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January 17, 2020

Sixers mailbag: What does the future look like with Al Horford?

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4_AL_Horford_Sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers big man Al Horford during a game against his former team, the Boston Celtics.

When I ask for questions to put together a Sixers mailbag, the hope is usually that there are enough topics people are interested in to touch on a lot of different subjects in a short period of time. What usually happens is that a single topic generates most of the questions, and I have to be selective with which ones I get to to make sure it's not a one-note mailbag.

Well, this week I basically have no choice to follow the will of the people, who asked question after question about Al Horford, last offseason's big free-agent acquisition. He has been in the spotlight lately, for better or for worse depending on what day it is, and he will continue to do the heavy lifting for Philadelphia at the pivot until Joel Embiid returns following hand surgery.

I don't blame you for asking, in other words. Let's get down to business.

The assumption on my end has always been that Al Horford would eventually transition into a backup role, focusing most of his energy on lifting the second unit and playing alongside Embiid only in spot duty. But the struggles of the Embiid-Horford pairing and the stress that has put on the entire starting lineup makes one wonder whether they'll have to consider that sooner rather than later.

I suppose my problem with this question right now is that I don't see a natural candidate to take over his spot. Matisse Thybulle is a fan favorite and the first name who will come up for a lot of people, but asking him to be a spark plug off of the bench is a different challenge than being a crunch-time guy in high-level playoff moments. Beyond him, the options aren't great and all come with some sort of major hole.

If the Sixers were to go out at the deadline and acquire a two-way wing or guard, perhaps we're having a different conversation, and even if they don't, we might see some situations where Horford is swapped in and out for offense/defense substitutions late in games. But I do think it's worth considering that Horford is a considerably better basketball player than anyone you're bringing in to replace him on the current team, fit concerns and all. 

Carson Wentz is going to have to come up big when it matters, obviously.

Jokes aside, this is a slightly different version of the first question. This is a topic I think we are really going to have to revisit after the deadline because while all indications are that Philly wants to bring in shooting, that skill comes in a lot of different forms. Are they acquiring an off-the-dribble shooter? A player who can score off screens? A standstill shooter similar to the players they have in the rotation now?

And what if the Sixers decide a ballhandler/sixth man type is where they need to invest their resources? In that instance, I could absolutely see Horford riding the pine down the stretch so that the Sixers could run pick-and-rolls all over the floor using Simmons and/or Embiid as screeners, and so that Embiid's post-ups were surrounded by players who could attack closeouts off of the dribble.

Situationally, there are also matchups where Thybulle might be more useful than Horford. If a small-ish team runs out a guard or wing-heavy lineup to score a bucket in the final seconds, perhaps Thybulle's agility would be more useful to slip through screens and contest a shot. 

Brown would have to weigh that against Horford's veteran savvy and substantial track record, obviously, and while all of these things sound interesting and perhaps even smart on paper, the truth is there are politics to benching players and promoting other guys, especially when one of those guys was the prized offseason acquisition on a huge contract. Never take that side of the game for granted.

MORE: NBA Trade Rumors: Sixers have expressed interest in potential Covington reunion | Practice notes: Embiid cleared for non-contact conditioning

As much as I think Bogdan Bogdanovic would be a great piece on this Sixers team, and as much as I have roasted Horford for his struggles in Philadelphia this season, this feels like selling at the absolute lowest possible value. Dewayne Dedmon has been a massive disappointment in Sacramento after a solid couple of years in Atlanta, and while I like Bogdanovic as an offensive fit, I'm not sure I like him enough to want to pay him big money this summer, which is part of the reason he's available in the first place.

If I were searching for a Horford trade partner, I'm not convinced bringing in another big man should be part of the deal. The Sixers went and got the best possible option to backup Joel Embiid when he's either hurt or resting, they have Ben Simmons playing at a Defensive Player of the Year type level, and they've still needed to rethink the defensive scheme to avoid falling off of a cliff without the franchise center. He is the scheme. So you might as well try to get players who make life easier on the offensive end for Embiid and Simmons because those two are going to decide the floor and ceiling of the defense. 

Bogdanovic does that, but I don't think I can write off Horford to the point that I'm basically just dumping him. 

And now, on to a topic that I figured was inevitable.

No, I don't think the Sixers gave up on Markelle Fultz too soon, because I think the Markelle Fultz that we have seen in Orlando recently is not a guy who was going to appear in Philadelphia. I am a big believer in the change of scenery effect in this case, both because he went to a better situation for him as a player and because he went to a better situation for him as a person.

With the Magic, Fultz gets to play a lot of his minutes with Nikola Vucevic, a big man who can reliably space the floor and either run pick-and-pops or just stand and space the floor when Fultz wants a clear out. He also has the benefit of spending more of the time with the ball in his hands, which wasn't going to happen for him here in Philadelphia.

Simmons' success as a screener in pick-and-rolls this season might lead you to believe that a Fultz-Simmons P&R pairing would have worked. But the reason it works with Richardson-Simmons is that teams actually respect Richardson as an outside/pull-up shooter, so they can't just sink under and wall off passes to Simmons in the paint. Fultz has certainly increased his willingness to shoot, but he's still pretty terrible (26.5 percent from deep) outside of 12-15 feet.

It would have been hard to structure a rotation that made the most out of him. In lineups with Simmons, the shooting/spacing issues would have continued to be a problem. In the bench looks built around Embiid, teams would have continued to cheat off of him as they do off of Simmons, so you would have created a situation where it would have been impossible to create ideal spacing around Embiid for a single minute of the game. 

Aside from the on-court stuff, playing in Orlando has been a good thing for him. Think of the sort of attention that has been on this Sixers team locally and nationally this season — every game is a referendum on the coach, the roster, the GM, and the well-being of the fanbase. The nature of acquiring Fultz put a ton of pressure on him to perform from the get-go, and that made every ugly free throw or bad game a big story here. He is not exactly lighting the world on fire with the Magic, averaging under 12 points per game, but when he turns in a clunker, he's allowed to go about his business in peace.

The better question: when they traded him, should they have prioritized getting Terrence Ross and lesser draft compensation vs. Jonathon Simmons and a first-round pick that may not convey? If that was indeed an option, as has been reported, hell yeah.

With no moves, I think it would be hard for Scott to totally lose his place in the rotation. Let's assume the group shrinks to eight, maybe nine guys once the playoffs begin. The only guys who are no doubt rotation players, at least based on how Brown has coached it so far, are the starters plus Thybulle. James Ennis has been bounced from the rotation lately with Furkan Korkmaz getting the bench wing minutes along with Thybulle, and neither backup point guard has solidified their place in the rotation yet. 

Mike Scott is the only guy who seems to be immune to being removed from the rotation altogether, in spite of the fact that he has arguably been the worst player in that group. I would take issue with the suggestion they don't have a backup four, because I think they have several wings who can comfortably slide into that spot if necessary. In fact, Tobias Harris' best position could honestly be at power forward, and I wouldn't mind seeing him play more minutes there.

If I were a betting man, I don't think Scott is here post-deadline, so perhaps a moot point.

Increased spacing makes a difference for sure, though I think it's significant that Simmons is still fading in the second halves of games like he does when Embiid is available to play. Simmons has always been a first-half player on offense, and with increased touches available without Embiid, I think it makes sense that he has had some excellent spurts in recent games.

There are certainly some looks the Sixers have to use involving Simmons when Embiid comes back. They've tried a lot of snug pick-and-roll along the baseline involving those two this season, and though I am not in favor of Embiid just camping out on the three-point line, I think they need to consider trying to get Embiid to the corner more. He only had 10 corner attempts all of last season, and that might be a way to improve Embiid's effectiveness from deep and create some space for Simmons simultaneously (though the drawback is he's in a worse position to get back on defense if there's a miss).

On top of all of this, they have to continue leaning into Simmons as a screener, which means that Embiid has to keep mentally engaged if he's asked to be a decoy for stretches while the Richardson-Simmons combo goes to work in pick-and-roll. Everyone has to make sacrifices for this to work.

I am not especially worried about the Sixers beating any of the teams jostling for the 2-6 spots in a series. Though they have had struggles with all of them at times, sans Boston, ultimately I think the Sixers would be able to find a way in the end. Toronto is probably the only exception to that rule because of Marc Gasol's ability to take Embiid out of games, and I think they have become extremely underrated in this playoff race. They are in the thick of it despite losing basically every key member of the rotation for stretches of this season.

But I think it is absolutely imperative for the Sixers to get the three seed or better. Having to play Milwaukee in the second round would be an absolute nightmare, and though they're probably going to have to beat them regardless if they want to come out of the East, the longer you can delay that matchup and develop/find your footing as a group, the better. The Bucks know what they want to do and how they're going to do it, and I don't think you can say that for Philly yet, to say the least.

I don't think the first two are particularly egregious with additional context. I was convinced of Fultz's future star power pre-draft after watching him play a ton at UW, and while I heard all sorts of negatives about Butler from people inside and outside the Sixers before they traded for him, it was a worthwhile swing on a marriage that didn't work out.

The only move I think you could say looked fishy both in real-time and in hindsight was paying a fortune to get Harris, because I don't know who was coming close to that bid if the Sixers, for example, simply refused to deal Landry Shamet as part of that trade. The Clippers were clearly gearing up to make a run at Kawhi Leonard and didn't really even try to hide it, and in their eagerness to bring in one more big piece, the Sixers allowed themselves to get shaken down.

TBD on the contract they gave him, but Harris has been pretty good this year, all things considered.

I don't know that I buy into this idea, frankly, though I know it has grown into a pretty popular talking point recently. It also depends on what sort of things you're willing to give them credit for, and the amount of responsibility you put on the teams themselves for skill development.

Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell, and Jerami Grant are some examples of guys I would point to as obvious success stories, with the latter more of an unsung success because Bryan Colangelo traded him right as he was in the process of ascending. Do the Sixers get credit for Landry Shamet being better during his rookie year than he has been in L.A. this season after returning from injury? What was their role (if any, because Brown didn't like going to him once they got good) for Richaun Holmes' development from his rookie year until now?

As it pertains to Embiid and Simmons, does everyone just think they were destined to be as good as they are now just by showing up? Embiid was great at Kansas, but the idea that a kid with minimal basketball experience rolled out of two years of rehab and was immediately one of the best players in the NBA without any sort of assistance from the staff in Philly seems delusional. Their stagnation is a product of a bunch of factors, including the difficulty of reaching the very top tier of NBA stardom when you are already high in the player hierarchy.

If we focus on this season, I think people take Matisse Thybulle's performance/development for granted because he was a four-year player in college. It doesn't mean they haven't put in work with him to improve because he didn't come to the league with a broken shot. People crushed Brown for a brief benching in the fall to give him a chance to see things from the sideline, but the team worked with Thybulle to improve his shot selection and recognize which shots are and aren't in his wheelhouse, and they have him making threes at an elite clip on low volume, adding on to the defensive package they knew they were getting when they acquired him.

It has also been underrated how beserk the circumstances have been in Philadelphia over the last few years. Their first playoff year was an almost completely unexpected 50-win season during a year many expected them to miss the playoffs, and the time since has been downright insane, with a disgraced GM scandal, multiple team-altering moves, and bigger expectations complicating the development picture.

Are they as good at bringing talent along as say, the Raptors? No. But the Raptors have had an elite GM with the stability to build a team in his vision over the last seven years, while the Sixers have been a three-ring circus. A lot of the teams with the best developmental track records have the benefit of entrenched, respected management. You reap what you sow.

Before I finish with a real question, I just want to point out that if you think media members are biased because they have to spend hours of a day that would otherwise be summer vacation talking with the head coach of the team they cover, you are not a very smart person and your opinions do not deserve to be taken seriously, on coaching or on basically any other subject.

It is the price of expectations and the cost of having two players as talented and as well-known as Simmons and Embiid.

Yes, the all-in push has made a difference, but when you are deemed one of the next big things in sports, there are only two paths — winning championships or coming up short. I try to cover this team on less binary terms than that, but I do not blame people, especially fans, for expecting more from this team than they are being offered at the moment.

People constantly live in fear of missed opportunities, whether it's in their own lives or with the teams they agonize over. In many ways, it is a more peaceful existence to root for a bad or mediocre team, because there's never the tease of aspiring for something more. When a year goes by without Embiid winning something, the fear will grow that the best player they've had in two decades will pass through Philly without accomplishing what people believe he's capable of.

I will never fault anyone for setting high expectations for things they are passionate about. I would just gently remind the readers we can treat each other well and agree or disagree on the particulars without turning on one another when times are tough. We're all in this together, after all.

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