CAMDEN, N.J. — Six players flanked 76ers owner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand on a dais inside the team’s practice facility as the team held a news conference Friday morning to celebrate its busy summer.
It was an impressive array of talent — including five-time All-Star Al Horford, one of the league’s better young two-way wing players in Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, who the team re-signed earlier this month. What was missing, though, was Jimmy Butler — the player Philadelphia acquired last season to fill the role that the franchise identified it hadn’t filled yet: a closer in high-pressure playoff moments. And, for all the moves the Sixers made, it’s unclear who will replace him.
But by bestowing Harris with a five-year, $180 million deal earlier this month, and with the franchise likely to agree to a max contract extension with Ben Simmons sometime this offseason on a five-year max deal worth about $170 million, the Sixers are clearly hoping the two of them will be the ones to do so.
“We are making those bets on those perimeter players,” Brand told ESPN on Friday afternoon. “Of course we’re going to bet on Joel [Embiid] when it’s time to bet on him.
“But I envision they will. I envision them stepping up, for sure, and rising to the occasion when it is crunch time, for sure.”
The Sixers sprouted into a contender in the Eastern Conference virtually overnight two years ago, going from a team that was at the bottom of the standings for four straight seasons into one that broke the 50-win threshold and made the second round of the playoffs. That sudden transformation, coupled with losing to the Boston Celtics in the postseason, led Brand to trade for both Butler and Harris last season in a pair of all-in moves.
Butler, in particular, was a crucial component of Philadelphia’s playoff run — a run that came within a stray bounce (or four of them, to be precise, from the hand of Kawhi Leonard) of the 76ers perhaps making a run to the NBA Finals this season.
Now, though, Philadelphia believes this new-look group — one with Richardson and Horford replacing Butler and JJ Redick in the team’s starting lineup — being the right mix to finally lift the Sixers to their first NBA Finals appearance since Allen Iverson got them there in 2001.
“When we went into it last year, it was hopefully Jimmy found a great fit and hopefully we did also,” Brand said. “I’d make that trade again. He gave us a great playoff run last year. But to have a player like Josh Richardson, that allowed us to have a player like Al Horford join the team this year, [I’m] not upset at all about that trade.”
The Sixers will be banking on Harris, in particular, taking a step forward this season now that he moves up a rung on the team’s priority list after serving as its fourth or fifth option at times last season. With Redick leaving in free agency for the New Orleans Pelicans and Butler going to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade for Richardson, Philadelphia now clearly has three pillars to build its offense around: Embiid, Simmons and Harris.
Before being traded to Philadelphia last season, Harris averaged a career-high 20.9 points on 49.6 percent shooting overall and 43.4 percent shooting from behind the 3-point arc in 55 games for the LA Clippers. That’s production Harris believes he can replicate in Philadelphia now that he enters the season with newfound stability thanks to his new deal.
“I’m looking forward to that a whole lot,” Harris said of his increased role. “I know last year when you come over from a trade and it’s a different talent level in the group, obviously you have to sacrifice for the unit. But I know my game and I know how I continue to improve year after year.
“I can come into next year with that kind of energy, that kind of fire to improve my game and show different parts of my game, too. Obviously I’ll have the ball in my hands in more different situations and I’m ready for that. I’ve been working out all summer to get ready for that.”
Part of those workout situations have included working out with Simmons in Los Angeles, where Harris said the two of them have played one-on-one. And, he said, Simmons was even taking — and making — 3-pointers, something Sixers fans have anxiously waited to see if the talented playmaker will add to his arsenal in the future after missing all 17 3-pointers he’s attempted through his first two NBA seasons.
“When I dared him to shoot two [3-pointers], he hit two in a row,” Harris said with a smile. “But he’s made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has the confidence to shoot it. And I just kept telling him there, even in this workouts when you’re playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don’t get discouraged if you miss. This is where you build that type of confidence up.
“It was a good sight to see how hard he’s been working, and he looks really good for a great year. All we were talking about was this team and how fun it’s going to be this year. And I think to get out there with him, the chemistry starts now for us as a group, with communication and just being able to correspond with one another, so it’s just huge.”
While there may be doubts about who will be driving Philadelphia’s offense in late-and-close situations, the other major weakness from last season — the Sixers cratering whenever Embiid went to the bench — has been more than rectified with the moves the team has made this offseason. The acquisition of Horford will allow Philadelphia to have an elite center on the court for 48 minutes per game if it chooses — just as, say, the Houston Rockets had an elite ball handler on the court for 48 minutes the past two years with Chris Paul and James Harden, and will next year with Harden and Russell Westbrook.
That, along with signing Kyle O’Quinn to back up both of them, should allow the Sixers to decrease Embiid’s workload throughout the season — with the hope of having him as ready to go as possible for the playoffs.
“When I spoke to Joel and spoke to the group also with his exit interviews, he understood that our goal was to deliver the best Joel Embiid to the postseason,” Brand said. “So whatever that takes, he’s on board for that.
“Having these options, we did fall off a cliff once Joel was off the court, especially defensively, so having these great options now bodes well for our team success. And he’s on board for sure.”
And the Sixers are fully on board with the heightened expectations that are surrounding the franchise — Caesars Sportsbook gives the team the fifth-best odds to win the title next season at 8-1. After coming so close last season, and seeing the rest of the contenders in the East either tread water or take a step back, Philadelphia fully believes its time is now to return to the top of the conference — and to potentially win the franchise’s first title since 1983.
“Look, I think this group, if it jells — and it will jell — is capable of bringing a championship to Philly,” Josh Harris said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do.”