The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird. At its high end, it can measure over 11 feet from tip-to-tip, which enables it to soar enormous distances with minimal effort. It can stay in the air for four hours or more without flapping its wings. Scientists estimate that some specimens travel north of 75,000 miles per year around its habitat in the Southern Hemisphere, a habitat that includes the accurately named Bird Island, a small and uninhabitable chunk of land off the coast of South America. (According to Wikipedia, “[Bird] island has always been rat-free, unlike the main island of South Georgia,” which sounds like it was written by a Bird Island wandering albatross with an axe to grind.) While attempting to seduce a mate, male wanderers will “spread their wings, wave their heads, and rap their bills together while braying,” a tactic you’ve also probably seen at most bars and night clubs between midnight and last call.
We open with this fact-laden discussion of the wandering albatross for two reasons: One, because nature is wild and it’s important to expand your field of knowledge to learn more about the world you inhabit. Two, because the wandering albatross and its gigantic wingspan would fit pretty well into the rotation of the 2019 Philadelphia 76ers.
After losing to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors on a Kawhi Leonard fall-away that donked off of various parts of the rim four times before finding its way through the net, the Sixers went about remaking their lineup for something like the fifth time in the last 18 months. This one was less by choice than by necessity. Two starters, Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick, left for South Beach and Bourbon Street, respectively, like your college friends departing for a multi-year Spring Break. The team filled their spots in the starting five with Josh Richardson and ageless big man Al Horford. The Sixers are now, to use the official term created at the most recent Sloan Analytics Conference, “really freaking huge.”
How huge? Well, so huge that their shortest projected starter, Josh Richardson, is 6’6. So huge that they start three players who are 6’10 or taller. So huge that the team parted ways with noted John Wick villain Boban Marjanovic and somehow got bigger. If you stacked the Sixers lineup on top of each other, with each member standing on the head of the person below him, they would measure just over 34 feet tall, which, if the one on top reaches his hands above his head a little, is about the height of a standard telephone pole. You should not stack them up like this, though. The one on the bottom would get crushed. The Sixers have had enough injury problems.
Let’s be more practical. Let’s think about the wandering albatross. Let’s talk wingspan. Here are the wingspans of the five players who are believed to make up their starting lineup:
Ben Simmons — 7’0
Josh Richardson — 6’10
Tobias Harris — 6’11
Al Horford — 7’1
Joel Embiid — 7’6
That is a combined wingspan of 35 feet and 4 inches. A standard NBA court is 50 feet wide. It is 44 feet from three-point line to three-point line across the baseline. The team’s starters can basically stretch out their arms as wide as possible, interlock their fingers, and create a wall that blocks off about 70 percent of the court and 80 percent or more of the area inside the three-point line, daring the other team’s players to try to break through. As of this writing, this particular strategy is known by absolutely no one as the “Red Rover defense,” but hopefully that will change as the season progresses.
This is going to be the team’s calling card now: defense. It almost has to be. Losing Butler and Redick meant losing the team’s two most consistent perimeter crunch-time scorers from last season. Replacing Redick with Horford changes the entire dynamic of the offense, as one is a constantly moving gunner with a podcast and a fabulous collection of watches and the other — I say this with only love and admiration — has been the basketball world’s most skilled 54-year-old man since his senior year at Florida. Harris will be expected to carry a heavier burden now. Embiid will need to find a balance between carrying the offense for chunks of the season and resting his very large, fragile body. Simmons will have to… well, you know…
BEN SIMMONS? HIT A THREE?!
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) October 9, 2019
Even the reinforcements are huge this season. Backup power forward and Philadelphia folk hero Mike Scott has a 6’11 wingspan. Backup wing James Ennis has a 7’0 wingspan. Backup center Kyle O’Quinn has a righteous beard, which has nothing to do with anything but makes him seem bigger than he already is. And this brings us to rookie Matisse Thybulle.
Have you seen Thybulle play at all in the Summer League or preseason? He has been an absolute revelation. Not so much on offense, though, where he’s been fine. (He’s been fine!) It’s his defense. Dear Lord, the defense. Officially, he is listed at about 6’5 with a 7’0 wingspan, but those numbers simply cannot be correct. His arms are everywhere. He seems to tip the ball every time it gets near him, whether it’s a deflection or a block or a straight-up felonious non-violent robbery. His arms have to be at least eight feet long each. Maybe they stretch out like an elastic rubbery toy. Maybe he actually has three or four arms but they move so fast that viewers at home can only see two at a time.
If this world is just and fair to any reasonable degree, his nickname will be “The Octopus” no later than Thanksgiving. Assuming he improves as his rookie year progresses, putting him on the court with two potential All-NBA defenders like Embiid and Simmons and a defensive genius like Horford is borderline unfair. You could put a midsized housecat out there with those four and still hold opponents under 95 points per game.
Now, there’s a question floating around in the air here than has not yet been addressed. And that question, admittedly a somewhat important one, goes something like this: Will any of this work? Will a team of giants capable of blocking out the sun be able to navigate a league than is increasingly turning to sharpshooting small-ball? The famous pre-Durant Death Lineup that the Warriors trotted out to kick the trend into high gear featured Draymond Green at center. Green is one inch taller than Josh Richardson, who, again, will be the shortest Sixers starter by a full three inches. It will be fascinating to watch teams, including the Sixers, figure out how to exploit matchups when every matchup on the court could be a mismatch on one end or the other.
The short answer to that question is, uh, I don’t know, really. I don’t think anyone does. In fact, there are only two things about any of this that I think can be agreed upon universally:
- It should be a fascinating experiment to watch throughout the year
- The Wandering Albatross would be a really great nickname for Joel Embiid