So far, the NBA restart has been a mixed bag for the Sixers. While they stand at 3-1 after four games, the play hasn’t been anything to write home about. For the most part they have looked very sloppy, and with only a few games to get back on track before the playoffs arrive they must now chug along without star Ben Simmons. Things just don't seem to be going the Sixers’ way at the moment, but not all things are bad. There have been a few bright spots and one of the biggest has been from one of the most surprising players, Al Horford.
To say this season has been a struggle for the Sixers’ big free agent signing would be an understatement. From day one Horford could not find his role on the team next to Joel Embiid. They often got in each other’s way and slowed the offense down. Fans begged coach Brett Brown to make the change and officially send Horford to the bench, and they got their wish once the season resumed. Giving a player the type of money Al Horford received, only to send them to the bench not even a year into their contract, is an incredibly tough pill to swallow. But both the player and team took the change in stride. The funny thing about this whole nightmare of a situation is that the change actually worked. Horford transitioned well to his new role as a primary backup to Embiid and he actually started to help the Sixers instead of hurting them.
The team’s opening game against Indiana was a rough night for just about everyone. TJ Warren’s 53 points did not help the situation. Besides this Horford has put up solid numbers, contributing 9 points, 6 rebounds and a +17 +/- against the Spurs, followed by 2 points, 10 rebounds and a +18 against the Wizards. The numbers don’t jump off the page, but Horford is doing the little things right, playing much stronger defense in the paint and helping space the floor by shooting three’s without hesitation. There’s a new energy in Horford since the restart and you have to think the growing confidence is at least partially because he isn’t overwhelmed anymore and playing in this new role.
With the injury to Ben Simmons now clouding what the Sixers’ plans are, one thing should be apparent: Al Horford does not need to start. While he did have a solid game last night against the Magic in a starting role, putting up 21 points and 9 rebounds, the Sixers’ decision-makers should not feel pressured to start him solely because he was given starter money in the offseason. This is the perfect opportunity for the Sixers to try something that they have never been able to do: surround Joel Embiid with shooters and floor spacers.
Al Horford does not fit that mold, but someone who does is Alec Burks, who has been equally as impressive in the restart. Coming off of a 22-point performance from the bench against Orlando, Burks is the perfect player to replace Simmons in the starting lineup. Not only does he bring the outside shooting ability the starting lineup needs more of, but he is also a capable ball handler, which is needed next to Shake Milton because Josh Richardson has struggled mightily to help out. While this will make the team much smaller, Tobias Harris has shown an increased willingness to go in the paint and fight for rebounds. His progress defensively should also translate should he have to guard bigger opponents.
The Sixers haven’t been able to surround their stars with shooting this year for one reason or another. With Simmons out the team can see if this type of game plan can succeed. They have another four seeding games to figure out how they want to go about the rest of this season, and keeping Horford on the bench and adding more shooting is at least worth a shot.