Mourning Montrezl Harrell, Blessedly Irrelevant Sixers Backup Center
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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We never really got a chance to grieve for Shake Milton, Georges Niang or Jalen McDaniels, did we? They were snapped up, one after the other, seemingly within hours of the beginning of this year’s free agency — maybe it was actually days, who remembers — and we were still too busy wondering what the hell was gonna happen with James Harden, with Tobias Harris, with our own limited FA resources, to really spend time to honor their losses and what they meant in their time here. These were Sixers of consequence — first two, anyway, third didn’t really get a chance. Their tenure will be remembered, and their absence will be felt. But it was such a whirlwind period, for the Sixers and for the NBA, that we never really processed their loss; it probably won’t properly hit us until we see them in their Timberwolves and Cavaliers uniforms and have all the that can’t be right, can it? emotions rush out.
By contrast, we have all the time in the world to mourn Montrezl Harrell. Having now completed his triple deke of an offseason — he opted out (much rejoicing), he re-signed anyway (much anger and confusion), he got hurt (???) — in early August, there is truly nothing but empty space on the calendar with which we can fully take stock of and move on from the Montrezl Harrell experience. Nothing else is happening right now: no one’s signing, no one’s getting traded, no one’s even posting spicy Instagram videos. Hell, we could do a full-on Montrezl Month worth of programming on the Ricky if we wanted to; at this point it’s basically either that or doing an extended investigation into Daryl Morey’s Twitter behavior.
And so, I will lead off the proceedings by saying this for Montrezl Harrell: Ultimately, he did not matter. And that’s about the best thing we’ve ever been able to say about a Sixers backup center.
Not that that was necessarily the goal when he signed his two-year, $5.2 million deal with the 76ers in September 2022. Nobody, probably not even Daryl, expected that he’d be a major playoff contributor; we’d seen his lunch get eaten like a tasty pic-a-nic basket by Nikola Jokic two postseasons earlier, and nothing about his time spent in Washington and Charlotte the following year suggested the Sixers were getting a revitalized and/or revamped version of that player. The phrase most used in analysis of the Harrell signing — by those who were more bullish on it, even — was “innings eater.” The idea was that Trez would get regular call to the bullpen to soak up a lot of regular-season minutes and spare Embiid the extra PT — hopefully even doing so productively enough against most competition that Jo’s absence in those low-leverage moments wouldn’t be that acutely felt.
It didn’t work out like that — not really. Harrell certainly got his minutes, especially in the seasons’s first 2/3rds, and occasionally put up decent numbers; he even got a couple spot starts for Joel that went non-catastrophically. But he was, quite simply, not the player the Sixers needed: He could not defend, he could not rebound, he could not shoot, he could not reliably score in any way. Most pressingly, he could not jump, which at one not-that-long-ago point in time was supposed to be like his whole thing. Eventually even Doc Rivers had to acknowledge there was zero reason to give him minutes over Paul Reed, and his time as a regular member of the Sixers’ rotation was essentially through.
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And if there’s a reason to look back fondly on Harrell’s time as a Sixer, it’s that: Nothing bad that ultimately happened was really his fault. Unlike backup centers of Sixers past — Greg Monroe, DeAndre Jordan, Amir Johnson — who submarined the team in crucial postseason moments, Harrell was never convincingly good enough to even be given the chance. I checked his playoff stats for last year half wondering if I’d forgotten that he’d actually somehow averaged eight minutes a game in the Boston series, but it looks like he only played seven minutes total the whole posteason. (Most of that was in Game Four of the Brooklyn series, where he looked wildly out of shape even by 2023 Montrezl Harrell standards, and was greeted with the classic Kevin Harlan call, “And he looks…. sluggish!”) The team still went on to lose in soul-crushing fashion, but you’d have to do some serious blame gymnastics to trace that failure in any way back to Harrell.
And now, he joins Rhys Hoskins in the annals of Philly athletes whose tenure here was likely ended for good by an offseason ACL tear — in this case, a totally off-screen one. Maybe he’ll get cut now to save the Sixers a roster spot and a small amount of money, maybe he’ll be kept on and trotted out occasionally (like Hoskins) as a player-mascot — though Hoskins’ injury is a blow enough to the team’s core and spirit that his presence is a galvanizing one; there’s like a 25% chance that Embiid has already totally forgotten that Harrell was even on the team last year. Some Sixers fans will no doubt view it as a blessing in disguise that we will likely no longer have to caddy our fifth-string center on the roster; I still don’t understand enough about why Harrell was signed and then retained in the first place to be convinced his cutting would be a good thing.
Regardless, though, Harrell’s final Sixers legacy will be one of no real legacy at all: He won’t be remembered all that fondly, certainly, but there’ll be nothing to rue about him other than a non-optimized roster spot. I’d say he’s almost a throwback to the Byron Mullenses and Furkan Aldemirs of yesteryear, a backup big who passed through without really making a mark, but who gets something of a salute emoji just for making it onto The Shirt — spiritually if not literally. But hey, if you disagree, be sure to let me know. We may have only had hours to properly parse the Sixers legacies of Georges and Shake once their departure was official, but we’ve still got several weeks — maybe a full month or two — left to hash this one out.