Brett Brown said Tuesday night that Al Horford and Joel Embiid “have not played at this stage together” during the Sixers’ practices at Disney World.
That very well may not indicate anything too substantial. But, with under two weeks until the Sixers are set to play their first seeding game, it’s at least interesting that the team hasn’t yet practiced with the starting frontcourt it used on opening night.
Horford said he hasn’t had a conversation with Brown about whether he’ll eventually play with Embiid.
“I haven’t,” he said, “but the reality is that it’s going to happen at some point. I think we’ll be fine. I do understand the changes and things like that. I don’t want people to make more of this than what it is. The reality is that we’ll be fine and we’ll be playing together at times, at times we won’t, and that’s just it.”
In the Sixers’ Feb. 11 win over the Clippers, a game Brown has called a “very good reference point,” Horford and Embiid each played 28 minutes, sharing the floor for about nine. If the two big men are eventually going to play next to each other, as Horford expects, one assumes they’ll also practice together.
Brown said Saturday he’s “happy to share when it happens when we start looking closely at Al and Joel together again,” so it’s possible we’ll gain more clarity shortly. The Sixers are off Wednesday and scrimmage against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday.
Brown and Horford have faced questions about this topic plenty throughout the year. When an expensive free-agent signing is relegated to the bench for the first time since November of 2007, it’s a big story, like it or not. After Brown made that move in February, he emphasized that Horford still had an important role to play. He made it sound as if he wasn’t going to cast aside the Embiid-Horford pairing unless the opposition forced his hand.
“… It’s still the desire to have those two guys play quality basketball and coexist whenever that is required,” he said on Feb. 21. "But I feel like the number (of minutes they play together) 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.”
Five months later, the situation still looks a bit murky.
First, we’re left to wonder if it’s “required” for Horford and Embiid to share the court. Though it isn’t in a literal sense — Brown is free to play whoever he wants, whenever he wants — the idea of Horford getting 10 minutes per game in the postseason is striking at first glance. That’s how much the 34-year-old would play if he served exclusively as a backup center and Embiid hit Brown’s “ambitious” target of 38 minutes per playoff game.
Second, though Brown’s answer from February about matchups is reasonable, few matchups this season have been advantageous for the Horford-Embiid pairing. As we’ve noted many times, out of all regular Sixers duos, the team has the worst net rating with Horford and Embiid on the floor — minus-1.3 overall, and minus-8.8 in 328 shared minutes since December. Both players have fared much better when the other is on the bench. Horford’s field goal percentage is over eight points higher when Embiid is off the court, and the Sixers’ net rating is almost six points better than when he’s alongside the three-time All-Star.
Will there be matchups in the playoffs where a Horford-Embiid frontcourt is the best one the Sixers can employ?
There’s still time for Brown to nail this down — and perhaps he already has in his mind — but it’s unavoidable. It stands out, too, in the context of him forging ahead with a new starting lineup in the team’s first week back at practice.
If Horford and Embiid do indeed play together, what’s the key to improving their on-court partnership?
“Well, really that’s Coach has to figure things out in that way,” Horford said. “Now that the games mean more at this point, especially the playoffs coming in, the focus really shifts to defense and we have to make sure that we’re great defensively.
"The offense, it will come. We will figure that out. But defensively, we just have to make sure that we’re great, and I believe that we will be.”
Elite interior defense might be enough for the Horford-Embiid duo to be a positive one, though it was not before the NBA season paused because of COVID-19. The hope that it will be isn’t an adequate way to address the issue, and Brown surely knows that.
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