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 tenants 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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