Can Philadelphia win playing big in a small-ball era?

Kurt Helin
NBC Sports

This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Ben Simmons, 6’10”.
Josh Richardson, 6’5”.
Tobias Harris, 6’8”.
Al Horford, 6’9”.
Joel Embiid, 7’0”

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That’s the height of the Philadelphia 76ers starting lineup — without shoes. Add another couple of inches for each of them when they step on the court.

That lineup isn’t just big, it’s massive. It’s long. It’s a lineup that runs counter to the NBA’s trend of going smaller — the Warriors best lineups have 6’7” Draymond Green at center. Plenty of teams have tried to mimic that (with varying degrees of success), rolling with players who should be undersized stretch fours at center to help create spacing. It’s led to improved offenses, but often at the sake of defense (except in Golden State, thanks to Green).

Philadelphia is bucking that trend — they are going big.

But can they win big doing it?

Can size bring the Sixers its first title since Moses Malone and Dr. J were on the court together?

Sixers GM Elton Brand — a power forward and center himself who played for the 76ers — is betting they can because the Sixers bring skill and defense with all that size.

It’s the defense that will carry this team — they should be a top-three defense. Josh Richardson is versatile and can harass opposing point guards or wings, Simmons length causes issues, and with Horford and Embiid on the backline it’s going to be hard to get to the rim. Horford is also someone who has shown he can defend some in space, and in the playoffs and give other bigs real trouble. The Sixers are going to be a lock-down defensive team.

The questions with the 76ers big lineups are on the other end of the court.

Calling the curry NBA trend “small ball” is a bit of a misnomer; some “small” lineups roll-out guys 6’10” or taller (think Kevin Durant). It’s about having more skill players on the court, more shooting, replacing the old-school bulk and muscle. Philly brings size but it also brings plenty of skill.

That starts with Simmons, the point-forward who will have the ball in his hands to start most possessions. At 6’10” he has the handles of a guard and is one of the best passers in the NBA, in part because he can see over defenses (ala Magic Johnson). Simmons was an All-Star who averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.7 assists a game last season with an efficient 58.2 true shooting percentage.

This season that will not be enough, not if Philly dreams of playing in June.

Jimmy Butler was the guy with the ball in his hands at the ends of games last season, and by the time playoff games were on the line Simmons would find himself in the dunker’s spot along the baseline. Butler has taken his talents to South Beach, now the critical moments of perimeter shot creation fall on Simmons. He has to be able to create offense at the end of games, which means he must be more of a threat to take and hit a jumper so defenders don’t just back off and clog the paint (and passing lanes). Going into this season Butler is 0-of-18 from three in the regular season and playoffs, which is not only an ugly percentage but shows a guy not confident in taking the shot. That has to change, particularly the willingness part. The Sixers are saying all the right things about Simmons shooting in training camp, but opponents will make him prove those words when it matters.

Joel Embiid brings some skill along with everything else he does, which is why the Sixer offense was nearly 7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court last season and fell apart in the playoffs when he sat. Embiid has to get the ball in the post — he had the third most post touches in the league last season and the Sixers scored 1.05 points per possession on those plays, the highest mark of any center getting regular post-ups. Embiid’s ability to pass out of the double-team in the post is improving.

Embiid can also step out, he took 4.1 threes a game last season and hit 30 percent, a respectable number for a big man but opponents would rather he shoot threes than own them on the block. Embiid has the handles to face guys up and some shooting touch from the midrange, but all of that mostly just sets up his nearly unstoppable power game.

Embiid remains the heart of Philly’s offense, and that takes skill.

Tobias Harris is an All-Star level wing (he just hasn’t gotten the votes, yet) who can be efficient creating for himself (1.22 points per possession with the Clippers last season, via Cleaning the Glass) who also is a good passer. In Los Angeles, Harris was both the ball handler on pick-and-rolls and could create in isolation, but with Butler and Simmons last season in Philly Harris often found himself in the role of a catch-and-shoot wing. Not this year, Harris will get the ball and opportunities. His sweet pull-up jumper is going to get Philly a lot of buckets.

Horford is versatile, skilled, and pretty good at everything. Richardson shot 35.7 percent from three last season (and will be used in a way that better suits his skill set this season, Miami asked a lot more of him). The bench of Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, James Ennis, rookie Matisse Thybulle, and Kyle O’Quinn has potential — and size. And athleticism.

There’s an old basketball adage that says “tall and good beats small and good.” Philadelphia is the test to see if that rule still applies in an NBA where guards can bomb away from 28 feet and be in their comfort zone, where stretch fives are a thing.

Philadelphia is betting that size matters. And they may well be right.

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