Simmons and Embiid to improve. In a playoff context, I wouldn't say that Philly has definitively gotten better on either end of the court.
I am curious about what they can get from Thybulle and Smith. I wonder whether or not Burke and Jonah Bolden will be able to earn consistent minutes. What's most important, though, is what kind of season Embiid has. He has heard everybody saying he needs to lose weight, and he came into last season expecting to shoot much better than he did from 3-point range. He is capable of winning MVP, but it might be best for the team to manage his minutes in a way that could interfere with his individual goals.
If Embiid is simply healthy around playoff time, Philadelphia will be in a much better position than it was this past season. A bit more refinement, however, could make him much more dominant, and a more dominant Embiid would mean that everything else -- from giving Simmons space to integrating the new guys -- will be easier.