After last season’s heartbreaking loss to the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, the Sixers began the offseason search for a guy that can push them over the edge. This search led them to dishing out a 4-year $109 million dollar to former Celtics big man Al Horford. With the motto of “Run it Back” not quite coming to fruition as Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach after a turbulent half of season here in Philly, it was clear that the Sixers had to make a move. Tobias Harris returned and Horford joined him, with the team planning to play a model of “smashmouth offense and bully ball defense,” according to Brett Brown.
The massive lineup featuring Josh Richardson as the smallest starter at 6’6 looked great on paper, but as we saw throughout the season, it was not as successful as was imagined. The oversized Sixers looked crammed on the court and struggled to find a rhythm with each other. The biggest misfit for the team has clearly been the 6’9 elephant in the room: Al Horford.
To start with, the logic of the signing still makes sense. In last year’s playoffs, there was no legitimate backup to Embiid and were exposed to this whenever Joel stepped off the floor. In the Raptors series, this was especially evident as the Sixers were Plus 90 in the series with Embiid on the court and minus 111 when he was on the bench. If they had a legitimate backup Center to cut into this deficit, the Sixers would very likely have advanced in that series and who knows what would have happened from there. Regardless, it was clear that having a strong #2 center was at the top of the priority list for the upcoming offseason.
In addition to fitting a need in this regard, the Sixers have been quite familiar with Al Horford throughout his time in Boston. When you think back to guys that have done the best job defending Embiid, big Al is right at the forefront of that list. By adding Horford it weakened the Celtics who are a team that we inevitably have to get through on our path in the playoffs. Beyond this, Horford is a great locker room guy by all accounts and it was hoped that he would be able to provide veteran leadership that could be so valuable to a young Sixers team. Coming off the heels of Jimmy Butler’s in-your-face style of leadership, Big Al was a pleasant change of tune for a guy to take the reigns in steering the locker room.
But while this seemed like a great move in theory, it is tough to debate that the team has not regressed since last year. Embiid is at his best when he can act as an anchor on defense and go to work in the post on the offensive end. There was much talk about Horford’s ability as a jump shooter, but he is shooting a career-low in FG% and well below his career average from the 3 point land. With Embiid operating mainly in the paint area, it has forced Horford to float farther outside and he is averaging 4.4 3-point attempts per game which is a career-high for him. To put this into perspective, Tobias Harris led the Sixers in 3 point attempts per game with 4.97. Horford is a very solid player but him turning into a guy that is simply a catch-and-shooter is not nearly the way to get the best out of him.
With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons clearly being the faces of the franchise, it is essential that we find guys that fit around them. In addition to the problems coexisting with Embiid, Ben Simmons may be the guy who has been negatively impacted the most from the signing. Ben is at his best when he has space to drive and with shooters around him. Having both Embiid and Horford to take up space limits Ben’s ability to do this and plays into what the best defense of him is. The Sixers’ front office has done an extremely poor job of surrounding Simmons with the right players and Horford is a clear example of this.
Now the issue lies in where we go from here. Al is still under contract for another 3 years after the remainder of this season is hopefully played out. While we have all seen the mock trades, the reality is there will not be much of a market for Horford. Coming off one of the worst seasons of his career at the age of 34, with a massive contract to come along with him, he will not exactly be labeled a “must-have” by other NBA teams. If the Sixers are able to swing a deal for a solid perimeter player that can help spread the floor, it is a no-brainer, but Elton Brand will have to do some real magic to make the money line up for a trade to occur.
So assuming that is not an option, the Sixers must toss down what is no doubt a tough pill to swallow and make Horford the highest-paid backup of all time. We saw Al go to the bench at the tail end of the season and this decision makes a lot of sense. Tobias Harris looks most comfortable at the 4, and by playing him there it will allow for much better spacing to occur. Simmons has the ability to guard positions 1-5 better than anyone in the league, so we shouldn’t worry about mismatches favoring opposing teams. With Simmons at the point and Harris and Embiid down low, the Sixers can now plug in any combination of guys like Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Josh Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz, or a free agent addition this offseason.
While we have pretty much seen the worst of Al Horford this season, he still could bring value to the team. By limiting his minutes and plugging him in when Embiid is on the bench, it will allow Al to play his more natural Center position and leave it all on the court for the minutes he will get. Being put in the rotation for 20-25 minutes per game will still allow for Al to help the team in a major way. While he isn’t getting any younger, we should expect him to look more like the Al Horford we thought we would get as he gets more comfortable in his role. The marriage between Horford and the Sixers has not been what anyone imagined but with divorce not looking like a realistic option, the team must make the most of the situation they are in.
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