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The Sixers need to maximize Al Horford, not trade him

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What if the Sixers didn’t pull the ripcord entirely this offseason?

Philadelphia 76ers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Before diving deeper, let’s start with an agreement: Al Horford was a disappointment this past season.

There were clear expectations for Horford, who signed a four-year, $109 million contract with the Sixers last offseason. First, he would start at the power forward position, which he called his “natural position.” Second, he would fill in at the center position when Embiid was sidelined with an injury, a sickness, or fatigue.

Whether playing center or power forward, Horford was supposed to provide stability as the jack-of-all-trades player that cut his teeth on the Celtics and Hawks. Instead, he faltered, looking every bit of his 33-year-old self.

But there is still hope for Horford to redeem himself in the second year of his campaign with the Philadelphia 76ers, bringing me to my second point, which some fans may disagree with: the Philadelphia 76ers should not trade Al Horford this upcoming offseason.

This statement does not imply the Sixers should not exhaust all options — they should. Rather than be opposed to trading Horford, Sixers management should be willing to part with him for a fair price. If such a deal does not emerge, however, the Sixers should not rush things. The Sixers should maximize his value before making a rash decision.

Believe it or not, Al Horford still has value, even if it’s a mixed bag. Although he averaged 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists this season, a stat line only posted by three centers all-time (Wilt Chamberlain, Marc Gasol, and Bill Russell), he has never shot this poorly from the field (44.2 percent), nor posted the lowest points per 36 minutes (12.8) since his second year in the league.

His shot profile changed drastically. Most of his misses come in the form of 3-point shots, as he took the highest percentage (40.4 percent) in his career by a large margin (for reference, since he started taking 3-pointers four years ago, 27.9 percent of his shots have been 3-point shots). In line with his increased 3-point frequency, he took the fewest amount of layups and dunks in his career (18 percent).

His shot profile changed not because he sought evolution; the change was borne out of necessity. Playing next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons insinuates fewer post-ups and more 3-point attempts for everyone else, including Horford. Consider it a natural sequence of events when you play next to a star center who swallows post-ups and a star point guard who refuses to take shots outside of the paint.

That’s not to say it was Horford’s problem, but that of the 76ers. Though he was entering a drastically different environment, Sixers coaches never figured out how to unlock his wealth of skills. That’s partially why the 76ers stood at 39-26, sixth in the Eastern Conference Standings, when most analysts, including myself, predicted them to land in the top three before the season.

Staggering him and Embiid is the most obvious solution. Last season, Horford shared the court with Embiid for 13.7 minutes, while playing 21.9 without him. His net rating with Embiid was minus-1.3, while without him, it was plus-5.2. The reason for the massive split was simple: Horford gets more touches without Embiid. There is a clear correlation between Horford’s usage rate and assist rate without Embiid — they both rise.

In the two stretches where Embiid sat out — nine games in January and five games in February — Horford’s assist rate increased, in particular, from 17.7 percent to 22.5 percent and 18.5 percent to 24.9 percent. Embiid’s solid, but not spectacular vision (17.3 assist rating) pales in comparison to what Horford is capable of given the reins of the offense.

Some passes Horford makes are ones Joel Embiid could only dream of making, like those through double-teams:

With the opportunity to operate from either elbow area in the Sixers’ horns-based offense, Horford’s vision shines. Most of these passes are not particularly complicated reads, such as handoffs, extra passes, and high-low feeds:

Executing a handoff requires not only solid ball-handling, but zippy footwork, primal instinct, and screen-setting chops. Making the extra pass demands at least unselfishness, a high-low pass, attentiveness. Horford has all those capabilities — and more. He is also more than capable of manipulating defenders. In one instance, he executes a ball-fake only to swing it to a shooter:

In another, he beats Montrezl Harrell off the dribble in a face-up situation, and recognizes that both the help-side defender (Patrick Beverley) and the extra rotation defender (Lou Williams) are late to their positions, and, in turn, flings a one-handed pass to a shooter in the opposite corner:

He can freeze even the most attentive of help-side defenders, LeBron James here:

Bringing Horford off the bench is not a viable solution. From the five games in February when Embiid was out, to the three games when Joel returned and Al headed to the bench, Horford’s statistics descended from 10.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 3.9 assists on 39.9 field goal percentage and 29.6 percent from 3-point range to 6.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 37.5 field goal percentage and 20 percent from 3-point range. It’s a small sample size, but there is enough data to ensure that Horford is not, nor ever will be a prototypical bench big who packs a scoring punch, such as, say, Montrezl Harrell.

Horford’s skills fall in the grey area, as a glue guy on a championship-contending team. If not to allow him to live up to his contract, then to raise his trade value, keeping him in the starting lineup makes sense. Staggering him and Embiid does not necessarily mean Horford must play the center position. Using Horford at the four position makes the most sense, especially on the defensive end. Allowing 61 percent shooting at the rim on 6.3 attempts, Horford is far from the elite rim protector he once was, who once held opponents to a league-low 48.4 percent shooting on 5.4 attempts in 2013-14.

It’s gotten to a point where Jarrett Allen can dribble from beyond the 3-point line and posterize him:

But, mostly, Horford is not a bad defender. He rated as the 20th-best defender at the power forward position defensive DPIPM, at 1.32, while he rated 12th in ESPN’s DRPM. Gone is most of Horford’s athleticism, but further into his career, he has relied on ancillary skills. Basketball IQ is Horford’s calling card. The biggest indicator is his helpside defense.

Given the on-ball defender “rearview contests” the ball-handler, Horford can snuff out alley-oop attempts:

When the on-ball defender fails to “rearview contest” the ball-handler, more agile rollers catapult over him:

Horford not sharing the court with Embiid means Horford is assigned to the larger defender more often, which subsequently means he is forced to defend the rim more often than not. This past season, he defended 6.3 shots at the rim per game, allowing a 61 percent field goal percentage, according to NBA stats. It was his worst year in terms of rim protection, which was on a steady decline in Atlanta before undergoing a revival in Boston, to the point where Horford earned All-Defensive second team honors. To get the Horford of old back, Philadelphia must adjust their defensive scheme, namely in the pick-and-roll.

While Philadelphia improved their defense, going from 14th to 6th in defensive rating over the last two seasons, Philadelphia still struggled in some areas, especially in the pick-and-roll. There, Horford acts as, what assistant coach Ime Udoka calls, “centerfield,” with Horford shading the ball-handler until the on-ball defender who was screened catches up in his “rearview contest.” Especially against the lethal combination of a ball-handler and a roller, like, say Luka Doncic and Dwight Powell, the scheme breaks:

One solution is to switch Horford onto the ball-handler. It simplifies defense, making it so Horford does not have to make as many decisions (Should I switch? Or should I stay with my man? When should I make this decision, if at all?). If Philadelphia trots out one of the biggest starting lineups, as they did last season, then they can trust their guards to hold their own against the big men. It’s also safe to assume Horford can move his feet against a large portion of guards, considering he held Doncic to plays like the ones below:

Quicker guards tend to burn him on unfavorable switches, but Horford can mirror the movement of some, like, say, Kris Dunn or Malcolm Brogdon:

One noticeable statistic in NBA.com’s matchup stats section is Horford holding Pascal Siakam, who may well have won another Most Improved Player of the Year award, to 2-of-14 shooting. Using Horford against power forward makes sense given Tobias Harris has proved capable of matching up with a few centers, such as Marc Gasol, who he had defended in last season’s playoffs:

Of course, revamping a defense requires time, which Philadelphia, along with their counterparts, will have due to the season being shortened by the coronavirus. But if Philadelphia deems it unnecessary to alter their pick-and-roll coverage, given its success as a team defense, it would be understandable. Allowing Horford to roam as a helpside defender more often, then, would be the safer play.

Horford shows defensive prowess in more complicated plays. The clip below starts with a pick-and-roll. Horford, then a helpside defender, “tags” the roller (Dwight Powell), and subsequently “scram switches” onto him. When Tim Hardaway beats Josh Richardson off the dribble, Horford helps early and swats him, keeping the ball in play:

Finding a trade for Horford might prove a difficult endeavor. If not for his contract, then his decaying body may be the biggest deterrent. Anyway, Philadelphia might not even be seeking a trade. The unexpected rise of Shake Milton has meant Philadelphia does not crave a secondary shot-creator as much as they did after Markelle Fultz lost his confidence, and Jimmy Butler gained his. Furkan Korkmaz has grown into Brett Brown’s “bomber” role and Philadelphia will likely try to re-sign him to a long-term deal either this offseason or next.

Still, adding a 3-point shooter wouldn’t hurt, being that the Sixers are 20th in 3-pointers made and 13th in 3-point percentage. Neither would finding a ball-handler to push Milton to the bench. The Sixers backed themselves into a corner by signing Al Horford to a long-term and expensive contract, effectively building behind, instead of around, its building blocks. But they can only live with their decision. For now, all the Sixers can do is maximize Al Horford.