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February 04, 2020

Is there a path to Al Horford being a good fit for the Sixers?

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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.

For years and years, Al Horford tortured the Sixers. Offensively, he would drag Joel Embiid out to the three-point line and force him to cover ground instead of hanging near the rim and rejecting all comers. Defensively, he completely neutralized their best player, grinding Philadelphia's offense to a standstill in high-leverage moments.

Now, he's torturing them in a different way. He has failed to clear even the lowest bar of expectations as a partner to Embiid in the frontcourt, contributing to a team that has been without question the biggest disappointment in the NBA this season.

To call the Embiid/Horford pairing a disaster is to state the obvious. When Embiid and Horford share the court together, the Sixers score just 100.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that is over three points worse than Golden State's league-worst offense this season. Every concern you could have on paper has been true in practice — they want to use the same spots on the floor, their outside shooting has not been good enough, and there are possessions where each player looks like they're flailing around trying to figure out what to do. 

They are only just barely winning these minutes, just half of a point better than their opponents. This is the combination that the Sixers allegedly want to go to war with when times get tough, and the best they can muster against a league filled with mediocre and bad teams are slim victories. The evidence seems clear that it doesn't work, isn't going to work, and needs to be addressed in some way.

That begs the question: what is it going to take for Al Horford to be good in Philadelphia? The truth is, I don't know that there's a viable path here, absent major changes to suit him at the expense of other players.

Can they actually tap into his offensive strengths?

The bulk of Horford's value is going to have to come playing center. We can argue over how that happens and when. But it seems moving to the bench to start the game and focusing his energy on the position where he still has value may be best for him and the guys who start alongside him. That's harder to make happen than it sounds in practice, as a demotion has to be responded to by the guy you just committed $100+ million to in the offseason. Good teammate or not, that's an important first step.

But it's not as simple as just moving Horford to the bench. He has made quite a living as a pick-and-roll big man, hurting teams as a scorer and short-roll passer, hitting cutters and shooters from the post with a spread floor, and working the pick-and-pop game once he starts to get rolling. On a normal team, you could continue using him in that way any time Embiid is off of the floor. In my estimation, you would have to fundamentally change the rotation of the team to get that version of Horford in Philly.

Traditionally, Embiid has been the first sub out around the five-six minute mark, joined this season by Josh Richardson, who has helped him carry bench-heavy units. That has left the initial bench minutes to the Simmons-Harris-Horford triumvirate, the idea being that Philadelphia would play a pace-and-space game with Simmons leading the way. Whether you're bumping him from the starting lineup or not, Horford is stepping into that backup center role whenever Embiid comes off of the floor.

But the Sixers have begun the process of looking for a way to get Simmons involved more as a screener in pick-and-rolls, a task that is much easier with Embiid off of the floor and not looking to post-up. Utilizing Simmons as a screener and roller means taking Horford out of the offensive role that suits him best, relegating him to the same floor-spacing role in bench lineups that he plays (and has underwhelmed in) as part of the current starting lineup. This is part of why the Sixers' team offense continued to suck as Simmons took off individually with Embiid on the shelf.

With this in mind, there appear to be two realistic paths to leaning into Horford as a pick-and-roll player:

  1. Abandoning or at least slowing the development of Simmons as a screener in their offense. Simmons either then has to go back to the dunker's spot, space the floor (lol good luck), or be the guy handling the ball in more pick-and-rolls and handoffs with Horford. That final option comes with its own set of problems, namely that teams can go under every screen and wall off the paint against Simmons, limiting the damage he and Horford can do going toward the basket. It works situationally, but certainly not as a bread-and-butter play.
  2. Changing the substitution patterns so that Horford is an offensive focal point on the second unit. Essentially, this would mean tying Embiid and Simmons' minutes together and putting Horford in a situation where he's flanked by Richardson and Harris as a means to increase his usage in pick-and-roll and give the Sixers lineups that have four-out, potentially five-out looks.

The second point would be a major shake-up, with ripple effects all over the place. You can untangle Horford's minutes from Simmons by pulling Simmons at the five-minute mark with Embiid, but that means your first sub-pattern takes off your two best players at the same time, resigning yourself to playing your two best players at once or not at all, which is a horrible way to structure a rotation.

In order to put this setup together, you also have to increase the minutes together for Embiid and Simmons, who have documented fit issues the team has tried to dance around to this point. Rather than letting their respective offense strengths shine in time apart, you would be forcing them to make it work together so that Horford could hit Tobias Harris with cross-court passes out of the post.

Perhaps you could view this as a good thing, an expedition of growth Simmons and Embiid need together. If the Sixers are going to be a championship team built around these two, they need to find a way to play together and make each other better, not to simply exist on the same team at the same time. Whether that's realistic with the current states of their games is another story entirely.

But from my view, those are giant red flags with the cost of getting the best out of Horford. He is not a good enough basketball player to warrant force-feeding more minutes for a young duo that needs time apart to truly shine. He is not good enough to alter the entire rotation in order to get the most out of him on offense. If he was, a division rival would not have let him walk right out the door, taking away one of their biggest matchup advantages against Philadelphia's best player.

You could argue that they could do these in small doses without tinkering with the rotation at all, and there's merit to that suggestion. But then the second unit devolves into a game of "your turn, my turn" in the same manner that the failing starting lineup already has. Is there a way for the team to flow organically if they have to worry about where Simmons is every time they want to use Horford as a roller? 

Part of the reason you get a big like Horford in the first place is to uncomplicate things for Simmons, opening up the paint for him. If the Sixers have to shy away from the continued development of their max contract, former No. 1 overall pick in service of a veteran role player, you have already sort of admitted the experiment has failed.

(This is, by the way, part of the toll you pay for trying to play around the holes in Simmons' game to take advantage of his strengths. If the Sixers had a dead average guard in Simmons' place, they would almost certainly be a worse team. But it's also true they would find it much easier to play out of looks that suited someone like Horford without completely nuking their rotations and lineup combinations.)

Defensively, the Sixers are in a much better spot with Horford. He may not be the elite guy he was for years, and the Sixers might have to adjust their scheme to better suit his talent, but he is still capable of being a high-level defender on the back end, especially when you're asking him to play a role that suits him rather than one where his strengths are neutralized. 

Okay Kyle, so what do they do?

You mean aside from getting better players, or building a time machine to go back in time and not sign Horford in the first place? I'm not too sure.

Let's assume the Sixers aren't going to totally reassemble the rotation to get the most out of Horford on offense. I'm not even convinced that moving him to the bench is this big save for the team that people might think it is, because the two most realistic options to step in for Horford in the starting lineup are Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz, and both come with concerns.

Thybulle is the fan-favorite but is still green around the gills, as we have seen throughout a roller-coaster rookie year. There are games when he's giving LeBron James fits, and there are games where Jaylen Brown is sending him to the fifth dimension with hesitation moves. He looks like a great shooter at home and a professional bricklayer on the road — Thybulle shoots over 49 percent from three at the Wells Fargo Center and a shade under 26 percent everywhere else. Without improvement to his handle or consistency as a shooter, his viability will hinge on his shooting.

Korkmaz has taken a giant leap forward offensively this season, and perhaps you could argue that his weaknesses on defense could be hidden amongst the other four starters. He grasps team concepts and competes, and that matters. But teams will continue to hunt him anyway, and will most likely be rewarded for doing so over time. Opinions will vary, but I don't think he's bringing enough of the creation ability you'd want to add to the lineup if you're taking Horford out of it. 

The hypothetical fifth starter would appear to be someone who is not on this roster. Philadelphia's trade chips are not all that appealing at the moment; Mike Scott on the mid-level is just a salary ballast, and nobody is banging down Philly's door for Zhaire Smith, who is still fairly aimless in year two. Trading for a starting-caliber player or even a high-level bench guy who would masquerade as a starter seems pretty impossible, absent a move involving one of their major pieces.

When you ask around the league, the word is the same as it has been locally. The Sixers have been telling people they're not after another big shake-up and are looking at fringe moves, smaller upgrades that might help them tie things together. It's the right stance to take publicly, and perhaps that will be rewarded at some point down the road — Horford tends to save some juice in his legs for the stretch run, taking his game to another level in the playoffs. It's just hard to believe this team will hit mid-April and turn into Voltron, Defender of the Universe.

The other four members of the starting lineup can accommodate a pretty wide variety of players. Embiid is set in stone at the five, but Simmons is versatile as they come on defense, Richardson matches up well with quick guards and most wings, and Harris has proven he can defend wings on a more full-time basis this year (within reason). Drop in somebody who can give them some more offensive juice, and maybe they can really cook. What they can't seem to accommodate is another center within that group, which probably should have been obvious from the beginning. 

I tend to believe if you dropped Horford into another situation with less structural clunkiness, the strengths that made him a coveted player would probably shine through again. But he is part of the clunkiness himself in Philadelphia. Odds are he will be a Sixers player after the 3 p.m. buzzer sounds on Thursday afternoon. I just wonder if that's a marriage that has a reasonable chance to work out well for anyone.

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