Philadelphia’s Al Horford Problem


Al Horford was always a problem for the 76ers.  In the 2017-18 playoffs, he played a critical defensive role against Joel Embiid as the Celtics would go on to win the second-round playoff series over the Sixers in five games.  He was perhaps the man most capable of doing so.  Fast forward to today, and you can find Al Horford now on the same team as Embiid.  After signing a four-year, $109 million contract with the 76ers, Horford was supposed to help Philadelphia bully-ball its way to NBA Championship contention.  Instead, they find themselves 6th in the Eastern Conference at 39-26 and in danger of a first-round playoff exit.  Horford is having one of his worst seasons as a pro.  Despite now being with them, he is still a problem for the Sixers. What happened?

Horford the Floor Spacer?

The biggest problem that has arisen with the signing of Al Horford is the overall construction.  Joel Embiid has to start at center, which also is Horford’s strongest position.  The fit has been clunky at best.  Horford is at his best when he can set a pick in the pick-and-roll and facilitate from the elbows.  While playing with both Ben Simmons and Embiid on the floor, he is reduced to a floor-spacing role.  In his last season in Atlanta (2015-16), Horford attempted over three 3s per game.  This season, Horford has shot 33.7% from beyond the arc, his lowest 3P% over that span.  Before it seemed that the former Celtic hit every open shot against the Sixers.  Now, Horford is experiencing a slight dip in his three-point accuracy.

Even worse, he is posting his third-lowest scoring average (12.0 PPG), and third-lowest rebounding percentage (11.0 REB%) of his career.  However, the offense runs much more smoothly when one of Horford or Embiid is off the floor.  When both big men are on the floor together, the 76ers have a Net Rating of -1.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Stats. With Horford on and Embiid off, the Sixers outscore their opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions.  With the starting lineup healthy, Brett Brown would always have two of the starters share the floor.  Together, Simmons and Horford posted an offensive rating of 108.3.  While on the floor without Embiid, they push the pace effectively and get out on the break quickly.

Defensive Issues

One of the areas that needed to be addressed last season was the backup center position.  In last year’s seven-game playoff series with Toronto, the Sixers hemorrhaged points without Embiid on the floor to protect the rim.  An investment in Horford was an investment in tightening up defensively without one of the best rim protectors in the league.  This strategy does not seem to have worked as well as Elton Brand hoped.  It seems age has caught up to Al this season defensively.  He has struggled to limit opponents’ opportunities in the restricted area and to keep in front of opposing wing players on switches.

While the offense scores at a higher pace with one of the big men off the floor, the 76ers defense also improves with Joel on the court and Horford off.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when Horford is on the floor without Embiid.  Philadelphia allows opponents to score 106.7 points per 100 possessions with Horford in and Embiid out.  While that is not a terrible defensive rating, much more was expected from a player who was one of the league’s best defensive big men as recently as last season.  Rebounding is also a key competent of a strong defense.  Al’s defensive rebounding percentage hardly improves without Embiid as well.  When they share the floor, Horford gathers 14.3% of all defensive boards.  The “marquee” signing increases that to 18.3% with the Cameroonian resting (for context, Joel grabs over 27% of defensive rebounds).

Will Horford Stick Around?

While I have been tough on Horford’s performance this year, at least the Sixers are not completely unraveled without Embiid on the floor anymore.  Al has had his moments this season, including a noteworthy performance without Embiid against his former team in January.

However, there are too many performances that leave you scratching your head.

His poor performance has even lead to his benching by Brett Brown.

Heading into the culmination of the season in Orlando, the Sixers will need solid contributions from Al Horford if they hope to meet their postseason aspirations.  If they fall flat, it may be best for both the Sixers and Horford to cut their losses and move on from one another, that is if the team can find a willing partner to eat the remaining three years on Horford’s deal.

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About Tim Andrews

Big Basketball Fan. Follow me on Twitter @TimAndrews_13. Contributing for @TLSportsMedia / @SixersLead / @TheBLAnalytics Trust the Process.

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