“The window is now. The opportunity is now.”
So said 76ers general manager Elton Brand on Feb. 8, the day after trading for All-Star-caliber player Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. It was also three months after the Sixers traded for four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“So once I saw that [Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons improved over the summer], we discussed taking a shot at it now," Brand said at the time, "because who knows how long that window is going to be open?”
Brand knows the opportunity to win an NBA title for even the most talented squad comes in certain windows. Teams usually have one, two, or three seasons at the most, to take advantage of those opportunities.
And depending on Embiid’s health, one could argue that the Sixers might have a smaller window. The two-time All-Star center is doubtful for Saturday’s first-round opener against the Brooklyn Nets at Wells Fargo Center with tendinitis in his left knee.
Regardless of whether Embiid plays, Harris and Butler will have a lot to do with deciding the outcome of Saturday’s game and how deep the Sixers go in the postseason.
They picked up Butler to be the defender and a late-game closer the Sixers desperately missed while losing to Boston Celtics in five games in the second round of last season’s playoff. Meanwhile, the Sixers think Harris’ ability to score in the perimeter, finish around the basket, and also close out games puts them over the top.
“We have players that can not only shoot, but that can get to the free-throw line, that can go create, that can go get a timely bucket when you need it,” Brand said Wednesday about Butler and Harris. “Those weapons that we have this year, I think that’s what’s going to separate us. We didn’t have that last year.”
Due to injuries, the Sixers’ starting lineup of Butler, Harris, Embiid, JJ Redick and Simmons has only played together in 10 of the 28 games since Harris was acquired at the trade deadline.
But during that small sample size, it’s obvious that the Sixers are hard to beat when teammates keep the duo involved. At times, thought, Butler and Harris have become the forgotten ones in regards to getting meaningful touches.
But the Sixers have thrived when Butler had the ball in his hand and initiated the offense. They also were tough to beat when Harris was hot early. That opened up things for Redick and Embiid.
Butler and Harris both dominated a couple of key games without Embiid before the squad’s end-of-regular-season funk. A prime example was the Sixers’ 108-104 road victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 28.
Harris finished with 32 points, his most as a Sixer. The power forward made 5-of-7 three-pointers and 11-of-19 shots overall. His best stretch of the night was an 8-0 run after the Thunder knotted the score at 93. He sandwiched two three-pointers around an 8-foot, turnaround jumper.
Butler added 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
Both players averaged 18.2 points as Sixers. Butler played in 55 games since his trade, and Harris played in 27.
But the Sixers traded for them with the postseason in mind. They’re fully aware of that, and excited about the opportunity, which begins Saturday.
Harris’ only other postseason came during the 2015-16 season as a Detroit Piston. So reaching the playoffs was his goal at the beginning of the season with the Clippers, who did make this season’s playoffs.
“To be able to be fortunate enough to be traded to another playoff team, and a team that has a chance to make a long run in the playoffs, is amazing for me," he said. “So I am really excited about it."
But he acknowledges that he still learning things due to the quick turnaround since the trade. Harris is figuring out his situation, his teammates, and what makes the Sixers the most successful.