Philadelphia 76ers: The ripple effects of Al Horford’s demotion

Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers are shuffling the deck.

The Philadelphia 76ers fanbase spent weeks — heck, months — clamoring for Al Horford to come off the bench. On Tuesday night, in the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break, it finally happened. The early results were positive.

Horford scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds in 27 minutes. He didn’t share the court with Joel Embiid until the third quarter, and he didn’t share the court with the core four starters until the final frame. It was a drastic shift in Brett Brown’s rotation, but a helpful one.

After the game, Brown said his initial motivation for the change was the Clippers’ small-ball potential. He then went on to detail a “high-level adult conversation” with Horford, in which Horford accepted the role change and the possibility of a “win-win”.

This is not officially a permanent move, but it should be. Even if it doesn’t solve every issue, it gives the starters more time at positions of strength. Tobias Harris is infinitely more comfortable at the four, while Horford’s absence leaves the paint less clogged for Embiid and Ben Simmons.

It also gives Horford more time at a position of strength. He clogs the paint for Simmons and Embiid, but the inverse is also true. When Horford is given the opportunity to post-up, work the elbows, and play a more facilitative role on offense, his specialness will shine through more regularly.

He was also genuinely good on defense in Tuesday night’s win. He looked spry on the perimeter, he hounded Montrezl Harrell inside, and his demeanor seemed to change for the better. It was an energetic performance all-around from Horford. He didn’t get demoted and sulk around — he picked it up.

It’s too early for definitive statements on the change. Philadelphia still needs to play Horford next to Embiid and Simmons from time to time. The Sixers, I’m sure, still view Horford as integral to a potential Milwaukee Bucks matchup in the playoffs.

The Sixers are paying Horford somewhere between $97 million and $109 million over a four-year span. There is not an ideal way to frame a move to the bench. Even if it helps the team, it signifies a gross misuse of resources, and it irreparably damages Horford’s trade value. The Sixers should (and will) explore Horford trades at some point, but diminishing returns are inevitable. He will not field a significant return package.

This is not good. It is not a positive. It is simply a move Brett Brown had to make. This is a pivotal season not only for the Sixers, but for Brown. He needed to shuffle the deck at some point, as his job may very well depend on it.

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Horford’s new role will give him more room the breath. It will also boost the second unit — he’s still Al Horford, no matter how you slice it. He’s old, he’s past his prime, and the fit is garbage, but he’s still Al Horford.

On the flip side, Tuesday marked the best performance from Embiid and Simmons as a duo this season. Embiid consistently carved out deep post position, and Simmons rewarded him. Simmons was aggressive, and found nice rhythm in the Embiid two-man game.

The Sixers need to ride out the Horford move. It benefits everyone involved, save for the front office, who looks bad. There’s no way around the criticism for Elton Brand and Co. — signing a second center to a $25 million per year contract was a massively poor decision. It’s a shame so much of the blame will fall on Brett Brown if the Sixers stumble in the postseason.

This is a pivotal change in every sense. It could turn the Sixers’ season around. It could also mark the beginning of the end for Horford, for Brett Brown, and for the Embiid-Simmons core. Horford was billed as the savior. A two-way locksmith who would open new doors for Philadelphia. In hindsight, Horford was never a savior. But the media and front office may treat it as such, and use Horford’s struggles to justify sweeping changes. The ripple effects of a poor decision could extend further than most fans are comfortable with.

Next: Did Brand fleece the Clippers, Celtics?

Enjoy the All-Star break.

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