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2019 NBA free agent targets: Al Horford a possible Plan B for Sixers; looking at veteran backup options for Joel Embiid

2019 NBA free agent targets: Al Horford a possible Plan B for Sixers; looking at veteran backup options for Joel Embiid

The quality of the Sixers’ play at center dropped off drastically when Joel Embiid sat last season.

In free agency, the team will likely aim to find a solid, veteran backup. Players in that category form the bulk of our list of five potential big man targets, although there is one higher-profile name.

Outside of these five players, former Sixer Nerlens Noel is another big man to monitor. He decided Saturday afternoon not to pick up his $1.98 million player option with Oklahoma City for 2019-20, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. 

We looked at possible point guard, wing and power forward targets earlier in the week. 

Al Horford

Horford has been linked with the Sixers over the past week after not picking up his player option with the Celtics (see story). He might be Plan B for the Sixers if the team does not re-sign Tobias Harris. As Sixers fans know, Horford is a valuable player who does a lot of things well, including defend Embiid. It would certainly be interesting to see how effective he’d be playing with Embiid. You imagine Brett Brown would try to stagger Horford and Embiid’s minutes to separate the two as much as possible, though Horford’s three-point shooting ability would make playing the pair together tenable. The uncertainty of that fit and the likelihood that the 33-year-old Horford would decline over the course of the lucrative four-year contract he’s reportedly seeking could deter the Sixers. 

Dewayne Dedmon

Unless they sign Horford, the Sixers would be looking for a backup center who can start 15-20 games a season in Embiid’s place and play 15 or so good minutes most nights. It’s not difficult to envision Dedmon, a Process era Sixer (for 11 games in the 2013-14 season), filling that job well. Dedmon has averaged 10.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and one block per game over the past two seasons for the Hawks. He’s gone from taking one three-point shot over his first 224 NBA games to being a legitimate threat from long range (38.2 percent on 3.4 attempts per game in 2018-19). For the Sixers, the 7-footer’s ability to run the floor would also be appealing. 

Ed Davis 

A beloved teammate, the 30-year-old Davis had the most rebounds of any bench player last season and was 17th in the NBA in rebounding despite playing just 17.9 minutes per game. He brings reliable energy and professionalism.

Kevon Looney

The word "heroic" probably gets thrown around far too often in sports, but Looney’s playing through a costal cartilage fracture in the NBA Finals might merit the term — he gritted through what was obviously intense pain. At 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, Looney is a shade undersized for a traditional center, though he’s adept at handling switching and is well suited for small-ball lineups. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr called Looney “one of our foundational pieces.”

Khem Birch 

The Magic extended a qualifying offer to Birch, meaning he’ll become a restricted free agent Sunday at 6 p.m. The 26-year-old Birch, who posted 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game for Orlando in 2018-19, is a player who might be worth considering for the Sixers. He had strong advanced defensive statistics (102.7 defensive rating, plus-2.3 defensive box plus-minus) and didn’t have issues with turnovers or fouls, both of which were occasional problems for Jonah Bolden as a rookie.

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How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 



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Sixers' turnover issues start with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

Sixers' turnover issues start with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

There’s no other way to slice it: The Sixers’ 119-113 loss to the Wizards Thursday night was ugly (see observations).

Ugly because their defensive effort was poor. Ugly because the Wizards are simply not a very good basketball team. Ugly because it brings their road record to 5-7 on the season.

But mostly ugly because of the 21 turnovers that led to 30 Washington points — 15 of which were committed by the team’s two young All-Stars.

It appeared the Sixers took the lowly Wizards lightly.

“I think we just came in too relaxed,” Ben Simmons told reporters postgame. “Didn’t take care of the ball. Waited too long down the stretch to try to get the game back.”

The Sixers actually came out with a purpose and built a 33-25 after one. Then everything fell apart.

Careless play on both ends tilted the game. On defense, the Sixers lost track of Davis Bertans, one of the better three-point shooters in the league, who hit 5 of 5 from three in the second quarter. They also committed six of their turnovers in what turned out to be a 40-point period for the Wizards.

The Sixers made a push and got the game to within five, but it was too little, too late.

“Terrible,” Tobias Harris said when asked about how the team responded. “We gave them looks. Bertans came out and killed us, especially in the second quarter. We turned the ball over. They got 30 points off our turnovers. That's the name of the game right there. Honestly, you got to give them credit, they made shots, but we couldn't guard them, we couldn't stop them tonight.”

Harris was one of the lone bright spots for the Sixers. He poured in a season-high 33 points and turned the ball over just once.

The biggest issue was the play of Simmons and Joel Embiid. Simmons remains unwilling to shoot and his indecisiveness on drives was a big factor in his seven turnovers. This should’ve been a game that Embiid dominated with Washington’s frontcourt banged up. Instead, he took just 12 shots and turned the ball over eight times.

Embiid expressed frustration over the carelessness with the ball but felt like he was making the proper decisions when passing out of the post.

“My teammates were open,” Embiid said. “Tobias got it going. We went to him a lot and I just do whatever I’m asked to. It doesn’t matter how many shots as long as I make the right plays. It doesn’t matter if I take 12 shots or 20 shots. I’m just doing whatever I’m supposed to, follow the game plan and go from there.”

Turnovers have been an issue since Brett Brown was hired. That’s largely been because of youthful rosters he had and Brown wanting them to get out and run. 

Those excuses are gone now. Brown has said so himself.

As has been the case with the team’s high turnover numbers this season, Simmons and Embiid were the main culprits. They’re high usage players so it’s to be expected to some extent.

But nights like Thursday simply can’t happen.

“Well, we're always trying to help our two young guys,” Brown said. “You're trying to help those guys get better. And it's not going to win anything. It won't win any game that matters, let alone a regular-season game. It's not going to put us in any position where we can close out a game. We have to get better in that area and I got to help them.”

There’s no reason to panic or think the issues aren’t correctable, but the Sixers need to take better care of the basketball.

And it starts with Simmons and Embiid.

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