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January 09, 2020

How do the Sixers cope without Joel Embiid? By changing around Al Horford

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5_Joel_Embiid__Sixers_76ers_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.

Sixers center Joel Embiid has suffered a torn radial collateral ligament in the fourth metacarpal of his left hand, the team said on Thursday evening.

An hour after the initial announcement, in which they gave no timetable for his return and said Embiid was still evaluating his options, a Sixers team spokesman told reporters Embiid would be having surgery to correct the issue. The surgery will take place in New York on Friday, and the Sixers say Embiid will be reevaluated in one-to-two weeks time.

That should not be accepted as an expected return timeframe. Recovery from torn ligaments in the hand can take anywhere 3-12 weeks, with 6-8 weeks being considered a relatively standard timeline.

It goes without saying this is a huge blow for Philadelphia at a time where they really need to start building some momentum with their ultra-big starting five. This is the eternal dilemma with Embiid, who bounced in and out of the lineup last season at an inopportune time following the All-Star break. 

With Embiid on the shelf, all eyes turn to Al Horford, who was brought to Philadelphia in part to protect the team against situations like these. But in order to get the most out of Horford, the Sixers may have to make some tweaks to how they play in order to avoid their defense falling off of a cliff.

Conceptually, the Sixers' defense is built around funneling offensive players toward Joel Embiid in the paint and hugging shooters on the perimeter, daring opposing teams to live in the midrange region that has been abandoned as a high-volume source of points in today's NBA. They haven't changed much, if anything about their basic coverage when Horford is in the game at center rather than Embiid, and teams have figured out ways to tear that apart.

Horford is small-ish for a center, and his athletic strengths are mobility and agility, not necessarily vertical explosion. That leaves him susceptible to being targeted in the "centerfield" pick-and-roll coverage Philly plays, too far back to affect the ballhandler and too far forward to prevent lobs to the sort of springy athletes you see coming off of a lot of people's benches at center. 

To cope without Embiid for an extended period of time — and to prepare for the minutes they'll play without him in the playoffs — the Sixers would do well to try out some adjustments in how they defend pick-and-rolls when Horford is the primary big. Brown took it a step further, suggesting the Sixers would consider huge changes to the defense around Horford.

"I'm putting a blowtorch, a bullet, many bullets, into what we used to do," Brown said. "It doesn't fit, and so shame on me to try to make it fit, we don't have Joel doesn't mean we have to completely pivot out to wild stuff that could be reckless, I don't think so, I think it's taking the house we've lived in and moving the furniture around a little bit. That's what I intend to do."

At times this season, the Sixers have lived out of more aggressive looks, blitzing ballhandlers like Trae Young in the second halves of games. That is not going to be a recipe for consistent success, though the Sixers might get some mileage out of more hedging from Horford, who has been able to win one-on-one battles with guards and wings in the past. 

His success, however, will ultimately hinge on whether the dead legs he has shown recently are a midseason blip or a long-term concern. Even when the opposing big has popped (or been a non-shooting threat) and Horford has been able to focus more on preventing a guard from getting to the rim, he has not been as quick off the ground as in years past. Hedges could allow him to leverage his strength more, but in turn could lead to opponents getting even better looks than the ones seen here:

The other end of the floor is perhaps even more interesting. Horford has been mostly uninvolved as a roll man this year, with Brett Brown even stressing recently that he wants Horford pick-and-popping second units, "to death." This is at least a partial reflection of how the rotation is structured — over 84 percent of Horford's minutes have been spent with Simmons on the floor, whose limitations make him hard to use as a pick-and-roll handler and cramp the floor when others attempt to run the action. They need space, and Horford has historically been a good enough shooter to help provide it.

Embiid's absence gives Philadelphia an excuse to use Horford in more lineups without Simmons, paired with multiple pick-and-roll threats like Josh Richardson, Trey Burke, or even Tobias Harris, who hasn't been put in a position to run many of those actions lately. Matisse Thybulle returning from injury also gives them a little bit of extra depth on the wing, providing the Sixers an opportunity to spread the floor and take advantage of Horford's short roll passing.

Even with Simmons standing in the dunker's spot, the Sixers should be tapping into Horford's passing on the move more. He may not move the way he used to, but he's capable of making the necessary reads on the move to find the best shots for his teammates.

"To now play [Horford] and feature him more in things we all know he's quite good at, capable at, just in a more frequent environment, I think positives can come out of this," Brown said Thursday. "We all talk about let's pick-and-pop Al, but it's deeper than that, it's way deeper than that. To me, the thing that made Al special was when he rolled and you weren't too sure if he was going to pop or roll. Do you simply put him in more pick-and-rolls? Of course, now all of a sudden he's more of a feature guy."

Expecting Philadelphia to all of a sudden pivot into becoming a heavy pick-and-roll team would be unwise. But Simmons' recent volume and efficiency as a roll man is another area to hone in on — he's averaging 1.07 points per possession as the roll man for the season on limited reps, and has crushed in this area in recent games.

The increased role of playcalling on offense, which the players and coaches have discussed publicly and drilled down during this week's practice sessions, could also weigh in here.

Called plays have been a point of emphasis in the halfcourt for the Sixers recently, and they dialed up the urgency on that front even more at practice this week, going through sets specific to different groups within the rotation so that they're in the best position to execute them in a game setting. 

What that rotation looks like, of course, is anyone's guess — we don't know, for example, how large of an off-ball role Trey Burke will have now that Thybulle has returned to the rotation. Brown was definitive on one thing: when asked if this would increase his willingness to play Burke and use Simmons as a screener, he had a one-word answer: "Yes."

It is going to take the whole team to overcome the absence of the franchise player, who fundamentally changes how opponents can attack and how they have to defend the Sixers. They have the talent to get by without him, but they have to thrive and not just survive without him to keep pace in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff race. 

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