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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