Why Brett Brown has a 'quiet smile' when he watches the malleable Al Horford

Why Brett Brown has a 'quiet smile' when he watches the malleable Al Horford

Counting postseason basketball, Al Horford has played 911 career NBA games. Through his first five as a Sixer, he’s been just about everything the team could have wanted. 

With Joel Embiid out Saturday night in Portland, serving the first game of a two-suspension following a fight Wednesday with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, Horford had 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two blocks and just one turnover. He also set the screen on Damian Lillard that freed Furkan Korkmaz for his game-winning three-pointer, wrapping up the Sixers' 129-128 comeback win over the Trail Blazers

The reality of coaching Horford, a rival during his time with the Celtics, isn’t as strange as it was for Brett Brown at the start of training camp, when he said he was “blown away" by that fact. But the Sixers’ head coach still has a deep appreciation of Horford’s value. 

Having defended him and having him defend us during the Celtic-Sixer rivalry days, which still kind of exist, I get it,” Brown told reporters in Portland. “To look out and see him in a Philadelphia uniform, I always have a quiet smile because I just have such respect for him as a person and certainly as a player, and it’s borne out of the pain that he put on us over my days coaching against him.

In both the Sixers’ win over Detroit last Saturday and against the Blazers, Horford and Tobias Harris have assumed a greater scoring load. The two combined for a total of 100 points in those games on 56.9 percent shooting from the floor.

Horford attempted 24 shots Saturday, the most he's ever taken in a game in his career. He’d only reached that number once before, on Feb. 4, 2015. On Monday in Atlanta, Horford had played about a minute and a half more and attempted 20 fewer shots, deferring to a dominant Embiid.

He’s a malleable player, to put it mildly. When asked about him, Horford’s teammates have tended to first praise his intelligence and professionalism. It’s been apparent, though, that the 33-year-old still has both the savvy to identify precisely what his team requires and the skills to fill those needs. 

His playmaking has been a quality that’s shined regardless of his role. Horford has been a centerpiece of the offense in non-Embiid minutes, keeping the ball moving from the high post, hitting cutters and helping the team play at a high pace. He has 21 assists and four turnovers. 

“Al’s smart, man,” Josh Richardson said. “Al’s a veteran’s vet. You can’t really ask for a better leader for a team. He’s always level-headed. He’s fired up when he needs to be. but usually he just keeps it to a tone that everybody can relate to. He does the little things, he’s vocal, he makes good plays. He’s been great.”

Horford was notably the Sixer who took the strongest public stance against Embiid’s tussle with Towns. He epitomized the mature “veteran’s veteran” Richardson described in sternly saying, “there’s just no place for that in our game.” 

Of course, he also was sure to note that Embiid and Towns are both “good kids.”  

The Sixers’ offensive identity appears to be centered around pounding home size in the post — they’ve already posted up 23 more times than any team in the league, per NBA.com/Stats. Defensively, they’ve played a style that’s toed the line between aggressive and reckless, forcing 19.0 turnovers per game, third in the NBA. On a team with such a grinding, relentless, attacking identity, there’s something to be said for having a steady presence, one who doesn’t mind going against popular opinion. 

It’s a long season, as Horford will surely tell his teammates when that reminder is needed. Five games in, he looks like a valuable player to have on the ride.

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Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

The Sixers will be down two starters Saturday night when they return to Wells Fargo Center to play the Cavs.

Josh Richardson will miss his fifth consecutive game with right hamstring tightness, while Joel Embiid is out with a left hip contusion.

A team source told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Embiid reported discomfort after the Sixers' 119-113 loss to the Wizards on Thursday night and is being treated for the injury.

Embiid had 26 points, 21 rebounds and eight turnovers Thursday.

Richardson and the Sixers have been cautious with his hamstring. He told reporters in Washington, D.C., that this is the first hamstring injury he's dealt with and admitted that it's been a frustrating process.

“A hamstring is one of those things where you can think that you’re fine and then you take a wrong step and it’s a week or two-week setback," he said. "I don’t really want to get into that whole cycle. ... It’s just one of those things where I just don’t really know where I’m at most of the time. It always feels like I’m tiptoeing, trying not to do too much.”

The Sixers' preferred starting five of Embiid, Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford have played just 102 minutes together this season, posting a plus-21.3 net rating. 

Furkan Korkmaz has started the past four games in place of Richardson. Without Embiid, the Sixers will need to plug in another spot starter and perhaps search for further big man depth. Kyle O'Quinn hasn't played since Nov. 23, but he might be called upon vs. Cleveland.

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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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