The Philadelphia 76ers ended on a high before the All-Star break. They defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 110-103 with an impressive, engaged effort at both ends of the floor, led by stellar performances from their stars. The main talking point, though, is how the Sixers looked with the big lineup change that finally happened: Al Horford playing off the bench.
After the game, Brett Brown discussed the conversation he had with Horford about the adjustment. “I said that this starting group has been struggling and that [Horford] had done nothing wrong,” Brown explained. “I keep myself up late at night trying to find ways to better coach it and fix and let it coexist. To date, after 50-plus games, we’ve struggled a little bit. I feel like I can help Al play at the level that he can play at and that we have seen… I think it can be a win-win. It was all class. He’s a great teammate and he understood. It was a high-level adult conversation that I appreciate and respect.”
Tuesday’s game against the Clippers was the first time Horford has come off the bench since his rookie year, and it was needed. This season, the Sixers have a -2 net rating and ugly 100 offensive rating when Horford’s at power forward. When Horford’s at center, the Sixers shoot up to a +6.2 net rating and 112.7 offensive rating. The offensive fit of the starters has been terrible, and Horford is best operating as a center.
Horford and Joel Embiid won’t be losing all their minutes together (especially in the playoffs when Embiid’s playing time increases), but it’s not hard to cut them down. Against the Clippers, the two bigs shared the floor for just 9 minutes, down from an average of 14.3 per game in the season beforehand. They didn’t play at all together in the first half. And while Brown briefly went back to his old starting five halfway through the fourth quarter, he opted for a lineup of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris and Embiid to close out the game in the last three minutes. Meanwhile, the trio of Horford, Embiid and Simmons — who haven’t been able to work together offensively at all this season — also received far less time. They played only 6 minutes together, down from 13.6 per game.
These changes allow everyone to be at their natural position more often. Harris is best at the 4, both in terms of the matchups he faces and the shots he can generate on offense, and the defensive assignments he’ll receive. And Horford — who played quality defense against the Clippers, and hit some pick-and-pop jumpers and moved the ball well on offense — is clearly best at the 5.
With the increased staggering of Horford and Embiid, and more space and lineup versatility thanks to trade deadline acquisitions Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, there were plenty of indications as to how the Sixers could start improving offensively.
Room for Simmons to drive and roll
Simmons and Embiid both had brilliant games, and that wasn’t just because Horford moved to the bench. The two young stars stepped up individually and delivered. However, new lineup adjustments played a part, and can help them moving forward.
One of the benefits is Simmons getting more room to assert himself on drives to the rim, which he’s already been doing better than ever in recent weeks. His touch and foot work has improved this season and he’s embracing contact to get to the free throw line. Over the last 11 games, he’s averaged 22.2 points (63.8 percent shooting) and 8.4 free throw attempts, making 73.9 percent of them.
Simmons had one of his best games of the season against the Clippers. He finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists to 3 turnovers, while playing fantastic defense. His aggressiveness resulted in a season-high in field goal attempts at 22.
He worked well on cuts, in transition, on short drives playing off Embiid (which I’ll get to in a moment), and attacked successfully when need be in isolation. Plays like this in the fourth quarter also showed the benefit of Simmons being deployed with four shooters around him. Horford operates from the top of the key as the playmaker, shooters on the wings make it harder for the defense to help inside, and Simmons is able to get positioning around Paul George:
Again, this isn’t something that’s just been introduced from moving Horford to the bench. But Simmons can seal off his man by the rim and use duck-ins more often if most of his minutes are alongside just one of Horford or Embiid.
Increased staggering of Horford and Embiid frees up more room for Simmons to serve as a roll man, too.
On this play, with Korkmaz handling the ball, Embiid is set up in the dunker’s spot with Mike Scott and Robinson spacing in the corners. Simmons’ solid screen takes out Landry Shamet, and Marcus Morris hedges onto Korkmaz to prevent an open pull-up. The middle of the lane is open for Simmons at this point, and as Lou Williams helps off the weak-side corner, Robinson is left open from three:
Simmons’ short roll passing can be enhanced if he’s surrounded by more shooters. And on the subject of pick-and-roll play, this neatly leads into the arrival of Alec Burks.
Burks as a pick-and-roll ball handler
Even though Burks didn’t play too well in his first game as a Sixer (2 points on 1-of-4 shooting and 2 assists in 14 minutes), there were flashes of how his skill set can help the offense. He ranked in the 71st percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler with the Warriors this season, with such plays accounting for 43.2 percent of his possessions. While Burke isn’t a particularly strong decision-maker or passer, he can still take on the role of lead backup ball handler (along with Richardson). This was the case against the Clippers, as the Sixers upped their pick-and-roll usage.
It always helps to have more guards with a solid handle and the ability to shoot a bit off the dribble. For his first bucket as a Sixer, Burks came off a ball screen from Horford and hit a pull-up jumper:
Burks also operated with Simmons as a roll man, which is something the Sixers should continue to tap into moving forward.
Take this play for instance. Shamet runs past Simmons’ screen, but JaMychal Green leaves the paint to help on Burks’ drive. With Horford set up in the corner and Thybulle and Harris positioned on the weak-side, the floor is well-spaced for Simmons to storm inside:
Richardson is also highly valuable from a ball handling standpoint. He was brilliant against the Clippers, from his fierce defense to strong pick-and-roll play and 17 fourth quarter points. He deserves credit. Now he’s returned from injury, how Richardson continues to connect with Simmons as a roll man is important, too.
More breathing room for Embiid inside
The Sixers were able to get Embiid plenty of good looks for short post-ups or opportunities to draw fouls. This was partly thanks to him having more space to establish himself in, and partly because of favorable matchups against the Clippers’ smaller bigs.
The Sixers (typically Simmons) had no trouble setting Embiid up by the rim with simple entry passes as he established deep positioning surrounded by shooters:
As much as Embiid benefited offensively from having players like JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler alongside him, this new Sixers’ roster can still help Embiid with increased spacing. Less time with Horford can make that happen, and reduce the clunky possessions and double post-up situations that grew too common.
There’s also the matter of how Simmons and Embiid can work inside together, which includes their super short pick-and-rolls.
A 6’10” guy running a pick-and-roll from the post or halfway up the lane is quite a sight. The Sixers are a weird team, though. With their unique size and talent, it’s something they can do. And when sprinkled into the offense, it can work pretty well. It doesn’t matter too much if Simmons’ defender goes under the screen in these scenarios. He’s already so close to the rim to go up and finish when given a few feet of room by Embiid’s hefty picks.
Like everything else, this play is also far easier to execute when surrounded by respectable three-point shooting. If defenses send too much help, Simmons is in prime position to kick the ball to open shooters waiting across the court.
The Sixers used this play plenty against the Clippers, giving Simmons quick openings to get moving downhill:
“It’s arguably the best game that those two have paired up with since I have been the coach here,” Brown said after the game when talking about Simmons and Embiid, per Philly Voice’s Kyle Neubeck. “I think that Joel and Ben, we put them in a lot of deep pick-and-rolls, we put them in a lot of hi-lo action. I think the way we played them helped them, in that Ben wasn’t always the point guard... they co-existed as well as I have seen them co-exist, and played together in a very high-level way, a dominating, physical way. I think it was the versatility of Ben not always being the point guard.”
More cutting lanes
There’s more room for others to cut when there aren’t multiple bigs around clogging the paint.
Robinson (who’s been very active as a cutter in his first couple of games in Philly) provided an example of this with the following play. The defense is stretched out with Harris and Richardson on the wings, and as Embiid moves to the corner to pull Ivica Zubac out of the paint, Robinson gets an open lane to cut, and Simmons delivers a perfect lob:
The Sixers can implement plays like this and, if other players are active enough, increased improvised movement by using more spacious lineups. Besides cuts, utilizing shooters like Korkmaz and Robinson together (who both relocate well off the ball and can shoot on the move or off screens), is another useful option to have.
Whether the Sixers maintain their new starting lineup, or at least keep Horford off the bench even if the starting small forward changes, will be the story to monitor after the All-Star break.
Korkmaz makes sense as the starting 3 for now, given his emergence this season, familiarity with the team and how his shooting can space the floor. That said, Robinson may end up being the better option to maintain tougher defense in the starting unit and keep Korkmaz as more of a spark-plug scorer for the second unit. Then there’s the matter of Brown’s go-to lineup to close games. This starting five would make sense, although the 3 will likely change based on who’s playing well on any given night, is best suited to the matchup, or offers the required level of shooting and/or defense for the situation at hand.
Moving forward, it’s up to Brown to sell Horford on the move and how it can be best for both him and the team.
“I spoke to Al about it and we are trying to find ways to help him and help the team,” Brown added after the game when talking about the adjustment. “The time was appropriate to do it and see if we could get that second unit going with Al. We did it with [Manu] Ginobili a long time ago and Al is obviously a quality player. How I end games, to me, will be the judgement. Tonight, we rode out those big guys for a while. They went small, so did I and the decision to rotate him was driven because of that.”
“I just accepted it,” Horford said after the game, per Keith Pompey. “Obviously not the position that I saw myself in. But it’s what was best for the team.”
Whether or not the Sixers can improve on the road and play with consistent energy is another issue still looming over their season. They also can’t solve all their offensive problems, such as a lack of high-level perimeter creation, with these lineup changes.
For now, though, they’ve closed out before the All-Star break on a high, with some adjustments that can make a real difference. Perhaps the Sixers can use them to build some momentum when they return.