Ever since Elton Brand inked the former Celtic to that $109 million contract, Sixers fans have been collectively confused as to what Al Horford’s role on the team was supposed to be.
Is he the most expensive backup center in world history? Is he supposed to transition into a floor-spacing power forward? Is he simply one giant insurance policy should Joel Embiid get injured?
Regardless of what the thought process behind the signing was, the Sixers were trying to jam a square peg into a round hole when it came to inserting Horford into the starting lineup. While the Embiid-Horford-Simmons trio had some success early on in 2019, by about the season’s midway point and trade rumors surrounding the 5x All-Star were hitting a premium.
The fit was disastrous, to say the least. Horford was posting career-lows or near career-lows in pretty much every single major statistical category, and the Sixers net rating plummeted when he shared the court with the usually dominant Simmons-Embiid duo.
Brett Brown experimented with moving Horford to the bench at times, but primarily due to injuries to both Simmons and Embiid, Horford never left the starting five for more than a few games at a time. Heading into the Orlando bubble, Horford has started in 57 of the team’s 60 games. He’s actually played the third-most minutes on the roster, only trailing Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons.
However, with the NBA season set to return in a matter of days, it looks like Brown has finally pulled the plug on the Horford experiment. Former G-League standout Shake Milton should be entering the starting five as the team’s primary ball-handler, and Horford will slot in as the first big off the bench.
While some (probably most) may view this as a disastrous result, (primarily due to the fact that the organization is essentially admitting the Horford signing was a mistake) I’ve decided to look at it in a different light. It’s hard to imagine Horford has much of a long term future in Philadelphia after this season, and this gives him one final chance to fall in favor with the Sixers faithful.
Being a “starter” comes with expectations, and being a starter in Philadelphia of all cities comes with near unachievable expectations. Fans still regularly trash Simmons and Embiid despite them each making the All-Star game this year.
By moving to the bench, expectations will consequently lower for Horford, allowing him to slide into a more natural role. He can run the bench unit, get back to being a vocal leader, pass and rebound at elite levels, and overall focus on being a good teammate. It was traits like these that led to him being so beloved in Atlanta and Boston.
Despite being a highly decorated player, Horford has never once been a “superstar” during his career. The Sixers expecting him to drop 20+ via corner threes was always a bit of a foolish concept to begin with. Horford has always made his money by doing the “dirty work”. He plays smart, defends hard, and always makes the selfless play.
It’s important to note however, that Horford hasn’t been a perfect teammate in Philly like he has been in the past. He’s flashed hints of disgruntlement in the locker room, and of course shushed the Wells Fargo Center after knocking down a wide open midrange jumper. Horford has long been praised for being a “pro’s pro”, but even the best of us can get frustrated with the idea of being “benched”.
Horford’s new role with the Sixers is really going to test his ability, leadership, and most importantly his character. If he can come off the bench in Orlando and give the Sixers 10-20 minutes of solid backup play a night, Sixers fans may finally start to warm up to him.
Now of course Brett Brown could be playing us all, and simply planning to use Horford as a power forward again. For that, we’ll simply have to wait and see.
Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports