Perhaps the biggest benefit of the Philadelphia 76ers signing Al Horford this summer was how they could strengthen their performance whenever Joel Embiid is on the bench. It was a major weakness for the Sixers last season, but Horford is turning it into a strength.
Until facing the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, the starting five had dominated, posting a +21.3 net rating (with a 110 offensive rating and 88.7 defensive rating) in nine games and 102 minutes together. On Tuesday, the Sixers' starters struggled — they were a -11 in just over 10 minutes. The Nuggets' defense (ranked second this season) often found it easy to disrupt the starters' offensive rhythm, as turnovers and cramped spacing once again caused some issues.
Instead, it was smaller lineups with Horford at center that led the way.
Horford shook off a terrible first half (0-of-4 shooting with 4 turnovers) to turn things around in the second. He scored 9 points in the third quarter and didn’t turn the ball over again, finishing the game with 11 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. The spacing he provided gave the Sixers a clear boost, providing more fluidity offensively (and stout defense) that never used to be present with former backup centers.
The Sixers’ most-used lineup (13 minutes) of Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Tobias Harris and Horford led the team as a +11. After a 12-0 third quarter Nuggets run had brought them a 5-point lead, Brett Brown called a timeout later in the quarter to bring in this lineup. Over a 6-minute stretch, they outscored the Nuggets 19-8, eventually taking a 7-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Plays like the following are an example of how easily Horford can open up room for others. Even though he still needs to take a few more threes when he’s left in space, Horford’s career-high 4 three-point attempts per game (and 36.6 percent stroke) this season commands attention. Here, Harris screens for Ennis before curling off a screen from Horford. As Harris drives, the dropping Nikola Jokic takes a few more steps back and with Horford left open at the arc, Monte Morris helps off Ennis in the corner. Now, it’s easy for Horford to make an extra pass for an open Ennis three:
On the next play (this time in the fourth quarter, again with the same lineup), Simmons pushes the pace and Harris finds a switch on Jokic. Will Barton can’t fully commit to helping onto Harris to prevent a drive because of the threat Horford poses outside, which lets Harris beat Jokic down the left side of the lane and finish:
Then, there’s how Horford can score himself. Having an effective pick-and-pop center is a big addition for Philly, and it’s not too hard to create more looks like this. As Harris drives off Horford’s screen, with Jokic softly hedging and Morris trailing over the screen, Harris waits until he has both defenders on him and hits Horford when he’s wide open:
The Sixers created several wide-open looks for Horford at the top of the arc, either through pick-and-pops or by shifting the defense to one side of the court and finding Horford after a hand-off. Simmons and Thybulle do so here, with Jokic sitting in the paint — Denver’s center is likely concerned with the possibility of Simmons screening then rolling inside. Horford is left in tons of space, and even though he misses the shot, his put-back dunk makes up for it:
The smaller lineup mentioned above (Simmons, Thybulle, Ennis, Harris, Horford) is the Sixers’ third-most used lineup this season. In 65 minutes, they’ve recorded a 115.6 offensive rating and 85.6 defensive rating. Of course, their +30 net rating is unsustainable. Lineup numbers are noisy this early in the season, and are easily changed in samples this small. But it’s an encouraging start given the blend of spacing and switchy defense this group provides. Let Simmons play off Horford and push the pace with more shooting, and good things can happen.
The Simmons-Horford pairing has been highly effective when playing without Embiid so far, recording a 116.2 offensive rating and 102.8 defensive rating (+13.4 net rating) in 334 minutes with Embiid off the floor.
When forgetting Simmons and looking at Horford at center overall, the performance has been similar. In 434 minutes when Horford has been on the floor without the team’s other centers, Embiid and Kyle O’Quinn (who's only appeared in 14 games), the Sixers have a 112.6 offensive rating and 101.8 defensive rating (+10.8 net rating). Again, the limited sample size needs to be acknowledged here. But there’s no doubt that the team's play without Embiid has vastly improved.
Rather than desperately trying to hang on without Embiid, the Sixers can counter now. They can hit teams with up-tempo, four-out lineups that also maintain strong defense with Horford. Philly aren’t just getting burned without Embiid. They have far more ability to make runs without him now. Against a talented Nuggets team, the Sixers were able to do just that to help secure a win.
This isn’t a knock on Embiid. While some criticism going his way is fair, such as comments addressing his turnover struggles, some has gone way too far (including wild trade suggestions). The Sixers are still at their best when their top player is on the floor. Their defense isn't the same without Embiid either.
It’s important that Brett Brown has more lineup versatility at his disposal now, though. Horford creates new options, and he’s been delivering at the position (center) that was always going to suit him best. As much as the Sixers still have to work out offensively, they have one less thing to worry about with Horford anchoring non-Embiid minutes.