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  • After originally pursuing Jimmy Butler, the Sixers' alternative plan might have Philadelphia better positioned to stake its claim of the Eastern Conference.

The Sixers have pivoted dramatically, signing-and-trading Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat for Josh Richardson and inking Al Horford as an unrestricted free agent into their salary cap space. Instead of re-signing Butler to a five-year, $190 million max extension, Philadelphia has assembled perhaps the most imposing front line in the league. Andrew Sharp and The Washington Post's Ben Golliver discussed this decision and the future of the Eastern Conference at large on the Open Floor podcast

(Listen to the latest Open Floor podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)


ANDREW SHARP: I'm glad you mentioned all the other tips, because we did. We had somebody working on Kawhi's house write in and basically—anyone out there with a sketchy tip—We had somebody who saw Musai Ujiri in the Nike Town in Georgetown in Washington D.C., perhaps linking him to the Wizards. Like, we are here for all of that. Those are my favorite e-mails of all, especially if you have any sketchy NBA news. 

BEN GOLLIVER: I think Masai was just getting in on the Greek Freak 1s that Nike, probably laying some groundwork for 20 21, making sure Giannis saw him rocking the kicks on Instagram, whatever it might be. In terms of the Sixers and Al Horford, this is kind of why I was going in so hard on the Celtics fans, and Celtics fans got all mad at me: 'Oh you're so negative on your team.' Well, how you feeling now that Al Horford just went to the Philadelphia 76ers and they've got the inside track to the NBA finals and you're gonna have to watch that? How are you, how are you feeling now that you're big Atlantic Division rival took your best defensive player and you're not going to have a matchup for him, and they're gonna be able to lock you up with five, pretty long, interchangeable guys at every single position. How are you going to feel now watching Al Horford get his little Giannis stopper game on against the Milwaukee Bucks and what could be a really, really fun Eastern Conference finals next year. That's going to hurt, and that's why I was tough on the Celtics' fans. And we had heard some buzz about Al Horford to Philadelphia during draft night, and I was trying to put it together, like how would this even work?

And it did wind up costing them Jimmy. It did wind up costing them JJ Redick. And I think people kind of forget about that part. Somehow they were able to do it, even though they gave Tobias Harris like 975 million dollars to play basketball, which I honestly thought that was probably the biggest overpay of the entire first 24 hours. But they were still able to make it work. And to get Josh Richardson back is sort of a poor man's Jimmy Butler to plug into that lineup, like their group a lot. Like, I don't know if I'm going to be able to get myself unbanned from the Spike and Mike podcast. I don't know exactly how positive I have to go on the Philadelphia 76ers and I understand like, you know, praising Elton Brand is probably a little bit of a dicey territory with those guys. But as a short term, win-now—we saw what Masai Ujiri did last year in terms of building a contender and the value of going for it—we're going to try to do the same thing and go for it with these guys right now. I thought they did it pretty darn well.

SHARP: Well, OK. I agree mostly, yeah. I'm sort of in the same boat. 

I really like what the Sixers have built here, in part because I did not like the idea of them running it back with Jimmy Butler, and paying him 190 million dollars, and saying—I mean, I would've understood had they did that—but I like this alternative a lot better than that plan.

GOLLIVER: It's really creative how they should move forward, right? It's like, OK, you can't—they're in a situation where they don't want to bring everybody back, because paying those same guys, and still having a fairly hard cap on their ceiling, would be tricky. It would not be where you want to be, especially if you're the GM. But you're going to feel obligated to do it because you traded all those other pieces to get those guys. But then to roll that forward and to get Richardson back and Horford back, I thought that was really creative. 

SHARP: Yeah and basically it comes down to this, OK: If I can have Richardson and Al Horford on 4/96—because there are some guarantees in there that are, like, championship incentives or whatnot, so it really is like a contract for four years in the mid 90s—and then also have Josh Richardson who's a younger version of Jimmy Butler, not as good as Jimmy Butler but, like, is also going to be able to go through 82 games without having to kind of, like, hit cruise control for a month or two, which I think is a win for the Sixers. I would much rather do that than commit five years and a 190 million to Jimmy Butler, which it sounds like that's what it was going to take to keep Jimmy in Philadelphia. Now, Woj has come out and reported afterward that the Sixers were not even willing to offer a four year max to Jimmy Butler, so clearly like they were uneasy about where that was going to head. And I'm curious to find out you know how much the chemistry with Ben Simmons played into that or how much the Joel Embiid factor played into that because Jimmy and Embiid did seem to be close through that playoff run. But either way, I mean, I think Philly is in really, really good shape right now. A lot of it is going to come down to how much Simmons can grow offensively, because, I mean, ultimately the Sixers' outlook was always going to come down to, like, can Simmons go from being a, like, suboptimal All-Star to being like a reliable All-NBA guy for the next 10 years? And if he can do that, I think this team is going to contend for titles over the next couple years. 

GOLLIVER: No, I mean, that's their ceiling there's no question about it. And it's easier to fill in the holes that they have left than the holes that, say, like, the Lakers have left, right? And they did some mortgaging of their future here too. I mean they brought Horford and Harris on some numbers that in a couple of years are not going to look great, right? But their window is right now.

SHARP: Yeah.

GOLLIVER: Those guys fit pretty well. And I think one major point that maybe some people are missing, or maybe not, but the game is starting to change a little bit. We saw Toronto stay big basically throughout the Finals because Golden State didn't have access to that death line up, right? And there aren't very many teams that can put five perimeter threats on the court at the same time. So if you're Philadelphia, the risk of doing this ultra-big lineup with Embiid, Horford, Harris playing down a position that you would prefer and then, even in some cases, you'd probably rather have Richardson as your three, rather than as your two, right? But I think you can get away with that if there's not a team that can really super, duper spread it out like Golden State has over these last couple of years, and I'm not sure who's going to be able to do that. I don't think Boston can do it. I don't think Milwaukee can do that to them. And in fact, I think the more you can take away the basket area from Giannis the better, and having both Embiid and Horford, you know, in the paint, you know, as part of your wall to kind of like stand up to Giannis, I think is really, really helpful. I mean as a Giannis Inc. investor, I looked at this Horford move, and I was like, 'Man, that makes his life a lot harder.' And then I think, you know, whether it's if Kawhi's in Toronto or whoever else is at the top of the Eastern Conference, I just think Philadelphia is going to wind up, if everybody stays healthy, if they're able to kind of get the chemistry right and all that, I think they're gonna be able to win a lot of the matchup battles in the postseason. 

SHARP: I agree. I agree. And look, even in the Golden State small-ball era, where every every team could go small like the Sixers' size was a real issue. It was an issue for the Raptors and it was an issue for basically every team they played. And I think you know, the Celtics actually did a pretty good job countering it. But the main thing is that they're going to be so tough on defense that that's going to give them a really high baseline regardless. I like the idea of Horford and Embiid sort of platooning throughout the regular season and kind of making it easier to load manage both of them.

And I also like Horford's fit with Simmons offensively. I think that could really work out well. Obviously he's not going to run as much as Simmons is going to want to, but in the half court he fits better than, you know, the idea of trading for Clint Capella in a Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade. That never made any sense to me. Horford works much better than that and I'm excited about what's possible for them. I think we should also be carefu, because I go back to last year's Sixers and, like, 60 percent of what they did was just, like, run JJ Redick around screens and do those little dribble handoff with Embiid and call it an offense. And so I'm really curious what they will do without Redick around. And then if you spin it forward to the playoffs, like, a lot of what they did was just to hand the ball the Jimmy Butler and be like, 'Alright, go create. Make this work.' And Jimmy Butler was able to do it for like three and a half games of that Raptors series and so a lot of people were in on Jimmy Butler. And so, I think they still have a lot of questions to answer but I think, like, coming into Sunday, I was looking at Philly's future and being like, 'Ugh, I don't know. If you guys made a lot of choices and went all in, and I'm not sure how anyone involved should feel about this.' But now it's pretty intriguing and it, particularly, if they can add a couple pieces off the bench, they could be in good shape and they will probably enter next season as the favorites to win the East.

GOLLIVER: Yeah. Who's their biggest threat. Like who matches up with them best? Is it Milwaukee?

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