Philadelphia 76ers: In defense of Al Horford

Philadelphia 76ers, Al Horford (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers, Al Horford (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers’ Al Horford experiment isn’t dead — yet.

The unfailing accuracy of hindsight is too often abused by the NBA media. Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers’ signing of Al Horford was an abject failure. And, in hindsight, it made very little sense on paper. It was doomed to fail from the very get.

And yet, despite no provocation or personal bias in Horford’s favor, I feel obligated to step up in defense of Horford, who has been the object of extensive criticism all season. He’s everyone’s least favorite Sixer — a former enemy of the state who has somehow worsened his reputation since leaving Boston for the greener pastures of South Philly.

Before the season was suspended on March 11, Horford averaged 12.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. He started in 57 of 60 appearances, averaged 30.8 minutes on the floor, and spent minutes at both center and power forward.

As the Sixers prepare to play more games in Orlando, Horford is officially a member of the second unit — the Sixers’ sixth man. Philadelphia will instead start Shake Milton, a budding point guard who can space the floor, initiate sets, and help modernize a stale Philadelphia offense.

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That’s all good and well. The Sixers should start Shake — he’s earned it, and the Horford at power forward experiment has bombed. A big fat F on the front office’s report card. The most egregious mistake of Elton Brand’s short tenure as Sixers GM.

However, despite Horford’s struggles and his lack of a clear role in Philadelphia’s future (both immediate and long-term), he deserves some credit. Or at the very least, some slack.

Horford is a center, and while he has successfully shared the floor with other centers in the past, his skill set has always been best utilized at the five. When you factor in Philadelphia’s spatially-challenged core, it becomes even more difficult to effectively work Horford into the offense.

The Sixers have two stars who eat up space inside — Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Embiid is a hulking 7-footer who thrives in the post, where he commands double teams, pressures the rim, and lives at the free throw line. Simmons is a generational playmaking talent who cannot (or will not) shoot, and therefore spends inordinate amounts of time in the dunker’s spot.

Both Embiid and Simmons have a proclivity to gravitate toward the rim and inhabit each other’s space. When you add Horford to the mix — another player who occupies the same spots on the floor — it’s unfair to expect production comparable to the Boston years, where Horford was used properly as a hub of the Celtics’ offense.

Personnel forced Horford to adapt, and the only feasible adaptation was a move to the perimeter. The Sixers turned Horford into a spot-up shooter, and while Horford can shoot, he’s not a high-volume shooter. And in forcing Horford to act as a volume shooter, the Sixers caused him to speed up the release of his jumper, which has blatantly interrupted the rhythm of Horford’s unorthodox mechanics.

Horford averaged a career-high 4.4 attempts per game from deep this season, which coincided with a career-low 33.7 percent success rate (in seasons in which Horford averaged over 0.5 attempt). The Sixers asked a five-time All-Star to abandon his strengths completely while play next to stars who negate his best traits, rather than accentuate them.

How anyone expected Horford to succeed, nay thrive, in an environment designed for failure is baffling. And yet, the hype train provided transport for some of the biggest voices in NBA media. Everyone, from ESPN’s Zach Lowe to our fellow bloggers at Liberty Ballers, talked themselves into it. Many predicted title contention. We all thought it would work.

It very clearly did not, and now the Sixers are tasked with putting a positive spin on “Al Horford, $100 million sixth man.” Is there a positive spin? Not really. But is there a chance this can still work to a lesser degree than initially expected? Sure. Sure it can.

The Sixers can still squeeze value out of Horford. And I’ll go as far as to say Bleacher Report’s ranking of Horford as a top-100 player in the NBA this season is justifiable. Unexpected, but justifiable. Horford can still provide value as the Sixers resume their quest for a championship in Orlando.

B/R pointed out a few key stats in their analysis of Horford.

"“The 76ers have been minus-2.4 points per 100 possessions with Horford at the 4 and plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions with him at the 5… He has played nearly 1,000 minutes at the 5, though, and he’s looked more like his old self there. In those alignments, he’s averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions.”"

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Any right-minded individual can tell you Horford looks better at the five, and Philadelphia has pivoted away from Horford at power forward. Horford hasn’t spent a single minute next to Embiid in Orlando practices. And while that will inevitably change once games restart, Horford will operate first and foremost as Philadelphia’s backup center moving forward.

Philadelphia has simultaneously pivoted to playing Ben Simmons off the ball. Simmons will still receive some reps as the lead ball-handler, but he will spend more time as a screener and cutter when the season resumes. Next to Horford, that could have pronounced benefits.

The Sixers plan to incorporate more pick-and-rolls, where Horford is at his best. He can pop into open space, pass on the move, or finish at the rim — he’s a dynamic weapon when given room to operate in the middle of the floor.

If Simmons is cutting backdoor and moving freely around the floor, Horford should have no problem developing a productive partnership with the 23-year-old. It allows the Sixers to take greater advantage of Horford’s facilitation skills. It becomes even easier if Simmons embraces the occasional spot-up 3.

Balancing Horford’s contract and reputation with the limitations brought on by Philadelphia’s personnel is a difficult task, and one Brett Brown will eventually need to conquer. But for at least 10-12 minutes each night in the postseason, Embiid will sit. And in those minutes, the Sixers should do everything possible to lean on Horford’s strengths.

So far in Orlando, the vibes are positive. Horford, who has a history of knee tendonitis, feels his health is in “a much better place” after the hiatus. He has also expressed confidence in the Sixers figuring things out while assuming a vocal leadership role in practices. He’s someone teammates will listen to and learn from. And it’s clear he has a chip on his shoulder.

Horford has never been the loudest or the most vocal player. But he’s a player who has always operated from a pedestal of great respect, and for the first time, that respect has eroded. He’s out to earn it back, and to prove he can still contribute to a championship pursuit.

If the Sixers win a title in Orlando, it won’t be because of Horford. In fact, it will be because the Sixers overcame the clunkiness of Horford’s fit on a roster tailored to his weaknesses. But he can certainly help — greatly so — even if it’s for only 15-20 minutes a night.

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There’s a reason Horford has earned so much respect over his 13 years in the NBA. He’s one of the most intelligent and fundamentally-sound players in the league. And, above all else, he’s the consummate professional. Someone teams can rely on in big moments. The Sixers — and the Sixers fandom — can’t entirely discount him yet.