June 30, 2019
The Sixers are signing free agent big man Al Horford to a four-year deal guaranteed for $97 million, a source told PhillyVoice on Sunday evening. The deal can reach up to $109 million based on championship escalators in the contract, as first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
This is, in many ways, quite a shocker for Philadelphia. Although they emerged as a possible "mystery team" in the Horford sweepstakes over the last week or so, it still seemed farfetched that they would put a major contract on the table for another frontcourt player. But Jimmy Butler's decision to force his way to Miami opened the door for the Sixers to explore different roster combinations, and they ultimately settled on the former Boston big man.
Sixers fans are intimately familiar with what Horford brings to the table from watching him torture Joel Embiid over the last couple of years. That's the bit that stands out the most — Horford is one of the league's smartest defenders, and he is going to help Embiid improve in more ways than one.
Getting a player of Horford's caliber up front will empower the Sixers to buy Embiid more time on the bench, whether that's for entire games or cutting back his minutes during the games he does play. After watching backup bigs get sauteed for most of the last few seasons when Embiid hits the bench, the Sixers no longer have a backup center problem. In fact, they quite easily have the best one-two punch there in the league.
On the other end of the floor, Horford is a versatile offensive player who doesn't have to spend his time strictly operating from the low block, and his ability to step out and hit jumpers and hit cutters will make life easier for Ben Simmons when he's running second units.
More importantly, he's one of the league's smartest and most impactful defensive players, and the Sixers basically have a second player who can anchor the backline. He is more than just a rim protector on the defensive end, of course. This may change as he ages, but Horford has been one of the only players who has been able to slow down the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo in individual matchups the last couple of seasons. With Milwaukee looming as one of Philadelphia's chief threats in the East the next few years, getting another option to handle him should help them out.
Most of the good things you can say about Horford were clear even just in the games against Philadelphia. While you would not want him defending in space too often, his physical strength and instincts allow him to hold up in a variety of situations across the board, and the Sixers should expect to have one of the league's best defenses next season.
The downside here — Horford's age is reason to second guess the contract, just like you would have second guessed a five-year max for Butler. Horford just turned 33 years old in early June, and while he hasn't dealt with a major injury in a long time, he has not been an ironman either. After playing 82 games during his final season in Atlanta, Horford missed 14, 10, and 14 games respectively during his three seasons in Boston.
Does a timeshare with Embiid allow both men to stay healthy as possible? Perhaps. And raw games-played totals are not the best measure of future health here. But the fit and positional alignment may matter too. Horford played 92 percent of his minutes at center for Boston last season, and that number would change dramatically in Philly. He has shown the flexibility to switch frontcourt roles as needed, but as he ages, having him chase around more perimeter-oriented fours (and guards in 1-4 P&R sets) might not be the best thing for a 6'10" guy.
In the regular season, two-big sets worked wonderfully with Horford in Boston, but they have fallen off of a cliff in the playoffs as floor spacing becomes more valuable and teams dare bad shooters to let it fly. The Sixers may end up being a better regular-season team this year with Horford in the mix, but is their ceiling as high in the playoffs without an elite perimeter handler? That's the question that will dog them all of next season.
Offensively, the Sixers now have a presumed starting five of players who will have no problem sharing the ball and falling into their roles. They have unselfish players who will move the ball and fit into the style of play Brett Brown has always preached, and their defensive ceiling is theoretically higher than it was before, with Josh Richardson offering a major upgrade on the wing from JJ Redick. And, it's worth noting, this group is now (mostly) locked up for years. They will have time to gel and become the best versions of themselves.
But once again, the Sixers are a science experiment as much as they are a basketball team. Two of their most expensive players are guys whose best position is center. They have a 6'10" point guard who hasn't proven he can shoot. They might move the ball well, but their secondary (and really, primary) handling might lag behind other contenders when it matters. Even when you strip all of that away, they are trying to build a title contender around a post-up big in an era where it's unclear if that's possible.
They will be interesting, as always. They're the Sixers, after all. Whether this new construction is enough to get to the promised land is another story entirely.
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