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Will The Sixers’ Big Deal Be Enough?

The Philadelphia 76ers made another seismic deal — their second trade of the regular season — on Wednesday when they acquired Tobias Harris from the Clippers. The day-before-deadline swap adds another All-Star-caliber talent to the Sixers’ starting five, which already included Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons. In exchange, Los Angeles receives a bounty of future draft picks over the next several years, including ones Philadelphia got from Detroit and Miami.

If the Sixers weren’t all in after the Butler trade, they certainly are now. But did the move1 put Philly over the top in the East? There’s some uncertainty around that answer — or at least more uncertainty than a team that just cashed in many future assets would like.

Yes, depending on the metric you look at, Philadelphia can be viewed as the strongest team in the Eastern Conference. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections have the Sixers’ current roster ranked as the best in the conference and second-best in the league, with a rating of 1704.2 The team’s probability of reaching the NBA Finals and winning the title increased as a result of the trade, to 16 percent (from 13 percent last week) and 4 percent (from 3 percent), respectively.

Interestingly, though, Philly’s likelihood of reaching the promised land — despite having perhaps the conference’s best starting five now — still ranks behind three contenders out East, in Toronto, Milwaukee and even Boston. Each of those teams has a deeper bench than the Sixers, something this trade didn’t necessarily help.

Coach Brett Brown will be able to stagger his lineups more easily with Harris in the mix. But because of how top-heavy the Sixers are, it’s imperative that Harris — who averages almost 21 points per game — jells with his other teammates. Even before this deal, Butler and Embiid had both made comments about their occasional frustrations with the team’s offensive fit — a sign of the dominant personalities that already exist and their desire to be fed on offense.

Unlike someone like Butler, who at his best has been merely average as a perimeter shooter, Harris is comfortable coming off screens and has shot better than 40 percent from deep for the better part of two years now (43 percent so far this season). His ability to preoccupy the defense without the ball in his hands is important since he’ll be playing alongside Simmons, who can’t space the floor and hasn’t shown a willingness to take jumpers to keep defenses honest.

Harris isn’t Kawhi Leonard on defense — or even Butler. But his size alone gives the Sixers an enormous defensive lineup. J.J. Redick, the team’s 6-foot-4 shooting guard, will be looking way up at each of his fellow starters. Butler is 6-foot-8. Harris is 6-foot-9. Simmons is 6-foot-10. Embiid is 7 feet.

Yet while no one would complain about the things Harris is good at, his best skills on offense could overlap with the skills of his teammates. In particular, he’s very good as a pick-and-roll ball-handler,3 just like Butler and Simmons. So there are some redundancies in their games, and those kinks — which even great players run up against in the early stages of a superteam — may need to be worked out.

One key thing in all this: The Sixers have made a couple of big, rare gambles in picking up Harris and Butler, both of whom are unrestricted free agents this summer. Though Philadelphia seems likely to pay what’s necessary to keep both given the investment it had to make, that reality could leave the Sixers vulnerable in case something unexpected happens a few months from now.

For the Clippers, they got a nice return for Harris, whom they received in the Blake Griffin trade this time last year. The Sixers had to part with talented rookie Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, two first-rounders (in 2020 and 2021) and a pair of a second-rounders. (Los Angeles also had to part with scoring machine Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott in addition to Harris.) The trade will likely hinder Los Angeles’s bid for a playoff spot out West, but it’s been clear for a while now that the Clippers’ top goal is to land a big fish or two in free agency this offseason.

In Philadelphia, the goal is far more immediate: This team wants to make a trip to the finals, and the once-too-young Sixers believe that time is now.



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Footnotes

  1. This was just one of two moves the Sixers completed Wednesday. They also acquired wing player Malachi Richardson, a second-round pick and the draft rights to Emir Preldzic in a deal with the Toronto Raptors.

  2. The Warriors, at 1806, are ranked first.

  3. He ranks 15th in the NBA among ball-handlers who have had 500 direct screens or more set for them, according to Second Spectrum.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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