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Replacing Redick Will Be No Small Task For 76ers

It’s hardly a secret that the Sixers will miss JJ Redick going forward. But the sharpshooter’s absence is about much more than floor-spacing alone, and will force Philadelphia to change its ingrained offensive identity.

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The Philadelphia 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler with moments like this one specifically in mind. They trailed the Toronto Raptors 89-86 with 24 seconds remaining in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a situation perfectly suited for one of the league’s proudest alpha dogs to prove his chops on the playoff stage.

Expectation was quickly becoming reality as Ben Simmons inbounded the ball from the far sideline. Butler caught while moving toward the middle of the floor after using a brush screen from Joel Embiid, turning the corner to goad a switch from Marc Gasol. But instead of sizing up the 30-something seven-footer from the top of the key, playing precisely the role he was brought in to play, Butler picked up his dribble and looked back to his left.

The Sixers got exactly what they wanted on this possession, and Brett Brown knew they would. But with Butler and JJ Redick now playing elsewhere, Philadelphia’s coach has a major challenge ahead of him to tweak an offense that not only lost its proverbial closer, but – maybe more importantly – the world-class shooter who unlocked so many opportunities for his teammates by forming one half of basketball’s best and most frequent dribble hand-off tandem.

Most questions about the Sixers’ surprising summer of roster turnover revolve around positional redundancy and an accompanying lack of spacing on offense. Four of their five starters are legitimate three-point threats, and Tobias Harris is a far better long-range shooter than he showed after coming over from the LA Clippers at the trade deadline. Philadelphia actually has more capable shooters than its historic level of collective size and length makes it seem possible.

“We’ll figure out the spacing,” general manager Elton Brand said in mid-July. “We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben’s working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we’re looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it’s going to take some time. It should take some time.”

But no amount of time will fully fill the void left by a marksman of Redick’s caliber, especially given the role he played in the Sixers’ offense over the past two seasons. No team ran more dribble hand-offs than Philadelphia in 2018-19, and no player ran more of them than Redick. His 5.2 dribble hand-offs per game ranked first in the league by a wide margin, according to NBA.com, and rightfully so.

Redick scored 1.1 points per possession on those plays, but even that elite number isn’t an accurate reflection of the success the Sixers enjoyed from his two-man game with Embiid. Forced to trail Redick over the top of screens and ensure he didn’t have space to launch on the exchange, scrambling defenses surrendered easy finish after easy finish to Philadelphia’s franchise big man.

Some teams, like the Raptors above, switched that action, content to let the turnover-prone Embiid go to work in the post against a smaller player or send another defender his direction on the catch. But he improved as a passer from the block last season despite some lingering carelessness with the ball, and he drew shooting fouls at a higher rate than any high-usage post-up option in the league per NBA.com.

Switching just wasn’t a sustainably effective answer to Redick and Embiid’s dance, and neither was the foreknowledge it was coming. The Sixers didn’t just clear out out the left side of the floor, station Embiid at the extended elbow and have Redick sprint off him from the corner over and over. They varied their dribble hand-off machinations all over the court, sometimes even letting Embiid initiate the action with a live dribble after Redick used the first half of the basketball world’s biggest, scariest, most mobile staggered screen.

Redick and Embiid routinely abandoned the dribble hand-off altogether, skipping that first step in favor of the former flying off wide pin-downs with an empty corner, putting the defense in an impossible numbers game. Brown’s affinity for ball and player movement in the half court – Philadelphia has ranked top-four in touches each of the past five seasons, per NBA.com – sometimes manifested itself in a pitter-patter of short-area passing, with Redick catching on the move, immediately flipping the ball to a nearby Embiid, then chasing it into a hand-off even more weaponized than normal.

The Sixers were extremely comfortable adjusting on the fly based on how the opposition defended their favorite pet play, too. The most fun wrinkle: Redick taking advantage of defenders playing on top of him by moseying into an inverted ball screen for Embiid.

It’s a testament to Embiid’s bellwether offensive impact that he put up huge numbers last season even for the few minutes per game he didn’t share the floor with Redick. Similarly, Philadelphia was only marginally worse overall offensively when Redick was on the bench. As much relative flak as Embiid and Simmons – and even Brown – have received for their offensive shortcomings, it’s telling that the Sixers were able to stay afloat on that end without Redick despite his integral role in their offensive system.

There’s no guaranteeing that trend will persist going forward, even if Philadelphia doesn’t have to overhaul its offense to the extent many anticipate.

Most talk of Richardson’s influence on his new team revolves around his ability to shore up its utmost defensive weakness of checking opposing point guards, but he’s a good fit for the Sixers on offense, too. The Miami HEAT were the only team to run a larger ratio of hand-offs than Philadelphia in 2018-19, per NBA.com, and Richardson averaged just over a point per possession on those plays. He’s a far more threatening driver than Redick after getting the ball, using his wiggle and explosiveness to finish around the rim, and has proven increasingly capable of draining threes when the defense cheats under screens.

Still, he just doesn’t put even half the pressure on the defense that Redick does in the same scenario. So many easy scoring opportunities materialized for the Sixers in the last two years solely due to defenses’ looming fear of giving Redick a free look at the rim. Opposing teams will never feel obligated to top-lock Richardson or Harris as they prepare to use hand-offs and pin-downs from Embiid and Horford. Switches will inevitably come, but more due to the Sixers’ cadre of like-sized players than the emergency of an all-time great shooter being given a sliver of space to let fly.

The effect of Redick’s loss is compounded by that of Butler. Harris made major strides as pick-and-roll ball handler in Los Angeles before reverting back to a secondary offensive role with Philadelphia, but still lacks the juice to consistently get to the rim and draw defenders. Richardson is best suited as a more ancillary offensive piece, and it would be remiss to buy into summer hype of Simmons adding a jumper to his game until he proves it in the regular season.

Could Brand have driven a harder bargain in trade negotiations with the Clippers for Harris, refusing to include Landry Shamet and daring them to balk at netting a pair of first-round picks in their quest to create as much cap space as possible? Maybe not, but retaining Shamet would have rendered the layered worries sparked by Redick signing with the New Orleans Pelicans moot. He quickly developed a rapport with Embiid in the off-ball screen and dribble hand-off game, and he shot even better from deep with LA than he did with Philadelphia.

The Sixers will win with defense first and foremost this season. That’s hardly revelatory, and neither is the fact that the departure of Redick, a quality team defender, is one of the many reasons why they’re poised to potentially reach a historic level of play on that side of the ball. But Philadelphia won’t hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time since 1983 without the ability to keep up with the league’s best teams during stretches when great offense unavoidably beats great defense.

Where does that leave the Sixers in terms of an acceptable offensive threshold relative to the rest of the NBA? That remains to be seen, and it depends on several elements ranging from just how dominant they are on defense, to Simmons’ evolution, to smaller factors like Mike Scott continuing to rain fire from mid-range.

But don’t overlook the import of Redick’s absence in finding the answer – not just as a floor-spacer, but a driving force behind the overarching offensive identity Philadelphia will be forced to change.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer & reported with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated.

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