The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to have entered the offseason with a straightforward gameplan. What they had last year was good enough to win a championship — their starting five outscored opponents by 173 points, which was 26 more than any other lineup — and all they had to do in order to contend in 2020 was re-sign Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and J.J. Redick, cinch their rotation with a few shrewd free agent signings, and embrace the talent, continuity, and upside that comes from resembling a rigidly powerful sledgehammer. #RunItBack was less about fan service and more about rational thought.
That team would’ve been as imposing as inevitably expensive. From 2021 on, Philadelphia would almost certainly be in the luxury tax, tied to several contracts unlikely to be moved as positive assets. But keeping everyone together was sensible so long as Butler, Harris, and Redick agreed.
Instead, Harris became the last man standing. Butler is gone to the Miami Heat (Josh Richardson is incoming from the sign-and-trade, assuming it doesn’t collapse), Redick is now a New Orleans Pelican, and Al Horford is cannonballing his way into the frame with a shocking four-year, $109 million agreement (only $97 million is reportedly guaranteed).
The luxury tax is unavoidable for almost any team focused on a title, and assuming Ben Simmons receives a max contract extension this fall, the Sixers will dip into it in 2021 (in 2021-22, they’d have about $129 million tied up in Harris, Horford, Simmons, and Embiid before they built out the rest of their roster). But that’s less important and far less interesting than how all these new pieces fit right now.
Richardson’s skill-set is what would happen if Redick and Butler were one basketball player: an ideal, multi-faceted replacement on a team-friendly contract for the next two years. But it’s Horford who has the potential to flip their whole style.
It’s not that he doesn’t fit or can’t move their needle towards a banner, but, on one hand, positional overlap shouldn’t be ignored, especially if zero dependable shooters are added in the coming days. On the other, Horford’s game is placidly precise; so few areas of the floor make him uncomfortable, and his on and off-court “confident yoga instructor” persona won’t hurt a frenetic franchise that just lost Redick — and all the different ways he prevented Philly’s offense from rusting over. By adding Horford, the Sixers also demolished the Boston Celtics, their most frustrating roadblock.
Since Horford signed with the Celtics, only 23 players have had a more favorable plus/minus in the regular season and playoffs. Few big men are more aware of their surroundings, or able to meditate through a possession with more patience, wisdom, and dribble/pass/shoot optionality. At 33, having missed only one postseason since 2008, Horford’s most priceless qualities are convincing enough to shift an entire team’s cultural identity, let alone their tactical methodology. He’s revered by every young big around the NBA who understands what the destiny of a winning big man in 2020 looks like.
But as the NBA’s never-ending fit vs. talent debate rages on, Horford’s value in Philadelphia will be an interesting test case.
Of late, the Sixers haven’t worried about how their pieces complement one another — Simmons and Embiid essentially play the same position — and despite Horford’s ability to play power forward or center, the best role at this stage in his career is as a stretch center surrounded by shooters who let him operate (be it from the elbows, pick-and-roll, or post-ups) without help defenders getting in the way.
That will most definitely not be the case in Philadelphia, where Simmons can’t shoot and Embiid logged 126 post-up possessions over the past two postseasons (which led the league). Embiid did less work with his back to the basket last year, but figuring out how to balance him and Horford in Brett Brown’s system could be a challenge.
Still there are fun, basic answers right off the bat, particularly with Richardson handling the ball. Horford likes to massage the game as a passer on the move, facing a defense that’s rotating and vulnerable. He’ll set a screen, turn himself into a release valve, then quickly survey the floor to see who’s either already open or about to be once he puts the ball on the floor. In the play below, sub Richardson in for Jayson Tatum and Embiid for Aron Baynes. That sequence would be scary enough to change championship odds in Las Vegas.
Horford is one of those players who lets a coaching staff pad their playbook. He can initiate from the top of the key, slingshot teammates towards the basket off a dribble handoff, generate gravitational pull with a screen on the weakside, and draw two defenders in multiple situations, be it on a deep post-up, short roll, or pick-and-pop. (Don’t be shocked if Horford moonlights as the ball-handler with Embiid or even Simmons setting a pick.)
He’s doesn’t need the ball in his hands to impact the game and will go out of his way to fall in line so everyone else is able to identify their optimal frequency. Shots and touches don’t matter.
Defensively, Horford opens new doors for a Sixers team that’s struggled to defend without Embiid on the floor over the past two seasons.
Horford’s 7’1 wingspan is rarely at ease. His arms are always up, whirling, pointing, reaching, poking; obstructing half-court offense with the routine of a formidable mini-golf course. He’ll be the third best defender on his own team for probably the first time in his entire life. That means Philadelphia’s defense should be the NBA’s best, depending on how confrontational the medical staff is with Embiid’s weekly activity. But if Horford can close with Embiid, then dare the opponent to downsize, Horford, Simmons, Embiid, Richardson, and Harris will be a five-man mastodon no team can physically deal with.
One of the most glaring issues with the decision to bring him aboard is Father Time: Nobody knows how much longer this will last. Horford is 55 minutes away from 30,000 for his career, and only ten players have logged more playing time since his rookie year.
There are serious miles on those legs, and it should tell Philadelphia something that Boston — a franchise that knows his physical limitations better than any other — had a monetary line it wasn’t willing to cross. Horford was the Celtics over the past three years, a walking mismatch who could force Giannis Antetokounmpo and Embiid to grind through possessions they grew accustomed to obliterating. Maybe Boston simply misread the market, but their unwillingness to treat him as a true priority speaks volumes.
Then again, Philly and Boston no longer share the same timeline, and any team that truly believes it can win a championship in 2020 should sign whoever they believe can drag them to the top, then worry about financial constraints at a later date. With Embiid’s health placing everything in the here and now, Horford’s most significant value may be during the regular season, whenever the Sixers don’t feel like getting blown out because Embiid needs to take the night off. If Philly’s rotation ensures either he or Horford will be on the floor at all times, that’s an absolute bear for opponents to deal with. And Philadelphia’s young support cast will appreciate playing alongside a big who lifts everyone else up instead of the other way around.
At present time, however, the elephant in the room is three-point shooting. Richardson nailed 43.2 percent of his wide-open threes last season, Harris is more than competent, Horford can stroke it, Embiid isn’t shy, and there’s a decent chance Mike Scott will see quite a bit of time as Philly’s backup stretch four, but this team is still deprived of spacing. There’s plenty of time to plug that hole, or even find it somewhere on a roster currently filled with question marks like Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle. It’s too early to venture too far down that rabbit hole, but it will eventually need to be addressed in some form or another.
Right now, all we know is Horford will change Philadelphia’s approach. He isn’t better than Butler, and time will tell if his passivity allows Simmons and Embiid to blossom or accelerate their breakup. But at the same time, for at least one or two more years, the Sixers are a true contender that will propose questions most teams won’t be able to answer.