League-Leading Philadelphia 76ers Have Ditched Traditional Point Guards

Never underestimate the value of a great backup point guard. Having a reliable floor general to lead the second unit—or step into a starting role when necessary—is a luxury most NBA teams don’t have. 

At first glance, the Philadelphia 76ers have questionable depth at point guard, but that shouldn’t be a problem for this title contender. After all, the Sixers are off to a 4-1 start that includes convincing wins over the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves. 

Of course, it’s unwise to put too much stock in October games, but there is no reason for the Sixers to worry about the absence of a prototypical backup 1.

Philly has a superstar in 23-year-old Ben Simmons, mitigating the need for a major contributor off the bench. Furthermore, the use of Josh Richardson, 26, as the second-unit point guard is past the point of experimental.

Head coach Brett Brown transitioned to Jimmy Butler as the lead guard on the second-unit during the 2019 playoffs after acquiring the now-journeyman star from the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier that season. Although the Sixers’ championship dreams were eventually crushed by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, the decision to move Butler to point guard worked like a charm. 

That chess move helped spur Philly onto four straight wins after dropping Game 1 to the Brooklyn Nets in their opening-round playoff series. No longer could the pick-and-roll dominant Nets seek out desired mismatches and punish Philly’s more diminutive TJ McConnell, who signed with the Indiana Pacers in the offseason.

But after swapping out Butler for Richardson this summer, there were plenty who wondered whether the Sixers could (or should) continue to use a starter as the second-unit point guard. Well, the original plan was to save that adjustment for the playoffs yet again, but Brown explains why he’s not waiting:

“It wasn’t any indictment on Raul or Trey, it wasn’t anything that Josh did that was ‘wow I better look at this sooner.’” Brown told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Marc Narducci. “It was me internally questioning why would I anticipate it could happen in the playoffs, and why wouldn’t I just try it now. It seemed smart and I did it and I like what I saw.”

(NOTE: That’s Raul Neto and Trey Burke being referenced above, both of whom were signed in as traditional point guard replacements for McConnell this offseason.)

The move drew plenty of attention, but it is the right long-term strategy for a team with championship aspirations.

Ben Simmons Is a Superstar

Mar 8, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard-forward Ben Simmons (25) handles the ball while Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15)defends during the first quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

To put it simply, Simmons is one of the most unique threats to ever play the position. The former first-overall pick has career averages of 16.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 7.9 assists. Despite all the shade around his jumper, he’s still one of the top point guards in the league. He’s a threat to put up a triple-double on any given night and his 6-foot-10 frame gives him the size to defend all five positions. 

More importantly, he’s been more willing this season to at least attempt open outside looks, and his for also looks like it’s improving. The time is coming when he’ll be able to score from range and will truly be unstoppable.

To make things even tougher on opponents, Simmons is a fixture in the lineup during an era when “load management” is part of the established NBA culture. The Australian missed his entire rookie season after fracturing a bone in his right foot, although that would be the last of his injury woes.

Following that lost year, Simmons has played in 81 and 79 games in each subsequent season. The expectation is that he will continue to be a workhorse for Philly and he’ll likely play around 35 minutes per night.

There just aren’t that many minutes to go around for a backup 1 in the first place, and Philly’s got those covered.

Richardson’s Steady Improvement

Richardson might not be Jimmy Butler, but he should have no problem filling a similar role in Philly’s system. Traditionally a shooting guard, Richardson has made steady improvements to his game year after year.

The former second-round pick has improved his assist percentage in each of his first four seasons, topping out at 17.9 percent in 2018-19. Moreover, his turnover percentage was a career-low 9.1 percent last year.

There is some early cause for concern.

After four games with the 76ers, Richardson’s assist percentage is down (14.5) while his turnover percentage is up (18.5 percent) when compared to last season. Nonetheless, adjusting to a new team and new offensive system takes time so those numbers should regress to the mean as the season moves forward.

Just as this is an experiment for Brown, it’s understandable that Richardson, who handled some lead guard duties with the Miami Heat previously, may need some more time to settle in. With Neto and Burke still in the wings, there is insulation against overstretching Richardson too soon while figuring this out.

Additionally, the Sixers don’t always need their backup point guard to drive the offense.

Playing Through Their Bigs

Oct 23, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Al Horford (42) dribbles against the Boston Celtics during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When Simmons sits, the Sixers currently turn to Richardson to run the offense, but he doesn’t need to play the role of a classic backup point guard. The offensive system emphasizes transition offense, dribble handoffs and post-ups. Under Brown, the Sixers are almost always going to be near the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll frequency.

Philly leans on its bigs to facilitate much of its offense because the frontcourt combo of Joel Embiid and Al Horford is perfectly suited for the role. Brown will stagger Embiid and Horford to make sure one of them is typically on the floor with the second unit.

The Sixers finished the 2018-19 season second in handoff frequency (8.2 percent) and first in points per possession (1.05) according to NBA.com. Those numbers are both down slightly through four games this season, but expect Philly to finish somewhere near the top of the league in both categories when all is said and done.

Philly’s Jumbo-Sized Lineups

Oct 23, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers players Ben Simmons (25) and Al Horford (42) and Joel Embiid (21) and Josh Richardson (0) and Tobias Harris (12) look on in a game against the Boston Celtics at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia is one of the biggest and most physical teams in the entire league, and the decision to run the 6’6″ Richardson as the second-unit point guard leans into that strength. Rather than doling out minutes to Raul Neto or Trey Burke, both 6-foot-1, there are that many more minutes in the rotation for rangy wings like Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis and Furkan Korkmaz.

That’s not necessarily an indictment on Neto or Burke—both of whom had solid moments with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks last year, respectively—but it takes away the possibility of teams seeking to punish a weaker defender in mismatches. In a pinch, the Sixers can call on either point guard to step in and provide quality minutes.

However, the Sixers are at their best when they play towering lineups that stifle the opposing offense.

Utilizing a starting shooting guard as the backup point guard may be a little unorthodox, but it’s a creative way to accentuate all of Philly’s strengths.