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November 06, 2020

A Sixers offseason to-do list as 2020-21 season inches closer

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4_AL_Horford_Sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

So long, Al Horford.

The 2019-20 NBA season only ended in October, and already we're preparing for an onslaught of critical dates for the next NBA season. Players are in tentative agreement to begin the season in late December, following the draft in late November, a brief free agency period, and the opening of camps on the first of the month.

In other words, there's not much time left for the Sixers to get their act together. Having hired Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers to right the ship, the Sixers have the right to feel good but plenty of work left ahead of them. It's pretty unlikely they can completely turn this thing around by December 22nd, so that leaves them with a choice on what to prioritize before a new season begins.

They don't consult me for these decisions (and are probably correct to do so), but in any case, here are some of the top priorities of the next couple of months for Philadelphia.

Trade Al Horford

The Sixers, through the opening public remarks from Daryl Morey, have made clear they won't make a trade for the sake of doing so. Philadelphia's new brain trust wants to collect information, or so they say.

"If there's a great opportunity, obviously we're going to do it early. We've got some important windows coming up with the draft and free agency and also there before we play our first game. But the main thing is, you want to do great moves when they are available," Morey said Monday. "But often the best move is not a move that is done right away. We want to increase our understanding before we start to make those moves."

We mostly agree on the logic. Still, for many different reasons they should be looking to move on from Horford as soon as they can. And if you're asking me, it should be priority No. 1. 

From all accounts, he's going to be easier to move on from than Tobias Harris, whose deal is a bit scarier in the eyes of opposing executives. Horford's deal is up sooner, he's making less money, and he has a much longer track record of being a plus-player in the NBA. That makes dealing the older player a bit easier, even if that feels somewhat counterintuitive.

But the "why" is more important here — Horford does not have a place on this Sixers team. His presence was a contributing factor in Joel Embiid's unhappiness/discomfort last season, with Philadelphia spending a lot of the year trying to force the ultra-big lineup that didn't work. Horford is not suited to be a forward next to Embiid, and he did not come to Philadelphia (or get paid $100+ million) to be a bench player. No one is going to be happy with the arrangement as it stands, and that includes Horford.

For whatever you think about Harris, at least he has a future here that makes sense. Moving Horford allows Harris to slide up the lineup into his more natural position, and with Doc Rivers already proving he can get the most out of Harris, there's a future where he provides help to Embiid and Simmons on the perimeter.

Here's the tricky thing with any Horford deal — the Sixers could run into some issues if they attempt to ship Horford to a rebuilding situation, given the context in which they signed him. It's not out of the question that a trade to, say, Sacramento, would be complicated by posturing from Horford and/or his representation. That could undercut Philadelphia as they seek to move him.

Guards, guards, guards

The days of not having enough players who can dribble and shoot must end, if for no other reason than the new coach will demand it.

If you look back through Doc Rivers' coaching career, scoring guards have had a lot of success under his stewardship. The two big names there are Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford, who lit teams up as sixth men under Rivers in L.A., but even dating back to his Boston days, Rivers extracted value out of guys like Eddie House to balance the scoring between the first and second units.

Lou Williams probably isn't walking through that door, but the Sixers will have to assess their options here. There are some guards with attractive skill sets who could be available when they pick at No. 21 — they've been linked to Stanford sharpshooter Tyrell Terry by several top draft analysts, and players like North Carolina's Cole Anthony could slide into that range come draft night. Two different sorts of players, but two guys who might contribute to the Sixers sooner than later (and that's without mentioning wing targets like Desmond Bane).

What they do on draft night — and frankly, whether they try to make a Horford trade — will largely inform what we can expect in free agency. If the Sixers don't pick up any guards on draft night, which is unlikely but certainly possible, maybe a return year for Alec Burks becomes more likely. Hell, for that matter, maybe the Sixers see fit to bring back Trey Burke, who thrived offensively with the Mavericks in the Orlando bubble and would likely find himself more at home in Rivers' system than Brett Brown's.

But this exercise highlights why a big trade is the first priority, in my opinion, because the rest of the moves have to make sense alongside it. If Morey and Elton Brand decide to move Horford for Buddy Hield, for example, they have helped themselves in the shooting department but probably still need a playmaking guard or two. If they end up with Chris Paul, the reverse is true. Odds are they're not going to get something significant done on draft night, so they'll have to operate with a degree of uncertainty as they head into the free agency period shortly afterward.

Figuring out what to do with Ben Simmons

Embiid does not have a whole lot to figure out this offseason, save for his conditioning plan. Philadelphia's two biggest hires have made it clear he is the foundation upon which the franchise rests, and centers are the least malleable basketball players generally, even when they're as talented as Embiid. Expect him to anchor the defense and body teams around the rim on offense.

There's a lot more to figure out with/for Simmons. He is no longer being coached by the guy who vocally and repeatedly referred to him as a point guard, and Rivers has already gone to great lengths to diminish the importance of positions during early media availabilities.

"If you watch my teams, I rarely say a guy is a one, a two, I don’t get lost in the minutiae. I don’t get lost in what position guys play, I look at how many points we score as a team," Rivers said when asked about how Simmons would be deployed. "I don’t care how we score, my teams have always been very good offensively, in the top five overall, and we score points. We score points in a lot of different ways."

The coach and I are in agreement. But how they use him matters, where they station him on the floor matters, and the actions he's involved in are meaningful. Does Rivers want to try to extract more from Simmons as a scorer/downhill roller, as we saw in flashes last season, or does he want to rely on him to be the team's playmaking pulse? It's not an either/or proposition, but a lean one way or another will inform the lineups around Embiid and Simmons, both for the starting group and the bench looks behind them.

Former Clippers forward Blake Griffin would seem to provide the blueprint Rivers could use to get the most out of Simmons. Young Griffin was in a completely different universe from Simmons as a finisher, but Rivers leveraged his playmaking from the power forward spot to turn Griffin from a young phenom into an MVP candidate. That leap came, mind you, with a center who was no threat to score anywhere beyond the painted area.

In all likelihood, the rubber is going to meet the road for the Simmons and Embiid partnership over the next year. The organization continues to say the right things about wanting to keep them together and having no interest in trading either player, but they completely revamped the organization this offseason, with more moves expected to come. Excuses are fading from view quickly, and with rumblings about star players the Sixers want to chase, the writing is on the wall.

That makes establishing a role and purpose for Simmons super important when training camp is expected to open in early December. The sooner everything and everyone begins to fall into place, the quicker they can figure out what (and who) is worth holding onto moving forward.

Establish a defensive scheme and stick with it

Former Embiid enemy Dan Burke is expected to have a heavy hand in Philadelphia's defense, having run the Pacers defense for most of his time in Indiana. That makes a lot of sense when you consider Indiana's consistent defensive toughness with different personnel over the years, and Burke has been able to coax solid defensive performances from wings previously thought to be useless on that end (see: T.J. Warren). 

Burke's approach, however, tends to be a bit rigid. The team's system is the team's system, which makes it easy to set principles and demand accountability, but might benefit some players more than others. He's a big believer in defending your man and not switching, a strategy that actually runs counter to how Doc Rivers set the Clippers up last season. More importantly, Burke is a big believer in drop coverage with his bigs, a style that has irritated Sixers fans in recent years as the team has ascended. 

It was a big problem last year when the Sixers had two centers who thrived under very different defensive circumstances. For Embiid, dropping toward the rim has proven to be a successful strategy. If they move on from Horford, it may end up being a viable all-the-time strategy, but that's a big if at this point. And while the Pacers broke from some of Burke's tendencies last season, it's fair to wonder how much he wants to change at this point of his career.

The important thing is to get everyone on the same page. Looking at the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Miami Heat advanced as far as they did because of a collective understanding of principles that allowed them to read and recover at an ultra-high level (the presence of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler certainly helped). That only happens when defenders can react instead of thinking, which is a hard thing to accomplish if you're constantly toggling in and out of styles just to suit different lineups.

There should absolutely be better drilling of secondary defensive styles. Nick Nurse's Raptors have employed a box-and-one at times over the past two years, the Heat are infamous for their zone, and the Sixers should absolutely prepare curveballs for when they need them. They can adjust in smaller ways out of whatever their base defense is, whether that's sending pressure from different spots or varying how their defenders react to screens if a pull-up shooter gets going.

But they need to nail the basics first. This was a team that turned in a strong defensive season that still felt underwhelming because of their dips in form. Playing defense needs to be an everyday, every night mentality driven by their best players and aided by a clear, cohesive gameplan. They have further to climb on offense, but with the pieces they have in place, their success will be driven by how miserable they can make games for opponents.

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