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June 28, 2019

NBA free agency rumors: Does Al Horford actually make sense with the Sixers?

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Al Horford has been a thorn in the side of the Sixers for years, frustrating Joel Embiid in the paint time and time again. But at no point during those battles did it ever feel very likely that the two could fight together for the same team. If NBA free agency rumors are to be believed, that might change after this summer.

There has been a lot of smoke connecting Horford and the Sixers over the last week, and a well-timed Twitter follow from Embiid only heightened the noise earlier this week. Now, there's a new report from ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst suggesting Philadelphia could be a surprise bidder for Boston's departing big man.

He might not be a superstar like some of the others in this class, but Al Horford's entry into the free-agent market has sent numerous teams into a tizzy trying to get his valued services. Much like three years ago, when a number of teams rushed to offer him a max contract when he decided to leave the Atlanta Hawks, Horford is in such massive demand across the league that he's very likely to get the four-year, $100 million-plus deal he's seeking by opting out of his deal in Boston. 

In addition to teams such as the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, who instantly emerged as possible landing spots, league sources say there are a few surprise bidders who are trying to land the veteran big man. These include the Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers. [ESPN]

It would seem obvious that if this does gain traction in free agency, it will be because they know one of their major free agents has turned their attention elsewhere. Let's unpack the fit.

Why Horford makes sense in Philadelphia

The Sixers' investment in Joel Embiid as a person and a player is what will ultimately decide their fate. If you were looking for a way to protect your franchise player and ensure he has the best chance of being healthy when it matters, there are few options that would allow them to do that better than they could with Horford.

Philadelphia wouldn't be handing Horford a huge check so that he could be strictly a backup center, but there would no longer be a backup center problem in Philadelphia. Getting a player of Horford's caliber up front would 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 would have reason to believe they can avoid that problem moving forward.

In fact, bringing in Horford would be the best of both worlds for the Sixers when they send Embiid to the bench. He's 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 would 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 would basically have a second anchor on 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. 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.

Stylistically and culturally, Horford fits perfectly into what the Sixers want to do. He's one of the league's best passing and most unselfish big men, which would allow him to fit seamlessly into Brett Brown's ball-sharing offense. The Sixers routinely stress the idea of turning good shots into great shots with unselfish play, and Horford would require no re-wiring to make that happen.

There would be concerns about fit, and how you make it work with another guy who is more of a modern center than a true power forward. But frontcourts of Horford and Aron Baynes have been successful over the last couple of years in Boston — the Celtics had a +20.4 NETRTG when the two shared the floor together last season, albeit in just 163 regular season minutes. With all due respect to Baynes, there is quite a talent and skillset gap between the Aussie and Embiid.

The fact of the matter is the Sixers have been elite basically whenever Embiid has been on the floor. With Dario Saric and Robert Covington in starting roles, the Sixers had one of the league's best five-man units. When they swapped out for Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, they had one of the league's best five-man units. Yet more often than not, these groups would suffer and struggle — even the ones with multiple stars this past season — simply because Embiid was taken off of the floor. If this is the case, strengthening the non-Embiid lineups may be more important than chasing the star-studded starting five.

Horford, as overdone as the cliches can be about him, is a "little things" player. If he ended up in Philly, he wouldn't be coming in expecting to dominate the ball or worry about much other than doing what it takes to win. There are worse backup plans, certainly.

Why Horford doesn't make sense in Philly

Those gaudy numbers of Horford next to Baynes in the frontcourt have absolutely gone off of a cliff in the playoffs in back-to-back years, with that combo getting absolutely hammered in 2018-19 (—12.1 NETRTG, albeit in a small sample). This would be the concern about investing so much in Horford — it might be the best way to navigate a long regular season, but it may not be a combination that can work when the games really matter.

Horford is a decent shooter, but he has not been a great one. When the postseason rolls around, imagine a situation where the Sixers close with a lineup featuring Simmons-Redick-Butler-Horford-Embiid. Simmons' ability to impact the game in crunch time offense is already a huge concern, swapping Horford in for Harris removes ballhandling from the group, and when push comes to shove, teams might dare 3/5 of the lineup to beat them from three, junking up any in-between or penetration game the Sixers try to create.

The rumors out there suggest Horford has upwards of $100 million waiting for him on a deal in free agency. Is that really the best use of that money for Philadelphia? For years, they have lagged behind other teams in player archetypes that are common on most of the league's best teams, namely two-way guards who can shoot and switchable wings. They have drafted the latter in an effort to fix one problem, but they still have a dearth of players who can handle the ball and shoot, the "chewing gum and walking simultaneously" of basketball.

Even if the fit was a lesser concern, Horford's age would cause you to second guess the contract. He 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.

If you are concerned about paying a 30-year old Jimmy Butler over the next five years, there are plenty of reasons to fret about paying a big who will be in his late 30's by the end of the contract. Compounded with the potential for fit downside, there's a lot to chew on.

The NBA is positionless now, but the combination of skills you can put in a lineup still matter. You can't build a team strictly around interior talent, nor can you build a perimeter-only team with nobody to anchor the D or clean the glass. On a team built around a post-up big and a 6'10" point guard who isn't a threat to shoot beyond eight feet, the Sixers' supporting cast needs to possess an abundance of perimeter skills to make it all work at a high level.

I don't know if Horford allows you to do that. He is an interesting candidate, no doubt, but he may not be the right one.

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