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.
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