Hot takes we might actually believe: The Philadelphia 76ers are Eastern Conference locks

The 2019-20 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.

[Hot takes we might actually believe: The Lakers are wildly overrated]

Four bounces stood between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Eastern Conference finals last season, and a single summer move sent stumbling their two biggest threats to this season’s East crown, all while the defending champions lost Kawhi Leonard, the man whose prayer over rising superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ended their season when the last bounce went his way.

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The arrival of Al Horford serves the Sixers manyfold. Most notably, they took the best remaining player in the East at defending both Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the Boston Celtics, and made it so he only he has to defend one of them in Philadelphia, where he can spell Embiid to the point where both are fully weaponized when they meet the Milwaukee Bucks.

That’s a convoluted way of saying that not only does Horford make the Sixers better, he makes them better suited to beat both the Celtics and Bucks, all while those two rivals were further weakened in free agency. Their path through the East is cleared.

Now, you could argue that Jimmy Butler’s departure is of greater significance to the Sixers, since he was their leading scorer, creator and closer in the seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors, but that loses sight of the gains his exit afforded. Butler relegated Tobias Harris to spot-up shooting duty in the playoffs, but he can undoubtedly fill some of that playmaking void. We forget that Harris’ first-half performance for the Los Angeles Clippers would have been worthy of an All-Star spot in the East.

Butler’s departure also cleared the way for Simmons’ ascent to superstardom. We understand his failures as a shooter, and annual optimism about an improved jump shot aside, the dude just turned 23 years old and enters this season with averages of 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 points per game over his first two seasons. He is an All-Star without the jumper, and he is constantly adding to his arsenal of alternative ways to beat you. Simmons is too driven for greatness not to be better this season, one way or another.

(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

As much as Butler’s absence will be filled by a naturalization of roles for both Harris and Simmons, it will be further mitigated by the addition of Josh Richardson. Richardson represents one of the league’s most underrated talents, a 3-and-D specialist who had been asked to assume a greater burden on the Miami Heat and who should thrive in that role on a more talented team.

Richardson will play the position left by JJ Redick, another overrated loss. There is no question that Redick provided much-needed spacing for both Simmons and Embiid to attack the basket, and while teams may not have to shadow Richardson the way they did Redick, the true improvement for the Sixers comes on the defensive end. Both Boston and Toronto leveraged Redick’s matchup in their playoff victories. With Richardson, there are no holes on a defense that should be the best in the East.

All of which brings us to Embiid, an absolute monster who will be an MVP candidate regardless of whether word of his weight loss is overstated. The Sixers were 14.4 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor as opposed to the bench last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, and that number multiplied to 38.2 points per 100 possessions better in the playoffs. His off-court numbers will only be improved by the presence of Horford, whose minutes will surely be staggered so the 76ers are anchored by at least one All-Defensive All-Star center at all times. For his faults, coach Brett Brown cannot screw that one up.

The sheer size of Philadelphia’s starting five (Richardson at 6-foot-6 is the shortest by a full three inches) is enough to clog lanes and challenge shots, even without their skill level. That size also poses myriad matchup problems for opposing defenses. Which East team has the manpower to defend three 6-10 dudes capable of creating for each other? The Bucks only have one freak.

Outside of their coach, who improved as a decision-maker in last year’s playoffs, Philadelphia’s two biggest weaknesses are its depth at shooting and ball-handling. There is reason to be hopeful that second-year guards Zhaire Smith and Shake Milton can help in that regard, as should Richardson and Horford, both of whom rate as above average for their positions in both regards.

There are far fewer questions on this roster than any other in the East. Horford provides a number of answers. His experience and poise are precisely what have been missing from a team on the brink, and he will be be mere window dressing on a contender if Embiid and Simmons climb any closer to their respective apexes. Heck, if Embiid had not been plagued by whatever strange stomach ailment limited him in the conference semifinals, we might be talking about the Sixers as defending champions already.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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