Al Horford film review: Breaking down the big man's many strengths and a fair concern

Al Horford film review: Breaking down the big man's many strengths and a fair concern

Two-time national champion, five-time All-Star, playoff regular and ultimate professional — you likely are familiar with the outline of Al Horford’s long resume. He’s a Sixer now, which remains an odd sentence to write.

Before his first season with his new team, let’s look at the ways in which Horford can help the Sixers and how he can be best used.

Offense: A man of many strengths 

Watching Horford’s four matchups vs. the Sixers last season again, the skill that jumped out most was his passing. He has both the ability to anticipate defensive rotations and adapt to the play unfolding in front of him.

The sequence below illustrates those skills. Horford gains position in the post against T.J. McConnell, which prompts Jimmy Butler to sprint across the floor to double team Horford. The simple, solid read would be to sense Butler’s double team and fire it to the man he was guarding in the left corner, Gordon Hayward. Horford, though, sees Mike Scott rotate over to pick up Hayward, keeps his composure and finds the unguarded Marcus Morris.

Last season, Horford had a 24.7 assist ratio, second among centers who averaged at least 25 minutes a game, per NBA.com/Stats — Nikola Jokic was first.

Horford’s pick-and-pop prowess also stands out on film. He has a good sense of timing on his screens and has a veteran’s knack for getting away with a decent amount of upper-body contact.

If an open jumper isn’t available off the pick-and-pop, Horford becomes a threat as a playmaker. 

On this play from last Christmas, Horford effectively screens JJ Redick and Kyrie Irving drives right. Joel Embiid makes the late call to have Redick switch on to Horford, which leaves the Sixers' defense slightly off balance. Horford drives hard to the left and draws help from Wilson Chandler, then hits Morris in the corner with an excellent pass.

Though he won’t wow you with advanced dribble moves or lightning speed, Horford can spark the offense in a variety of ways.

He can guard a center and grab a defensive rebound, bring it up the floor, initiate the offense and finish it all off by swishing a jumper.

Horford is not going to slow the Sixers’ offense down, even at 33 years old. If anything, he seems well suited to running with Ben Simmons and executing quick dribble handoffs like the one in the play above, both as the ball handler and as the man receiving the handoff. 

There are a lot of other things Horford does well offensively, including his outside shooting. He shot 38.2 percent from three-point range on 3.2 attempts per game over his three seasons in Boston. Horford won’t single-handedly replace JJ Redick’s shooting, but he’s someone who can take and make important three-point shots late in games.

Playing at power forward next to Embiid, Horford should thrive at times in the post. Though Brett Brown might be wise to isolate Horford down low against certain matchups and spread the floor with outlets that Horford can find in case of a double team, Horford often won’t need a set play. 

He identifies his advantage, takes his time and scores on Tobias Harris on this play from Feb. 12. The Sixers will aim to find a balance between feeding Embiid in the post and giving Horford the freedom to capitalize on these type of opportunities.

When Embiid sits and Horford takes over at center, Horford will typically have a quickness edge on his matchup. His skill as a shooter forces centers to stretch behind the arc to defend him. For big men like Amir Johnson, that tends to be a problem. 

Defense: Inside ability, a perimeter concern

Sixers fans know all about Horford’s interior defense. The concepts of anticipating favored moves and holding your ground without fouling sound easy enough, but few players could do both against Embiid.

Note how Horford sticks his chest in Embiid’s air space while keeping his hands away from trouble when Embiid searches for contact on the two plays below.

Whether Horford can guard certain power forwards on the perimeter is a fair concern, and you’d figure it’s a matchup many teams will target against the Sixers’ gargantuan starting lineup

Harris gets the better of Horford on the play below, clearing out a side of the floor and driving by him to the rim.

Horford should often have Embiid behind him protecting the rim in such situations, giving him some formidable insurance. 

In the pick-and-roll, Horford will be a major upgrade over any backup center option the Sixers had in 2018-19.

With Jaylen Brown caught on top of Boban Marjanovic’s screen here, Horford drops back to corral Harris without sagging too far. He funnels Harris into the type of long, contested two-point shot that the Sixers’ defense wants opponents to take. 

The Sixers will have some interesting scheme decisions to make regarding their pick-and-roll defense when Horford is at power forward. Switching automatically one through three, dropping Embiid on pick-and-rolls that involve the five and allowing Horford to call out his own coverage is one option that could be sensible against many teams. 

Horford will, of course, need to learn the Sixers’ defensive principles and terminology, but having a very intelligent player helping to dictate the team’s pick-and-roll defense is an idea that makes sense on its face. 

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons out for Hawks game with back injury, will have additional evaluation Monday

Ben Simmons went through an initial evaluation on his back Sunday in Philadelphia, will have an additional evaluation Monday and is out for the Sixers’ game tomorrow night vs. the Atlanta Hawks, a team source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported the news.

Simmons missed Thursday’s game vs. the Nets with lower back soreness and irritated the injury in the first quarter Saturday night against the Bucks. 

Head coach Brett Brown said Thursday that Simmons was injured at the team’s practice Wednesday.

“It was a play where he went up for a rebound and I looked over and he left the court, and went and got treatment,” Brown said. “And it has played out as it has played out. We don’t believe it’s anything too significant.”

After drawing a foul on Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez with 7:21 left in the first on a running hook shot, Simmons put his hands on his knees and appeared in discomfort. He stayed in to make 1 of 2 free throws, and the Sixers then had Matisse Thybulle commit a foul to stop the game and allow Simmons to return to the locker room.

Before Saturday, Simmons had been averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists this season in a team-high 36.3 minutes per game. The two-time All-Star has an NBA-best 115 steals. 

Simmons had entered the All-Star break strong, with a 26-point triple-double in the Sixers’ Feb. 11 win over the Clippers. 

He’d posted 20.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game in the final 18 contests before the All-Star Game, shooting 68.9 percent from the foul line during that stretch. When Joel Embiid was out with a torn ligament in his left ring finger, Simmons had carried the Sixers to a 6-3 record. 

With 25 regular-season games remaining, the Sixers are 35-22 and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. They have a 26-2 home record, best in the NBA, and a 9-20 away mark that’s the worst of any team currently in a playoff position. The team’s remaining schedule is the easiest in the league.

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If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

We don’t need to spend much time explaining how and why Ben Simmons is very valuable for the Sixers. 

The two-time All-Star leads the NBA in steals and, before irritating a lower back injury Saturday night in Milwaukee, was averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds.

Of course, the Sixers will hope the injury doesn’t keep Simmons out for long. The question of how the Sixers will manage if Simmons’ injury does sideline him for an extended period of time, however, deserves attention.

Who’d be in the starting lineup? 

Though Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place Thursday against the Nets, he didn’t play against the Bucks until the game was well out of hand.

Shake Milton handled much of the point guard duties after Simmons left and was solid, making 5 of 7 three-point shots and scoring 17 points.

Josh Richardson and Alec Burks are other ball handling options, with Brett Brown seeming to prefer Burks’ “scoring punch” off the bench.

In his second NBA season, Milton has posted 6.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, shooting 36.9 percent from three. The 23-year-old was on a two-way contract with the Sixers as a rookie and starred with the Delaware Blue Coats, scoring 24.9 points per game in the G League.

Who else would be impacted? 

Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, Milton started eight straight games for the Sixers because of Richardson’s hamstring injury. Brown didn’t play him as much as a typical starter during that stretch, giving him 25.4 minutes per game. He only exceeded 30 minutes once, when he scored a career-high 27 points on Jan. 30 in Atlanta.

Milton again would not likely be assuming full-on starters minutes. Perhaps Richardson and Burks would combine for a greater sum of backup point guard minutes than usual. If Richardson were to handle backup point guard duties, that would presumably mean Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle would have more minutes to take on the wing. 

Simmons was averaging a team-high 36.3 minutes entering Saturday’s game, so there is simply a lot of playing time that would need to be allocated among multiple players. 

Where would the Sixers suffer the most? 

The defense would take a big hit. The on-off stats mysteriously indicate that the Sixers have been a better defensive team with Simmons not on the floor, but they’d clearly be losing one of the best defenders in the game. 

Along with being first in steals, Simmons has the most total deflections and the most defensive loose balls recovered. He can defend opposing stars and, in general, most point guards, wings and power forwards. The Sixers would not be able to replace that defensive versatility or overall quality.

They’d obviously gain something in terms of outside shooting but would lose a lot in other offensive areas. Simmons has assisted on more threes than any player this season.

How much would it hurt overall? 

Because Simmons has played in 214 of a possible 221 regular-season games over the last three seasons, we don’t have any meaningful track record of how the Sixers tend to fare without him.

Joel Embiid would be the focus of a Simmons-less team, and it would make sense for the offense to involve more Embiid post-ups than ever.

The most basic formula for success without Simmons would be an elite Embiid on both ends of the floor, Milton and other guards succeeding in expanded roles, and Tobias Harris and Al Horford being better across the board, especially as three-point shooters. It’s not impossible that all those pieces would come together, but it would be a lot to ask. 

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