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If the Sixers offer Al Horford a huge contract it will be a big mistake

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It appears NBA Insiders like Marc Stein are slowly ruling out the teams that have been recently linked to Celtics big man Al Horford, but nobody is sure yet who is the “stealth” team that has offered him a big time commitment; one so large it caused Al to opt out of his deal and also caused the Celtics to balk at trying to keep him around for the long-haul.

The Sixers have been linked to Al Horford recently by Keith Pompey of the Inky and have not yet been ruled out themselves. Could Philadelphia be the team who has shown the most interest and a willingness to outbid Danny Ainge for someone who has caused Joel Embiid more problems than basically any other single player in the league?

The Boston center appears to have found an offer or two that is simply too high for Danny Ainge to want to match for the 33 year old veteran. Yesterday here was Zach Lowe discussing with Adrian Wojnarowski, both of ESPN on a podcast:

Wojnarowski: ...[Horford is not] walking away from Boston without knowing that there is something significant out there and that significant deal is probably at 4 years perhaps over $100m. There was a limit where Danny Ainge and Boston wanted to go on Al Horford. They do value him greatly but he’s 33 years old, the idea of going for 4 years-

Lowe: Smart play by Boston

Wojnarowski: right....”

It appears that both Lowe and Woj think that this would be an overpay on someone’s part and Ainge is wise to not be the one to make it. It wouldn’t be the most shocking thing in the world if Ainge got out just in time and the Sixers picked up the big-time tab as Horford declines precipitously. Ainge is often a few steps ahead of the Sixers.

Besides, who would know Horford’s medical situation better than the Celtics, since they managed his minutes all year and sometimes provided massive knee-wraps during games? This season Horford was visibly uncomfortable and a step slower throughout much of the season as he dealt with patellar tendonitis and patellofemoral pain syndrome. These are both relatively typical overuse injuries. Sometimes they’re referred to as “runner’s knee.” It can be an irritation at the knee-cap, and can be impacted by the way it slides at the joint as you move. It’s the type of thing a long-regular season grind may inflame and can get better with rest if there isn’t an underlying mechanical issues. But even after missing games with it, he was still uncomfortable months later and missed games up until early April and was still listed on injury reports in the playoffs with knee soreness.

But as Woj and Lowe point out, the age here is the major consideration. Horford has been a really great player. Over his 12 year career, he’s averaged 14.1 points and 8.4 rebounds. He has been a playoff difference maker at an elite level since he can switch, and space the floor while protecting the rim. As mentioned, he’s really driven Embiid nuts. But has that experience left too strong of an imprint on the Sixers front office that they expect that level of play to continue?

The Sixers front office has “a lot of voices “ and not “an easy answer” as Woj describes on the same pod. He says they’re in an intriguing spot because they are debating internally what to do about keeping players like Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick. It may feel tempting to some members in the front office to spend around ~$112m (one number reported in rumors) on Horford, who can play both the 4 and the backup 5 to spell Embiid but also co-exist with him. It’s a lot less than the $189.66 they could pay for Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris on a five year deal, and a way to avoid luxury tax fees- although the team says they’d willingly pay those. Why not save a few bucks when you can?

Because it just doesn’t seem like a good idea. Horford doesn’t have the most worrisome injury history. He’s torn each of his right and left pectoral muscles back in 2012 and 2013. But he’s now at the age where you tend to get more and new injuries. Maybe he can defy the trend that big men often experience. He’ll be 33-36 across a four-year deal. Some bigs who don’t run as much as him start falling off a cliff around this time. One would think Horford’s ability to switch out far from the rim and play a modern style of basketball at today’s break-neck pace could be significantly compromised if he were to continue to slow down even a little bit. The whole father time thing....

The opportunity of losing out on Butler and Harris would mean operating as a cap-space team and spending upwards of about $24m less than if they “ran it back” due to their various Bird Rights. They would have to renounce Harris and JJ Redick, in order to make a big offer for Horford. And I don’t expect him to be nearly as productive over his next four years as he was over his last four. It would place a huge burden on him to play the best ball of his career if they were essentially using their remaining space on him and one of Butler or Harris. It would be easier to fill out the rest of the roster as an over-the cap team and get a larger exception as well than if they spent their space on Horford and had to fill out the roster on vet-min deals.

For Philadelphia, in the playoffs their bigger hurdle was not size, as they fielded the biggest lineup in the league. It’s that they weren’t quick enough in transition and on the wings. That would be a much better place to spend their cash than on someone who shares a position with Embiid and is similarly coming off a season where knee tendinitis ultimately limited his play by a lot.

Per Basketball-Reference.com, here are Horford’s regular season totals by year. You can see the bottom right as his points have declined a shade over the last four years.

The Sixers should try hard to retain Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. If they must part with someone, Redick is the obvious choice. Weening off the team’s reliance on Redick in the half-court set may do wonders for making Ben Simmons and Tobias happier in their roles also, since both appeared most compromised as the playoffs marched on. Then they can focus on filling in the margins on the wings with cheap athletic guards. That’s what cost them in last round. Players like Malcolm Brogdon, Patrick Beverley, Danny Green, Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Seth Curry, Shabazz Napier, Raul Neto, Justin Holiday may all be cheaper, some a lot younger, and fill a much bigger hole in the Sixers roster. At least one that isn’t as easy to replace as backup center. Guys like Noah Vonleh may offer many of the same things you’d turn to Horford for but at a fraction of the cost.

Finally, the best part about not going for Al would be that there is a great chance he’d leave the East and your tormenter can go be overpaid elsewhere.

This team has devoted too many resources to the backup center position. Last year they went for 4 or 5 roster spots to try to spell Embiid. They failed anyway. Horford is a lot better than Greg Monroe of course. Maybe they’re considering Al because they love what he did against them in the playoffs in the past and feel frustrated with all of the guys they brought in who weren’t that good. But at some point it’s better to build around Joel Embiid than on top of him. This would be a very expensive and very risky, redundant misallocation of resources.