76ers

With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

With Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing, Brett Brown has more important decisions ahead

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers have 24 two-man lineups that have played at least 400 minutes together this season. The Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of them all, by a margin of 2.9 points.

It’s an important statistic and an obvious reason why it made sense for the Sixers to remove Horford from their starting lineup. Horford played only nine minutes with Embiid on Feb. 11 against the Clippers, seven minutes Thursday night vs. the Nets. Before that, the pair had averaged 14.3 minutes per game together. 

Is Brett Brown’s goal simply to minimize the time those two share the floor? 

At times when you see that number to be low, it will be driven because the matchups just, in my opinion, didn't allow it," he said Friday. "It's just a stone cold small-ball game. Some of it will be driven out of performance and my gut feel, but I feel like a large portion of it will be driven out of just the matchups that we have on the floor. 

“It is my hope that you see that number in a healthy way. It's still the desire to have those two guys play quality basketball and coexist whenever that is required. But I feel like the number that I was saying should be judged based on matchups. You're going to see if it's a tiny number, I'll be shocked if it's not driven completely because the game is really small.”

The Nets did indeed use ultra-small lineups against the Sixers, with 6-foot-8 Wilson Chandler seeing time at center. Horford also played poorly. He was a minus-26 in 18:33 which, though an extreme number, did not seem to be an outrageously inaccurate reflection of his performance. 

Putting Horford on the floor with Embiid at the end of the game would have been illogical — doing so would have removed a ball handler like Alec Burks or Shake Milton or forced Brown to take out Tobias Harris (22 points, 12 rebounds). Essentially, Brown would have been trying to insert an ill-fitting piece and using a lineup that made little sense in the circumstances. 

Still, one can understand the instinct to involve Horford as much as possible. The Sixers gave him a lucrative four-year contract this season with the idea that he could both back up Embiid and play next to him. To abandon one half of that equation could be viewed as admitting a costly mistake, even in the context of Horford still having value as an improvement over the team’s backup centers last year and as Embiid insurance.

Brown doesn’t see Horford as a lost cause and was insistent Friday that the five-time All-Star is still an important player for the Sixers. 

“There's a human side of this that I take a lot of pride in, figuring that side out as as best I can,” he said. “Relationships and communication rule our sort of worlds. … He's a prideful man, he's got a history that he has, he has been rewarded with the contract that he has, and just keeping it very straight, very clean, very quick, and this is how I see it, this is why I see it this way, and not being apologetic about it. … He knows that I am aware of it all. And I believe that things will settle. 

“We have seen the history of Al Horford, and all of us would be very naive to think that some of his signing wasn't driven to where we think we want to be in April, May and we hope June. Just progress out, look ahead to see the matchups. … I think the communication and how I speak to Al is for me driven with those sort of core tenets in mind that I try to stick to.”

Horford is shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range, his worst mark since 2014-15, and 33.1 percent on wide-open threes. A hopeful look at history would suggest those numbers will improve. 

He’s also accepted a bench role without any fuss, saying Wednesday, “It’s what the team needs right now, and that’s what we’re doing.”

There is certainly evidence to support the notion he can excel at a job that includes a few less minutes alongside Embiid but still has him featuring in late-game lineups, especially against teams like the Bucks. 

Brown will continue to track the success and regularity of the Embiid-Horford duo. Though he and the Sixers will be looking for signs of improvement, it’s feasible that he’ll eventually be best served by further decreasing the playing time of his original frontcourt. 

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NBA rumors: Insider has a couple of trade targets in mind for Sixers

NBA rumors: Insider has a couple of trade targets in mind for Sixers

The Sixers’ substantial commitments to Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons limit their options moving forward.

However, NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh does have a couple of trade targets in mind for the team this offseason.

He thinks Nets wing Joe Harris, the NBA’s leader in three-point percentage last season, should be a player of interest. 

Harris will be an unrestricted free agent and the Nets will have his Bird Rights, which means they’ll be able to go over the salary cap to re-sign him.

The Nets could orchestrate a complicated Joe Harris sign-and-trade to get him to Philly but it would likely require Philly giving up an asset like Matisse Thybulle in the deal,” Haberstroh writes. “It’s hard to see the pathway to get a Harris-(Tobias) Harris swap (Tobias makes $34.3 million next season), but the Sixers should at the very least kick the tires on what it’d take to acquire the best free agent shooter on the 2020 market. 

For as elite a shooter as Joe Harris is, that does not sound like a good deal from the Sixers’ perspective — at all. Tobias Harris, in the first year of a five-year, $180 million contract, has averaged 19.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He’s not an All-Star, but he’s a well above-average player who also helps bind the team together with his leadership. Thybulle is a talented young defender potentially under team control through the 2022-2023 season. The Sixers could use more shooting but this particular idea, in our view, is not the right way to acquire it.

The other name Haberstroh raises is veteran Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica.

If Bjelica hadn’t made a last-minute reversal in 2018 free agency, he'd be on the Sixers right now,” he writes. “Bjelica is due $7.2 million next season and the Kings have an interesting offseason ahead with Bogdan Bogdanovic being a restricted free agent. Trading for Philly’s (Josh) Richardson could be a fallback option if Bogie’s pricetag gets too high for Sacramento’s liking.

Engaging with the Kings would certainly make sense. Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are two other players it would be logical to consider.

Richardson is under contract for 2020-21 and then has an $11.6 million player option the following season. While he hasn’t fit as well as the Sixers hoped in his first season here, his perimeter defense remains valuable. One imagines the Sixers could get a better return for him than a 32-year-old stretch four. 

You can read Haberstroh’s full piece on the Sixers, including some of the major questions facing the team heading into the playoffs, here

And, if you’re interested in more national discussion on the Sixers, Haberstroh and ESPN’s Pablo Torre discussed the team on the latest episode of The Habershow podcast. Torre still believes in the potential of the Simmons-Embiid duo and finds watching Horford play on the Sixers “infuriating.”

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Sixers Talk podcast: Ready or not, here come the Celtics

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Sixers Talk podcast: Ready or not, here come the Celtics

On this edition of the Sixers Talk podcast, we discuss our concern over Joel Embiid's health, the OKC pick conveying, the first-round matchup vs. the Celtics and much more.

(0:52) — Short night (and negative X-rays) for Joel Embiid.
(9:00) — Thanks to Mike Muscala, the Sixers have a first-round pick.
(13:37) — What will Brett Brown do with the rotation?
(27:26) — Pressure on Brown coaching against Brad Stevens, Celtics.
(39:47) — Confidence in pairing of Shake Milton and Josh Richardson?

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More on the Sixers