The Philadelphia 76ers made news late in the offseason by signing Montrezl Harrell to a team-friendly deal. The 2-year $5.2 million deal has a player option for the second season but is essentially a veteran minimum for a player that is just two seasons removed from winning the Sixth Man of the Year. It is worth noting that Harrell remained available in free agency due to a lingering legal issue in which he was pulled over with a large amount of marijuana on him. After going through the legal process, the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor which ensured he will be available to play in this NBA season.
There are a ton of connections between Montrezl Harrell and the Sixers organization. He was originally drafted by Daryl Morey and played his first two seasons with the Rockets. The Lousiville product was then traded to the Clippers in the deal that landed Chris Paul and played his next three seasons under Doc Rivers where he had his best years of production. While the signing was unexpected, Harrell could end up being a major key in the Sixers’ success this season.
Now, this is not to say Montrezl Harrell is the answer to the Sixers’ postseason backup center issues. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest he is not capable of serving in this role. Harrell was famously overplayed by Doc Rivers in the 2020 playoffs in which the Nuggets came back from 3-1 in the postseason as Nikola Jokic dominated.
While it is not for lack of effort, Harrell is an extremely limited defender. He lacks footspeed on the perimeter and stands just 6’7″. He is especially challenged in pick-and-roll coverage where he struggles to make an impact in guarding either man. These factors are what have limited the excitement for the signing, especially considering Doc Rivers’ previous commitment to keeping him on the floor. Montrezl Harrell is an excellent option to utilize, but not a player that can produce in every situation.
However, he could play a key role in the Sixers’ success this season due to his ability to shoulder extensive minutes on the court. While there are a million factors that will contribute to the Sixers’ championship chances, the largest is certainly the health of Joel Embiid. Through five trips to the playoffs in his career, the only time Joel Embiid has been fully healthy was the bubble playoffs in which there was a 20-week hiatus before it occurred.
Many of the injuries are through no fault of Embiid (Exhibit A- getting struck by an elbow against the Raptors with the game in hand), but the fact of the matter is he has not been at his best physical ability on the biggest stage. With Montrezl Harrell capable of providing offensive production far beyond any backup Embiid has ever had, it could allow him to preserve his body in a way that has never been the case. Embiid is a competitive guy who wants to be out on the floor. He has squashed his injury-prone label and has been available on a near-nightly basis in recent years. This would require the MVP candidate to swallow his pride a great deal but would increase the Sixers’ chances at a championship in a way that is worth doing so.
What Montrezl Harrell Brings
The best season of Montrezl Harrell’s career occurred in 2019-20 under Doc Rivers. During this season he averaged 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.1 blocks in his 27.8 minutes per game. Over his career as a whole, he has averaged 12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. He is a dunk machine who is extremely effective at scoring in the pick and roll. Harrell can self-create with the ball in his hands and also is an advanced passer for a guy labeled as a big man.
Pairing Harrell with James Harden and spreading shooters around them has all the makings of a successful unit for the Sixers. Rather than looking to survive the minutes in which Joel Embiid is on the bench, this will be a unit capable of extending leads without the superstar. While he has only started 29 of the 458 games he has been in the NBA, Harrell has played 21 or more minutes per game in each of the past six seasons.
Traditionally the Sixers have targeted backup big men capable of filling the defensive shoes that Joel Embiid wears. The superstar’s two-way impact is what makes him so special. However, using Harrell as an offensive weapon will provide the Sixers with more flexibility than they currently have. Whether Doc Rivers elects to use him in this role is to be seen, but Paul Reed can certainly step in during matchups that require a larger impact. However, on an every-night basis in the regular season, the Sixers should feel confident counting on Harrell to come in and make an impact in a way that helps the team.
Joel Embiid’s Injury History
The book on Joel Embiid’s injury history has been written and repeated far too often already. He missed the first two seasons of his career with a foot injury, has played over 60 games in just three seasons in his career and has had a notable knock to just about every area of his body.
The Kansas product has made a major effort to squash this narrative. He played 68 of the 82 games last year and only missed an extended stretch of time due to testing positive for Covid. Embiid was criticized for his missed games and this was considered the reason for him not winning the MVP award in 2021. He returned to set a career-high in games played and minutes per game en route to leading the NBA in scoring and the Sixers to a successful season last year. While the voting process is a whole separate issue, Embiid seems to be acknowledging how the goal posts will continue to change for these standards
Soley placing his focus on a championship in which Embiid has a more tangible control of making an impact on should be the priority at this stage in his career. While his commitment to winning should be unquestioned, taking the high route and limiting the regular season wear and tear is the best route for the Sixers. Having a player like Montrezl Harrell behind him should increase his willingness to do just this. The Sixers’ postseason chances will be improved greatly if Embiid enters to postseason healthy. How many minutes Montrezl Harrell will receive in the postseason is a separate discussion, but he will prove vital in giving them the best chance to get to this point.
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