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September 23, 2019

Do the Sixers have enough perimeter creation to win big in 2020?

The loss of Jimmy Butler will hurt this team on offense, and they're betting big on Ben Simmons

When Jimmy Butler made the decision to leave Philadelphia and take his talents to South Beach, the Sixers lost a lot of things. They lost their biggest room wild card, the biggest country music fan on the team, their most unpredictable personality, and the man with the voice that was most likely to echo around the walls of the locker room, for better or for worse.

But the biggest thing they lost was their crunch-time shot creator, and the guy who basically took control of the offense when things got hairy in the playoffs last year. When Brett Brown needed someone to take backup point guard duties after T.J. McConnell looked like a human turnstile in Game 1 of the Brooklyn series, it was Butler who came through. When an elite team relegated Ben Simmons to a defense-centric player in Round 2 for the second straight year, it was Butler who helped Philadelphia cope.

Now, the Sixers are banking on a variety of factors just to see them through the ups and downs of the regular season, let alone the playoffs. Today, we'll look at what that plan looks like, and how the Sixers might manage to cope.

Betting big on Ben Simmons' development

If the max contract extension they agreed on this summer wasn't enough of an indication, the team construction around Ben Simmons says everything you need to know. There is no one else with a credible chance to be the No. 1 perimeter option on a championship-winning team, so it is Simmons by default.

Joel Embiid has been the team's best and most important player since he first stepped on the floor in 2016, and Philadelphia's championship aspirations continue to rest on his shoulders. But that fact only heightens the pressure on Simmons to deliver — big men are more reliant on having the table set for them than perimeter players basically by default, as their opportunities to start the offense themselves are minimal. It is up to Simmons to get the ball rolling, even if Philadelphia plays with an inside-out focus.

When Simmons first came into the league, the dialogue and scouting about his jumper were quite different than they are now. After two years of basically refusing to take outside shots, the conversation is no longer about whether Simmons can become a good shooter, it's when (or if) we're going to see him take outside shots on a regular basis. 

In some ways, that has changed the sort of plays the Sixers have run with Simmons involved. Early in his rookie season while everyone was trying to figure out what he'd look like on an NBA floor, the Sixers mixed more actions involving Embiid as a roll man. Even with teams dropping coverage back to around the free-throw line, they still played Simmons honest enough that he and Embiid could find coverage gaps and target the big man on rolls to the rim.

As teams have grown more confident they can freeze Simmons out of a game by simply leaving him alone on the perimeter, these sets have become increasingly pointless to run with this pairing. The goal is to create a mismatch for one half of the equation, which only works if teams respect both threats in the set.

Viewed strictly through the numbers, some would have you believe Simmons may actually have been Philadelphia's best pick-and-roll handler last season. And indeed, in the regular season, Simmons scored more efficiently than Butler out of those looks by a decent margin, albeit on fewer reps. But in the playoffs against stiffer competition, Butler's reps and efficiency both increased out of these sets, while Simmons attempted less and produced fewer points per possession when things got tighter.

What the numbers also fail to show are all the possessions that never materialize, the sets Philadelphia tries to run and has to reset because of how teams structure defenses to slow them down. A possession that starts with a screen for Simmons can often end up with the Sixers simply dumping the ball into the post to Embiid with the clock ticking down, and that's a reflection of their ability to pressure teams with pick-and-rolls as much as it is Embiid's dominance in the post.

This is part of the reason the Sixers, as we detailed on Tuesday, want to tweak their starting looks to clear out the paint to start possessions. But Simmons isn't the only guy impacted by those shifts.

How the offseason acquisitions will help

It is fair to say the Sixers can't just throw Josh Richardson on the floor and expect him to be Jimmy Butler. But the good news for Philadelphia is that Richardson has actually been aided by the situation he was in with Miami, where he had to learn how to be an impact player in different roles depending on the year.

At the beginning of his journey, Richardson was groomed predominantly as a three-and-D player, partially because it's not all that wise to expect more from a player you draft with the 40th-overall pick. If Richardson had never evolved beyond being a tenacious defender with the ability to knock down shots, he still probably would have carved out a long career.

The circumstances in Miami altered that path forward, and though his last season in Miami wasn't successful from a team perspective, it did let him stretch his wings as a self-creator. He was 31st in pick-and-roll possessions in the entire NBA last season, and Richardson maintained around average efficiency despite the uptick in volume.

Mechanically, there's nothing that particularly stands out about Richardson as an attacker, but he does enough things at a passable level to be effective. Over time he has added a few tricks to his bag, like a pull-up jumper and an assortment of floaters/runners, and those skills have helped him get by without an elite handle or finishing ability. 

On a middling Miami team, those skills ultimately weren't enough to lead the Heat to team success with Richardson as the primary option, but the Sixers really only need him to be the third perimeter option, and perhaps the fifth option overall in the starting lineup. He's overqualified for that job.

Asking more from Tobias Harris

Despite getting the big paycheck from Philadelphia this summer, Harris has flown somewhat under the radar in offseason discussions about where the offense will come from. Since Al Horford is the shiny new piece and people love debating Simmons' role, it's natural for Harris to fade into the background a bit.

But the Sixers aren't paying Harris a king's ransom to be anonymous, and they hardly took advantage of the sort of multi-faceted skills he had during his brief time here last season. That will almost certainly change this year.

No one doubts Harris can create for himself and score efficiently. The plays that might end up making or breaking the Sixers on offense are when Harris has to exploit the attention he draws as a scorer to playmaker for teammates. To zoom in on one particular example, these are the plays the Sixers need more of:

In the series against Toronto, Harris had more than double his career average in assists per games over Philly's seven-game battle, notching almost four per game. With his jumper not dropping, Harris nevertheless attempted to put pressure on Toronto and created for others within the framework of Philly's offense.

But I would caution against banking on Harris doing any heavy lifting here for individual and team-based reasons. When he's attacking off-the-dribble, Harris has a tendency to come to a stop instead of attempting passes on the move, which allows defenses to reset and close windows that might have been there for shot opportunities. And with the question marks the Sixers have beyond the arc, teams will also likely swarm harder on drives than they might against an average opponent, which would only seem to play into that bad habit.

None of this means the Sixers can't patch together a winning unit this season. They have unique talents at their disposal — an elite post-up big in Embiid and one of the league's best passing big men in Horford — that give them advantages where other teams have deficiencies. And if their defense is as good as it looks on paper, they only need a slightly above-average offense to get where they want to go.

But if there is a potential pitfall for this group, this is it.  

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