76ers

Backup center situation with Al Horford, Kyle O'Quinn shows Sixers are a destination

Backup center situation with Al Horford, Kyle O'Quinn shows Sixers are a destination

While the Sixers have arguably the best center in the league in Joel Embiid, the lack of depth behind him was crippling last season.

Brett Brown trotted out Amir Johnson, Mike Muscala, Jonah Bolden, Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe to no avail. He even went small, using Mike Scott at times because the situation was so dire.

Elton Brand was not about to let that happen again. He said so in his press conference following the Sixers’ Game 7 loss to the defending champion Raptors. Brand didn’t assume his role as GM until after free agency last season and the backup center position wasn’t properly addressed.

With Embiid in the fold, how would he convince a decent backup to come to Philadelphia?

“I had a voice in and I didn’t speak up loud enough I guess, but there’s definitely some ways that we can sell Philadelphia,” Brand said back in May. “We’re a destination team right now, we’re a destination city. Players want to be here. So if I say, ‘Hey, there’s going to be X amount of minutes for you, we’re going to have a deep playoff run,’ I’m confident we can get some talent in that backup center.”

Well, apparently he was right.

The Sixers' GM made a pair of signings in Al Horford and Kyle O’Quinn that give Brown much more optionality when it comes to the backup five spot.

Horford’s hefty contract was likely a big factor for the 33-year-old. He’ll make $26.5 million in the final year of his deal at age 36. It’s a roll of the dice, but the idea for Brand is that Horford takes on two key roles: Starting next to Embiid and serving as his backup.

Not only can Horford back up Embiid, but he can do so at a high level. Horford has proven to be perhaps the only player in the NBA that could guard both Embiid and Ben Simmons effectively. He also showed his versatility in the playoffs by guarding reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

While there may be things to iron out offensively, the duo of Embiid and Horford on the defensive end should be a nightmare for opponents.

"I think I've said this in the past, I've always been a fan of Joel,” Horford said. “Just everything he brings, on the court, off the court. There were some great battles. When this opportunity came along, the possibility of teaming up with him got me really excited about the potential. How good we can help our team be defensively, get to working together and do some special things. I'm very grateful to be in this position."

FiveThirtyEight recently put out a new metric to measure defense called DRAYMOND. The basic principle is that it shows how good a player is at minimizing open looks for their opponents and how many shots that player defends. (It’s way more complicated than that, but you can read the full explanation here.)

It gets brought up in this space because according to DRAYMOND, the Sixers have three of the top 25 defenders in the league since 2013-14. It should come as no surprise that Embiid is No. 2 on the list and Horford checks in at 24.

What may surprise you is that the newcomer O’Quinn comes in ahead of Horford at 20th. O’Quinn is the epitome of an underdog. At Norfolk State, he led an upset of two seed Missouri back in 2012. He jokingly thanked Missouri for helping him become a second-round pick and start his NBA career (listen to the Sixers Talk podcast featuring O'Quinn).

But it’s certainly not all thanks to that game. O’Quinn has earned a reputation as a workhorse in the NBA. He’s taken on several different roles in the NBA from starting to being at the back of the bench. 

O’Quinn is better defensively than any center Brown used as a reserve last season. He goes into the season as No. 3 on the depth chart. He understands that he has Embiid and Horford ahead of him.

That’s not his concern.

“I’m going into my eighth year,” O’Quinn said. “I can’t look at a role that’s bigger than the picture that I need. I need to win. I like to win. I can’t really think of anything other than winning. When the games start rolling, the season’s long, you have to step in and I think that’s when you really earn your respect and you really get a tap on the back from yourself — stepping in when you need to be ready. That’s been my career. I don’t shy away from it. I never say a role is too small for me. I embrace it.”

Apparently, the Sixers are a destination.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Outside of immense talent, there are nuances of championship teams which might be challenging for an outsider to grasp.

Staying awake and alert for film sessions is not one of them.

In recalling how the Sixers’ NBA Finals defeats in 1977, 1980 and 1982 helped the 1983 team overcome the Lakers, Julius Erving had this to say in a recent interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff: 

Well, you couldn’t take anything for granted. I remember in ’77, we had a two-game lead over Portland. … After some of the video sessions, I look around and see some guys yawning and rubbing their eyes and whatever. I say, ‘Oh no. This is not good. This is not good.’ I think the group that we had (in 1982-83) and me being the leader, just encouraged guys to stay with it all the way — 3-0 doesn’t mean anything, 2-0 doesn’t mean anything, 1-0 doesn’t mean anything — four. Four wins. And Moses (Malone) said it best, ‘Fo’, Fo’, Fo.’

Clint Richardson, a key reserve guard on the 1982-83 champions who Erving called his “little brother,” wasn’t one of those dozing off, since he was playing at Seattle University when the Sixers were squandering their 2-0 series edge to Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers. He’d experienced disappointment twice in the Finals before the Sixers’ sweep of the Lakers, though, and came away believing there’s nothing wrong with being loose — to a certain point, of course.

“They just need to relax,” he told Zumoff of what the current Sixers can learn from the champions 37 years ago. “I think they need to trust each other a little bit more and have more confidence in each other. But that happens … I think sometimes there’s a tendency to panic and second-guess. I think they just need to relax and play and enjoy what they’re doing. And enjoy Philadelphia. Because the people of Philadelphia, they’re patient enough to wait. They waited for us and we finally came through for them. They just need to embrace that.”

It would be a stretch to draw direct parallels between the last Sixers team to win a title and the current roster. Erving played alongside future Hall of Famers Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Malone. Andrew Toney may have been on a Hall of Fame trajectory if not for injuries. One tempting comparison, however, is between the late Malone, a three-time MVP, and Joel Embiid. 

Billy Cunningham, the winningest head coach in Sixers history, thinks there’s one trait Malone had that Embiid should emulate. 

The ingredient I would love to see (Embiid) have … Moses’ philosophy,” he said. “He just believed he’d wear people down. And when he got to the fourth quarter, he was relentless on the offensive boards. I’m sure if you go to statistics, nobody had more offensive rebounds. And Moses couldn’t jump over a piece of paper. It wasn’t like he was someone that’s going to be touching the top of the square or anything like that. 

“If Embiid took that little quality of just being relentless, he is gifted, there’s nothing in the game that he cannot do. He should dominate at the defensive end of the court. No one should even think of going to the lane. When I say that, it’s just admiration for his skill level. I don’t know if there’s many players playing that position that have ever had more skill than he has. And now he needs to say, ‘OK, I’m taking control of this. This is my team, and I’m going to dominate, No. 1, on the defensive end of the court.’ 

One of Malone’s backups, Earl Cureton, admired his diligent, no-nonsense approach. Unlike Embiid, Malone was not an active trash talker. 

“His work ethic, the way he approached the game,” Cureton said. “Moses didn’t do a whole lot of talking; he showed with his actions out on the basketball court. Moses didn’t have to say much. He went out and approached it, every single game, every single practice was relentless. It was incredible the way he played, the consistency. … And also being able to sacrifice, putting everything else aside to be a great teammate. 

“You talk about him being an MVP and a superstar, but Moses was just one of the guys. You would see Moses hanging out with anybody on the team ... treated everyone the same way. A lot of times, things that you do off the court mean as much as what you do on the court, in terms of team.”

After missing his first two seasons because of injury, Embiid has played 202 games in the regular season and 19 in the playoffs. Malone had 544 NBA regular-season games and 45 playoff games under his belt before the Sixers tore through the Knicks, Bucks and Lakers in 1983. He’s one of many examples in NBA history of great players needing to be surrounded by the right complementary pieces to win. And, though it might be a dreary reality to acknowledge, sometimes other teams are simply better.

All those factors contribute to Richardson’s stance that the Sixers should try to savor the journey, whatever form it takes. 

“I think they have a lot of potential,” he said. “I think they may have a little too much added pressure on them, just because it’s been long and because there are some unrealistic expectations. I think they just need to relax and be comfortable, and let everything fall into place the way it’s supposed to fall into place.

"Sometimes I see some things being forced … I think when the whole organization relaxes and enjoys what they’ve got, I think that’s when things will happen.”

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube



Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Sixers' Tobias Harris joins protest in Philadelphia after death of George Floyd

tobias_harris_instagram.jpg
@tobiasharris on Instagram

Sixers' Tobias Harris joins protest in Philadelphia after death of George Floyd

Updated: Sunday, 1:45 p.m.

Sixers forward Tobias Harris was among those protesting in Philadelphia on Saturday after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota earlier this week.

Floyd, a 46-year old black man, was killed Monday while in police custody. Video showed Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, for more than 8 minutes. His death has sparked protests against racial injustice and police brutality around the country. Chauvin was fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The other officers on the scene, Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, were fired but have not been charged.

Harris showed himself on social media with the crowd protesting around City Hall and the Museum of Art. Teammate Mike Scott was “there in spirit.”

Scott on Friday had voiced his disagreement with an Associated Press tweet on Chauvin’s arrest that didn’t directly characterize Chauvin’s actions as murder. 

Other prominent figures within the Sixers and NBA have also spoken out in recent days. In a series of tweets Friday night, Ben Simmons advocated for “calling out the uncomfortable subject of blatant racism that exists heavily within our society.” 

Josh Richardson on Friday had responded to tweets by President Donald Trump in which Trump referred to protestors as “thugs,” raised the possibility of bringing the National Guard into Minnesota to “get the job done right” and threatened “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The Sixers on Sunday afternoon released the following statement:

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube



Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers