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September 22, 2019

Can a Joel Embiid, Al Horford frontcourt succeed in modern NBA?

The logic behind Philadelphia's offseason maneuvering is pretty easy to see even if you're just a casual Sixers fan. By picking up Josh Richardson in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade and inking Al Horford to a lucrative deal, the Sixers went all-in on building a defense and a plan to keep Joel Embiid healthy for the postseason. There were worse bets to make than that.

But a big plank of that strategy rests on a pairing that sounds like a better fit in the late 90's than it may be in 2019. The partnership between Embiid and Horford doesn't have to play large stretches of the game together, but when it's winning time, the expectation is for all of the Sixers' big-money players to be on the floor together.

Today, we take a look at how that might work, where it might be problematic, and how much it ultimately matters.

Horford's recent power forward history

When Horford entered the league way back in 2007, the league may have been different than it is now but the view of what position he would play in the NBA was still not up for debate. He was predominantly a center then, and he is predominantly a center now.

There are only two seasons in Horford's career where his splits between power forward and center have even been remotely close — the 2010-11 season in Atlanta (34 percent PF/66 percent C) and the 2017-18 season in Boston (43 percent PF/57 percent C). On the surface, this is what makes a Horford acquisition puzzling for the Sixers. As Horford ages, the expectation should not be that he can handle playing more minutes as a forward.

Horford has been successful, however, in the shorter spurts where he has been asked to play next to a center in recent years, and he was often featured as alongside a center back in his college days while sharing a frontcourt with Joakim Noah. The most relevant of those partnerships was with former Celtics center Aron Baynes, a pairing that flashed a high ceiling and low floor depending on the circumstances.

Portion of season (2018-19)NETRTG 
Regular season (163 minutes)  +20.4
 Playoffs (48 minutes)—12.1 

Putting the blame for Boston's playoff failures on that frontcourt would be absurd, as would making sweeping conclusions about Horford's viability next to Embiid based on a small sample next to a very different (and inferior) center. 

But the opponent in those playoff minutes is important because it's the same Milwaukee Bucks the Sixers will be tasked with beating if they want to make a trip to the NBA Finals this season. What's more, the splits mirror the same problems many expect the Sixers could run into with their current group. Boston's ultra-big frontcourt was ultimately able to generate stops at a decent rate, but they were absolutely inept at scoring the basketball, scoring just 89 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs.

In these sort of setups, you lose the extra creation ability you get from playing a wing-type player a la Tobias Harris at power forward, and with Ben Simmons running the show, the Sixers were already going to run into some offensive execution problems in the playoffs regardless. Philadelphia overcoming that issue is perhaps the biggest story of the season, and we may not see it grappled with until it's too late to make changes.

One key component here — the placement of Simmons when these lineups are on the floor, and by extension, the development of his jumper. It's no secret that the Sixers have made a habit of sticking Simmons in the "dunker's spot" on offense, and in a lot of the most successful plays involving Horford and Baynes in Boston, it was the center who was setting up shop there or at the very least looking to cut into that space when pressure tilted toward Horford.

The Celtics had some questionable shooters in their lineups, but none who were utilized quite like Simmons has been. 
The counterpoint is that it's rare we see a "double center" lineup with the sort of skills Horford and Embiid have. Embiid doesn't need to be spoon fed wide-open dunks at the rim or just sit in the dunker's spot to benefit from Horford's presence on the floor.

The Sixers' success with "ultra big" lineups 

Oddly enough, playing a defensive-oriented big man next to Embiid has been an under-explored concept during his time in Philly. Despite the logjam of bigs the Sixers had at one point, it was the worst defender of the bunch, Jahlil Okafor, who received the biggest opportunity next to Philly's franchise center. The likes of Richaun Holmes, Nerlens Noel, and even Jonah Bolden have been pushed aside for more one-dimensional shooters a la Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala.

This was to the chagrin of a lot of fans, who saw promise in some of these ultra big groups. The numbers tend to agree:

 Frontcourt pairingsNETRTG 
 Embiid/Noel, 16/17 (14 possessions)  +28.6
 Embiid/Holmes, 17/18 (188 possessions) +21.9 
 Embiid/Bolden, 18/19 (311 possessions) +14.5

In isolation, low-minute lineups winning with Embiid on the floor in regular-season minutes are not a big deal, and none of these samples control for opponent or game situation. I am also dubious of those numbers holding up in bigger samples, and prioritizing shooting next to a post-up center is defensible. That said, there is at least a positive trend, and this is the same team that gave up a draft pick for the privilege of tying some of Embiid's minutes to a Trevor Booker-sized anchor.

In theory, you get some of the best of both big-man worlds by playing Horford in that spot. The group shown in chart form above has a lot of spring in its legs, but Horford has the smarts to be in a position to make plays without having to risk jumping into the third row to make up for a bad rotation. Horford may not be a pure shooter like an Ilyasova, but he's also a much more versatile player on both ends of the floor, so you get the benefit of floor spacing without taking a hit on the other end.

With all due respect to the players listed above, Horford is in another stratosphere on both ends of the floor. Combination play like this...

...should be a heck of a lot easier to replicate on a consistent basis with Horford in Holmes' place.

How much sway will this pairing actually have?

While it's too early to tell what the minutes distribution will look like for the Sixers, we do know what Brown's rotations have looked like historically. As long as the substitution patterns don't change dramatically this season, it feels safe to say the Sixers will get about eight minutes of the Embiid/Horford pairing per half: roughly four minutes at the start of first/third quarters and four minutes the end of second/fourth quarters.

People have latched onto that number making the case that this duo's chemistry won't make or break the team, but I would argue the opposite. Though they may only get four-minute bursts together, they will play roughly a third of the game together when it's all said and done. It seems dangerous to shrug that off when there are so many questions about the 32 minutes in between, from the young guys who will need to prove themselves in the rotation to the void of shot creators on the team, topics we'll discuss elsewhere this week.

Critically, because of how Embiid and Horford will have to be rotated to give them each ample time at center in more traditional lineups, you'd expect every single one of those ultra-big minutes to come with Ben Simmons on the floor. This will minimize the time they'll get with three floor spacers around them and, as mentioned up top, complicate their positioning on sets involving the two bigs.

Between the talent and intelligence of Embiid and Horford, it's a combination I could see being ultra-successful in the regular season, and Horford's signing comes with subtext as well. Embiid will be expected to rest fairly often throughout the season, and there's no doubt they'll give the elder big nights off as well, allowing Kyle O'Quinn a chance to play primary backup to Embiid on those nights.

But this is not a small hurdle for the Sixers to overcome, not unless they're prepared to bench a member of their decorated, well-paid starting five in crunch time if it turns out the fit isn't as clean as they need it to be. The Sixers are betting big on pushing back against the league's current, and it will be fascinating to see whether or not it pays off.

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