MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – FEBRUARY 06: Al Horford #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball … [+]
When the Philadelphia 76ers signed Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million contract this past offseason, they envisioned having a smashmouth offense and bully-ball defense.
Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, only half of that had come to fruition.
The Sixers entered Tuesday tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the league’s fourth-best defense, but they were a mediocre 20th in offensive efficiency. In the 429 minutes Horford shared the floor with All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the Sixers mustered a pathetic 98.8 points per 100 possessions, more than five points fewer than the Golden State Warriors’ league-worst mark.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown thus decided to shift Horford to the bench ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Clippers. In doing so, he might have saved both Horford’s tenure in Philadelphia and the Sixers’ season.
Prior to the Sixers’ home rout of the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, both Brown and general manager Elton Brand hinted at such a seismic change.
“Brett’s been empowered to make any decisions he feels to win. Whatever that is, he has been empowered to do it,” Brand told reporters. “Whatever you see fit, whatever player or bench role, he has been empowered.”
“It’s all on the table,” Brown added specifically in reference to the possibility of moving Horford to the bench. “This is the bottom line: If this is going to make us a better team, then we will do that.”
At least for one night, the lineup change paid dividends.
With one fewer big man clogging the paint for most of the night, the Sixers had far more spacing with which to operate. The threat of having four legitimate three-point shooters alongside Simmons drew the Clippers’ big men away from the basket, which enabled the Sixers to feed cutters easy buckets off drive-and-kicks.
Horford benefited from that improved spacing as well.
While playing alongside Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Furkan Korkmaz and Alec Burks late in the first quarter, Horford began to post up Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell. Landry Shamet attempted to cheat over to swipe at the ball, but he couldn’t leave Richardson wide-open on the perimeter. Rather than facing a double-team, Horford got to back Harrell down and drew only his fifth shooting foul on a post-up this season.
The end result was one of the Sixers’ most well-rounded games of the year.
Simmons finished with a 26-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, while Embiid chipped in 26 points on 8-of-17 shooting, nine rebounds, two assists and an emphatic block against Marcus Morris Sr. late in the game. Richardson poured in 17 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, and Harris added 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
The move to the bench seemed to revitalize Horford, too. One game after finishing scoreless for the first time in his 13-year NBA career, Horford contributed a tidy nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 28 minutes.
Brown staggered Embiid and Horford for most of the night, using Horford almost entirely as Embiid’s backup at the 5. However, the two did overlap for a five-minute stretch at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter, during which time the Clippers outscored the Sixers by one point, and another three-and-a-half-minute stretch in the middle of the fourth, during which time the Sixers outscored the Clippers by two points.
After the game, Brown spoke about why he made the drastic lineup change.
“The time was appropriate to do it and see if we can get that second unit going with Al,” he told reporters, noting he expected the Clippers to go small throughout the game. “We did it with [Manu] Ginobili [in San Antonio] a long time ago. Al is a quality player, and how I end games will be the judgment.”
If Brown’s fourth-quarter rotation is any indication, the Sixers aren’t giving up entirely on the Embiid-Horford pairing. However, there’s value in keeping the two of them separated as much as possible.
When the two share the court, the Sixers are averaging only 98.7 points per 100 possessions and have a net rating of minus-1.1, which would rank 16th leaguewide. When Horford plays without Embiid, the Sixers rocket up to 110.0 points per 100 possessions and a plus-5.5 net rating that would be tied with the Dallas Mavericks for sixth in the NBA. And when Embiid plays without Horford, the Sixers have a plus-7.9 net rating that would trail only the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading plus-11.8 mark.
Staggering Horford and Embiid could help prevent the type of offensive droughts that recently turned competitive games against the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat into blowouts. It could also help fortify their defense, as Horford will spend less time chasing around floor-spacing 4s and more time near the basket against centers.
The Sixers’ trade-deadline additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III helped to unlock these new lineup possibilities, as Brown now has more shooters and ball-handlers at his disposal. Fresh off back-to-back 30-point games, Korkmaz drew the start Tuesday night against the Clippers, but Robinson replaced him in the starting lineup after halftime.
If the Horford-off-the-bench experiment wasn’t a one-game anomaly, Brown figures to continue tinkering with his rotations in the weeks to come. Robinson may be best suited to slide in as a low-usage three-and-D starter, which would allow Korkmaz to maintain his microwave-scorer role off the bench. Those answers will come in time.
The Sixers shouldn’t overreact to one game. The Clippers’ frontcourt is one of their few weaknesses, and the Sixers exploited that Tuesday, outscoring them 58-36 in the paint and outrebounding them 50-42. But for one night, their smashmouth offense and bully-ball defense vision unfolded as expected. They finished with an offensive rating of 113.0, which would be the fifth-best mark leaguewide, and a defensive rating of 104.0, which would trail only the Bucks’ mark of 101.6.
For a Sixers team that appeared to be teetering on the brink of an implosion following a demoralizing four-game road sweep last week, Tuesday’s win was the perfect send-off into the All-Star break. They’ll now have two months to figure out their optimal rotations—including whether to continue bringing Horford off the bench—before they head into the NBA playoffs.