Some say the simplest thing for the 76ers to do is acquire a third star.
The best way for the Sixers to win an NBA title is to pair a Bradley Beal- or Donovan Mitchell-type player with Joel Embiid and James Harden. So they say.
But the Sixers need to find the right fit for their All-Star duo, not the best available player. And they must find a way to utilize that player’s strengths. In not, they’ll continue the cycle of turning standout acquisitions into high-priced role players who become vilified in Philadelphia for not living up to outside expectations.
Al Horford and Tobias Harris, and to a certain extent Jimmy Butler, are the perfect examples.
There were those who celebrated when Horford was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 8, 2020 after the five-time All-Star played out of sorts with the Sixers during the 2019-20 season. People continue to criticize Harris for not living up to the five-year, $180 million contract he signed in July 2019.
The power forward is eligible to receive a three-year extension for $152.6 million this summer. But instead of extending him, Harris could be used as a trade chip to acquire a third star if there’s a team willing to give back value for the remaining two years and $76 million of his current deal.
While some are critical of the contract, Harris never had extended opportunities to show why he received that lucrative deal.
The Sixers were attracted by Harris’ ability to excel in pick-and-rolls during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers. At the time of his free agency following the 2019 season, Harris chose the Sixers after being pursued by the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz, and Dallas Mavericks. He also reconsidered returning to the Clippers.
READ MORE: The Sixers picked Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum. They’ll never live it down.
So the Sixers had no choice but to re-sign Harris, who was acquired for a boatload of picks and players, to the close-to-maximum deal. But instead of the Sixers utilizing his strengths, Harris has been a third or fourth option during his Sixers tenure.
Yet, he gets viewed as a weak link with a hard-to-trade contract even though his usage rate has been in the bottom half of players making at least $20 million per season over the last three seasons. However, he’s been one of the most efficient players in on-ball and pick-and-roll situations.
He even stepped up his overall level of play this postseason, averaging 16.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 0.8 blocks while shooting 38.6% on three-pointers and 86.4% from the foul line. This comes after Harris averaged 17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.6 steals, and 0.6 blocks while shooting 36.7% on three-pointers and 84.2% from the foul line this regular season.
Not bad for someone who continues to make sacrifices while adapting his game to fit around standout teammates like Butler, Horford, Ben Simmons, Harden, and Tyrese Maxey as a Sixer.
» READ MORE: Tobias Harris to re-sign with Sixers on five-year, $180-million deal
Sure Beal and Mitchell are elite players. Beal is a three-time All-Star, who was the NBA’s second-leading scorer in 2020 and 2021. He averaged 30.5 points during the 2019-20 campaign and 31.3 the following season. But it’s hard to imagine the shooting guard duplicating those types of scoring averages while playing alongside Harden and Embiid.
In Washington, he’s the first scoring option. With the Sixers, Harden is the ball dominating point guard while Embiid is the unquestioned first scoring option.
It would also be a different role for Mitchell, who has a career average of 23.9 points as Utah’s first option. And would both Beal and Mitchell be happy with their roles here after being the alpha dogs on their current teams?
The Sixers would be better off upgrading their bench than swapping out high-salary stars, who might not be perfect fits.
READ MORE: Sixers trade for Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons says ‘he’s going to fit in well here’
But looking for a third star isn’t anything new for the Sixers.
They’ve been “star hunting” since losing to the Boston Celtics in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals.
They struck out in bids to acquire LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George that summer. But things appeared promising when they acquired Butler in a blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves in November 2018. Then the Sixers acquired Harris in another huge deal from the Clippers just prior to the February 2019 trade deadline.
On paper, they had the star-studded team needed to win the franchise’s first NBA title since 1983. Sports Illustrated even featured the Sixers’ new starting lineup of Harris, Butler, Embiid, Ben Simmons, and JJ Redick on its cover.
The Sixers, however, suffered a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals. Following the season, the Sixers shipped Butler, a free-agent-to-be, to the Miami Heat via a sign-and-trade and opted not to re-sign Redick. Instead, they went after another star in Horford, even though his pairing with Embiid and Simmons was not a good fit.
So it wasn’t surprising that Horford, the veteran post player, was out of sorts during the 2019-20 season before being shipped to the Thunder.
And even though fans are still upset with Butler’s departure, everything wasn’t rosy during his brief tenure in Philly. Sources say the uncertainty surrounding Butler’s future that regular season was part of the reason they traded for Harris. Sources also said that the team was looking to land a solid player because of Butler’s wanting to get traded prior to the February deadline.
But Butler and Horford have both thrived since their Sixers departure, playing with teams that are utilizing their strengths.
» READ MORE: Al Horford signs four-year contract with Sixers
Butler has made two All-Star teams in his three seasons in Miami. He led the Heat to the 2020 NBA Finals, losing in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers. Last month, Butler averaged 27.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists while ousting the Sixers in six games in the conference semifinals. His squad eventually lost to the Horford’s Celtics in seven games in the conference finals.
And Horford reverted back to being a standout player he was in 2019 with the Celtics, who are facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. The series is tied, 2-2, heading into Monday’s Game 5 matchup in San Francisco.
The 36-year-old Horford is averaging 11.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.4 blocks in 21 postseason games. He’s shooting 45.6% on three-pointers. He had 26 points while making 6 of 8 threes as the Celtics defeated the Warriors in Game 1 of the Finals.
So one has to wonder what a change of scenery would do for Harris or if the Sixers can figure out how to get him more involved and utilize his assets better.