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With 8 games before the playoffs, do the Sixers have time to solve their Al Horford conundrum?

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

I know I’m not the first to say this, but it feels weird to just write a piece about basketball these days. But with talk of a season resuming and perhaps a picture beginning to take shape as to how that might look, I figured a distraction might also be welcome by a few people out there. Tobias Harris wrote such a powerful piece for The Players’ Tribune. Go read that before you dive into this piece if you haven’t already. Or this one by Dan Volpone.

It’s feeling like a first round matchup against the rival Celtics or Heat is in the cards for the Sixers now. That means the most likely path to the Conference Finals for Philadelphia, based on current seeding, would be through either Boston then Toronto (as a 6th seed) or Miami then Milwaukee (as a 4th or 5th seed). Count me as a vote for avoiding the top-seeded Bucks for as long as possible. Sure, back when there were home games and road games and the Sixers were great at one and putrid at the other the idea of making a run and stealing the 4 seed from Miami and “hosting” round one had appeal. But now the 6th seed may even be preferable to a 4th or a 5th seed, and that presents a rare opportunity. Instead of actually trying to win games when things start back up, Brett Brown and the Sixers coaching staff could focus on figuring out playoff rotations. Even if it’s not always pretty. I’m not saying to tank, I’m just saying to place the biggest emphasis on addressing what has been the team’s biggest challenge all season long....

The Al Horford conundrum

Last summer was a pivotal off season for the Sixers. The decision makers decided to go all-in on Al Hoford (a second center who turned 34 yesterday) to play alongside and also to backup Joel Embiid. The “alongside” part of the equation hasn’t appeared to work out so far.

Per Mike O’Connor of The Athletic:

“I’ve argued many times that the Horford-[Joel] Embiid frontcourt pairing is simply too clunky to work and that the Sixers would be doing themselves a disservice to continue experimenting with it in the playoffs.... But if the Sixers aren’t able to play Horford next to Embiid for more than a minute or two here and there, that would mean they’re essentially paying Horford $28 million to play roughly 10 minutes per game as a backup five.”

Yuck. Coach Brown has suggested he’d like to see Joel Embiid play about 38 minutes per game come playoff time. So Brown’s choices are a) try to make the pairing work or b) give up on it and move on. Neither one is ideal.

Recent injury history

It was always a mistake for Philly to sign Horford for the type of salary he received. If their series against Toronto taught them anything it was how badly they needed a player to initiate the offense when opponents sag off of Ben Simmons. So targeting another center seemed like an awkward way to complement him and Embiid. But there were also plenty of clues that Horford’s knees may not be the best bet over a four year span. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn at some point that Al’s knees have been a bigger problem than the team has disclosed.

Rewind to the beginning of the 2018-2019 season. Horford had just had a full summer off to rest his aging wheels. Then, 26 games into the season, Coach Brad Stevens said his big man had been dealing with patellar tendinitis for “a while.” [1] He would miss seven games with what was called patellofemoral pain sydrome of the left knee. The team did their best to manage his minutes throughout the season but it didn’t appear to ever resolve completely.

Per Tom Westerholm, by April 2nd, 2019: the Celtics’ top priority was “Ensuring that his occasionally balky knee is fully healthy, while also trying to ensure that the Celtics earn the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round.”

Chris Forsberg sensed that the season could hinge on Al’s sore joint:

They weren’t wrong. The devilishly handsome Puerta Plata native looked reasonably spry and helped deliver a clean sweep of the Pacers in round 1. Al’s on-off splits were dominant all season long, despite his load management program. He was invaluable in his 4/5 role just one year ago, often playing along side Aron Baynes.

And he played his best game of the season in a dominant performance against Giannis Antetokounmpo during game one in Milwaukee:

He looked like the guy who went toe-to-toe against both Giannis and Embiid and prevailed in the playoffs back in 2018, or the guy who led a Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward-less Celtic squad to within one win of a finals berth that same year.

But he also appeared to wear down after this point. Boston lost four consecutive games after that game one victory in Milwaukee. Notice the rather large wraps or heat packs on his left leg and how routinely he gets stretched out by trainers as that series marched on:

Per NBA.com, when Al was guarding Giannis the Bucks team (either Giannis or anyone else) scored 128 points over 101.9 partial possessions. When Horford was on one of George Hill or Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks scored 48 points over 28 partial possessions. Al frequently passed the eye test, but less and less after game one. The Bucks won the fast break battle 106 to 73.

The left knee soreness appears to have lingered

You’re probably a bit more familiar with Horford’s injury reports from this past season. Before the year started Coach Brown said he was going to be cautious with Al’s minutes so as not to “burn down” his big man. But after the very first back-to-back the team let him play in, almost exactly a year after the day Brad Stevens told us about a left knee issue, Horford popped up on the injury report with “left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness.”

He missed a couple games in mid December and still didn’t look right through the end of 2019. By the end of January and into early February of 2020, it became common to see “sore knee” next to his name on the injury report. There may be something chronic going on here.

But the road to a title means figuring this out somehow

Complicating this all is that Horford has been so good for so long. We can also see that he’s still very good whenever Embiid is out of the lineup and he is moving well like he did the last few games the team played on a west coast trip. From his days as a high school legend, to his college championships at Florida, anchoring a 60 win Hawks group (perhaps where Elton Brand, also on that team got to see his leadership up close [2] ) to leading those overachieving 2017 and 2018 Celtics teams, Horford has embodied a brand of selfless, savvy, winning basketball and been one of the best two-way players in the league over his long and crazy-underrated career. And sure enough, for all of the Sixers lineups this season that have logged 40 or more minutes, guess whose name is in the five best performing units per net rating:

It’s that third one above that Brett Brown is banking on. Can a unit of Embiid, Simmons, and Horford play any significant minutes together? As long as Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson are out there too, sure, the data implies. But we haven’t seen much of that this year due to injury. The Sixers front office and coaching staff may all be relying on that lineup to deliver.

Of the Sixers most used three-man lineups that have logged at least 40 minutes together there are only two that have a negative net rating. Horford, Embiid, and Simmons are one of those two. [3] So if I’m Coach Brown now, I’m going to play Embiid and Horford together. I just don’t think you can win deep in the playoffs without your best players getting significant minutes and Al is one of the Sixers best four players. The tough question to me isn’t “should you play Joel and Horford together?” It is “should you play Ben, Jo and Al together” or does that limit spacing so much that Brown must make sure Al is with one or the other? I don’t have the answers. But I think trying to learn more is how I’d spend my next 8 games. With a lengthy layoff between March and July, maybe Horford can get his legs right. And when things resume, the team can make one last mad scramble to make this experiment work.

I could say more about how great Horford has been over his career. But this reaction by LeBron as soon as the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals wrapped up says more. The games greatest player B-lines it to find Al and pay his respects. The Sixers need to keep that guy fresh and get Playoff Al going if they want to win a title.

Footnotes

[1] He would grab at the back of his leg during an overtime win in Phoenix as early as November 8th, 2018. Given that his knee issue seems somehow related to a tightness in his hamstrings, maybe this precipitated the patellar tendinitis Stevens says he’s dealt with for “a while” by December 10th. I’m just speculating here but he received a healthy dose of knee wraps and hamstring stretches from trainers during the playoffs last season and also he’d pop up on the injury report this year in Philadelphia with both “left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness” on the same day following the first back-to-back he played in by mid December, per Keith Pompey of The Inquirer.

[2] And Mike Scott.

[3] Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, and Ben Simmons is the other with a net rating of -1 over 613 minutes.