Some say the easiest thing for the 76ers to do is get 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 person for their All-Star duo, not the best player available. And they have to find a way to use that player’s strengths. Otherwise, they will continue the cycle of turning exceptional acquisitions into high-priced players who will be vilified in Philadelphia for failing to meet outside expectations.
Al Horford and Tobias Harris, and to some extent Jimmy Butler, are prime 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 in a bad mood with the Sixers during the 2019-20 season. People continue to criticize Harris for failing to live 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 it, Harris could be used as a trade chip to acquire a third star if there’s a team willing to return value for the remaining two years and $76 million of his current contract.
While some criticize the contract, Harris has never had long opportunities to show why he received the lucrative deal.
The Sixers were drawn to Harris’ ability to excel at pick-and-rolls during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers. At the time of his free agency after the 2019 season, Harris chose the Sixers after being chased by the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also reconsidered his return to the Clippers.
READ MORE: The Sixers chose Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum. They will never forget it.
The Sixers therefore had no choice but to re-sign Harris, who was acquired for a boatload of picks and players, to a near-max deal. But instead of the Sixers using his strengths, Harris has been a third or fourth option during his tenure with the Sixers.
Still, he’s considered a weak link with a hard-to-trade contract, even though his usage rate is in the bottom half of players earning at least $20 million per season for the past three seasons. However, he was one of the most effective players in ball and pick-and-roll situations.
He even upped his overall level of play in the playoffs, averaging 16.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks while shooting 38.6 percent on three-pointers and 86.4 % from the foul line. It 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 season. regular.
Not bad for someone who continues to make sacrifices while adapting his game to accommodate standout teammates like Butler, Horford, Ben Simmons, Harden and Tyrese Maxey as a Sixer.
READ MORE: Tobias Harris re-signs with Sixers on five-year, $180m deal
Of course, 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 in the 2019-20 campaign and 31.3 the following season. But it’s hard to imagine the shooting guard replicating those types of scoring averages while playing alongside Harden and Embiid.
In Washington, he is the first scoring option. With the Sixers, Harden is the point guard dominating the ball while Embiid is the undisputed 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 of their current teams?
The Sixers would do better to improve their bench than trade high-earning stars, who might not be a perfect fit.
READ MORE: Sixers trade for Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons says ‘he’ll fit in well here’
But searching for a third star is nothing new for the Sixers.
They’ve been ‘star hunting’ since losing to the Boston Celtics in the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
They got into deals to acquire LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George that summer. But things looked promising when they acquired Butler in a blockbuster trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves in November 2018. Then the Sixers acquired Harris in another huge deal from the Clippers just before 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 roster 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. After the season, the Sixers sent Butler, a future free agent, to the Miami Heat via sign-and-trade and opted not to re-sign Redick. Instead, they went for another star in Horford, even if his pairing with Embiid and Simmons didn’t fit.
It was therefore no surprise that Horford, the veteran post player, was in bad shape during the 2019-20 season before being sent to the Thunder.
And while fans are still upset over Butler’s departure, all was not well during his brief tenure in Philadelphia. Sources say the uncertainty surrounding Butler’s future that the regular season was part of the reason they traded for Harris. Sources also said the team are looking to sign a solid player as Butler wants to be traded before the February deadline.
But Butler and Horford have both thrived since leaving the Sixers, playing with teams that use their strengths.
READ MORE: Al Horford signs four-year deal with Sixers
Butler made two All-Star teams during 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 conference semifinal games. His team ultimately lost to the Horford Celtics in seven games in the conference finals.
And Horford is back to being the standout player he was in 2019 with the Celtics, who face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. The series is tied at 2-2 going into Monday’s Game 5 at San Francisco.
Horford, 36, is averaging 11.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.4 blocks in 21 postseason games. He’s shooting 45.6 percent from three-pointers. He had 26 points while making 6 of 8 threes as the Celtics beat 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 involve him more and use his strengths better.