Once again the Philadelphia 76ers have a new look, and once again it looks great on paper. Regardless of what Kawhi Leonard chooses to do in NBA free agency, the Sixers will enter next season as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference. Despite losing JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler, the quick acquisitions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson keep the Sixers in the conversation.
Still, the best NBA teams possess both strong offenses and defenses, and Philly is not there yet. Last season the Sixers ranked just 11th in net rating. The offense worked (No. 8 in the NBA), but the defense was just average (No. 14). That's not good enough.
The good news is that both new guys arrive with sterling reputations for getting stops. It's easy to imagine this new group becoming a top-10 defense soon.
During Horford's tenure in Boston, he was the centerpiece of one of the league's most dependable defenses. Out of the 15 NBA bigs who defended at least 2,000 pick-and-roll plays last season, Horford ranked second in efficiency, per Second Spectrum tracking. Opponents scored just 0.93 points per direct pick when Horford was defending the screener. Joel Embiid -- no slouch on defense either -- allowed 0.94.
Meanwhile, with the Miami Heat, Richardson built his brand by playing outstanding perimeter defense. He provides Philly with an active, versatile wing capable of frustrating even the world's best perimeter players. Just ask JJ Redick, or watch Richardson here:
Richardson is a top-notch 3-and-D wing who pairs that elite defense with above-average 3-point shooting. He's no Redick, but Richardson made 36% of his 3s last year, which is right at the league average. However, that 36% is a little misleading.
Drilling down a bit further, it's clear that Richardson is better at some kinds of 3s than others. In Philly, it's likely his 3-point activity will skew toward his strengths and away from his weaknesses.
Last year, Richardson hurt his overall 3-point efficiency by launching a bunch of off-the-dribble 3s. He made just 28% of them. As he moves from Miami's anemic offensive environment (which ranked No. 26 in efficiency last season) to Philly's star-studded lineup, his usage rate will dip and his shot quality will rise.
Richardson is much better in catch-and-shoot situations than he is off the bounce. Last season, he hit 38% of his catch-and-shoot 3s (69th percentile, per Second Spectrum), and perhaps no young player in the world is as good at creating such shots than Ben Simmons, his new teammate. Last season, Simmons' passes led to 782 3-point shots for his teammates. Nobody in Miami had more than 312 ... and that was Richardson himself, who has developed into a much better playmaker over the course of his career. Unlike Butler, Richardson will be content to play off the ball and stretch the floor, making him an ideal wing alongside Simmons.
Richardson may not be as good as Redick as a shooter, but he's really good at hitting open catch-and-shoot 3s. His shooting percentage jumped to 42.4% (73rd percentile) when his defender was at least 6 feet away. Simmons created 452 such open looks last year, and it's fair to expect Richardson's 3-point activity to skew toward his strengths in Philly, where he'll play alongside higher-usage teammates who command a lot of defensive attention.
While Richardson seems like an ideal player alongside Simmons and Embiid, Horford's fit is a little more concerning. According to Basketball-Reference, Horford spent 92% of his time as a center last season. Philly already has a pretty good center. Can Horford and Embiid play together? In an era defined by smaller and smaller lineups, Philly is making a bet that they can.
It helps that both dudes are versatile two-way players. Horford is light-footed enough to guard smaller guys on defense and skilled enough to spread the floor on offense. He's a much better passer and floor general than Embiid, but it's still fair to question how these giants will space the floor in tandem. At least they'll have some time to experiment and figure it out during the regular season.
Horford doesn't clog up the paint or need to post up to thrive on offense. He's an efficient offensive player who does his best work in the paint and from downtown.
He's another screener, another passer and another catch-and-shoot threat for head coach Brett Brown to play with on offense. Furthermore, he's an unselfish chameleon who already has demonstrated he'll do what it takes to fit in.
The challenge may be on defense. Will smaller, faster opponents be able to exploit the relative slowness featuring Horford and Embiid? Maybe, but Horford is no ordinary center. If he can effectively defend opposing 4s, Philly should be just fine, especially considering the fleet of help defenders who surround him. When Simmons is locked in, he can help clean up defensive miscues that arise.
And here's the thing: The Horford acquisition enables Brown to stagger his lineups (and his load managements) in ways that consistently will keep at least one great big on the floor. Embiid is likely to miss time, and Horford helps mitigate that. Similarly, the presence of Embiid helps Philly manage the minutes of its brand-new 33-year-old big man. Their combined presence means both can get more nights off while not needing to play more than 30 minutes per game.
Even if Kawhi returns to the Raptors, the East is wide-open. Toronto deserves to be the favorite to start the year, but Philly is right there with the Milwaukee Bucks threatening to dethrone the champs. And if Leonard leaves, the East looks like a two-team race between the Bucks and Sixers.
Last season, the Bucks logged the best record in the league because they paired a great offense with a great defense. With the arrival of Richardson and Horford, the Sixers are in the process of doing the same thing.