Al Horford

What we learned about the Sixers and the changes they're making from scrimmage against Grizzlies

What we learned about the Sixers and the changes they're making from scrimmage against Grizzlies

Any grand conclusions stemming from a scrimmage in which Joel Embiid played 12 minutes and 57 seconds and sat out the second half are premature. 

However, the very early returns on the Sixers’ new starting lineup are positive. 

“It was good,” Ben Simmons said Friday night on a video conference call. “I think everyone had a good pace. Defensively, we were locked in early on and we could see everyone was communicating, getting deflections and steals and trying to run.” 

Simmons’ three-pointer was perhaps the most attention-grabbing moment of the Sixers’ 90-83 scrimmage win over the Grizzlies, but it’s not the only valuable takeaway. One noticeable aspect of the Sixers' offense was the desire to get the ball to Simmons at the elbow. We’ve seen that before when he’s played alongside Shake Milton, although the two had only shared the floor for 223 minutes this season. The idea is for Simmons to present a threat as both a facilitator and penetrator in that spot. 

While the concept runs against the Sixers’ original idea heading into this year of having the power forward behind the “four-point line” in their base offense, it’s intuitive. With Simmons’ size, strength and lack of a jump shot that requires opponents to guard him tightly (for the time being), he generally has no trouble receiving the ball around the elbow. 

It’s just the system we are in right now,” he said. “We only honestly ran one or two plays today when we went to that motion … so we’re getting a lot of looks. I love having the ball at the elbow where I’m able to create shots for my guys and get to the rim. There’s endless possibilities with what we are doing right now, so that felt very comfortable.

Milton was characteristically steady, posting six points, three assists and one turnover in a little under 18 minutes. He helped contribute to a strong defensive first half in which the Sixers forced 14 Memphis turnovers, though Brown wanted to review several sequences where he thought the 23-year-old might have done better.

“I thought that for the most part, he was good on both sides of the ball,” Brown said, “but I look forward to studying defense with Shake during this timeframe. We’ve given him a hell of a responsibility as a pretty good team’s starting point guard.”

Tobias Harris again used his time with the media to call for justice for Breonna Taylor, a message he said he will “continue to preach.”

On the court, he led the Sixers in points (15) and rebounds (10). Brown commended his “live legs” as an offensive rebounder and active communication. He ran the Sixers’ ceremonial mini Liberty Bell, which evidently traveled to Florida.

 

Josh Richardson chipped in six points and three rebounds. He should see more time as a pick-and-roll ball handler with Simmons as a roll man given that duo’s demonstrated potential, one would think. 

With Embiid, Brown’s “crown jewel,” the most interesting development may be how and when he played next to Al Horford. The pair were together for about four minutes at the end of the first and beginning of the second period, flanked by Milton, Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz. 

It does not appear the Horford-Embiid pairing will be abandoned completely. Judging by this initial scrimmage, the essence of Brown’s approach may be short stints that bookend quarters and include Korkmaz, who has thrived next to Horford

“I still think those two guys in the places that we had them, I still am a fan of,” Brown said of Horford and Embiid. “I still believe in it.” 

The Sixers’ second of three scheduled scrimmages is Sunday at noon against the Thunder, and it’ll be a full 48 minutes. We’ll learn more at that point about schemes, rotations, competitions and the like. There’s “meaningless” basketball to analyze and, though it’s clear there are many other concerns in society of greater importance, it doesn’t feel completely worthless after so long away. 

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5 burning questions facing the Sixers in Disney World

5 burning questions facing the Sixers in Disney World

When play was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Sixers had underwhelmed through 65 games. They were 39-26 and sat in sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Now, they get a chance at a fresh start with three scrimmages and eight seeding games to figure out their issues before the playoffs begins. 

Here are five burning questions for the Sixers as they resume their season in Disney World.

Can Joel Embiid stay healthy and fit?

With the time off, Embiid is rested and healthy. He said on Thursday that he was working out six days a week for the last 2½ months.

Brett Brown has been impressed, giving Embiid high marks for his fitness level unprompted.

“I’m happy with [the team's] conditioning,” Brown said when the Sixers first arrived in Florida. “I thought Joel especially stood out.”

Brown was asked last week if he still planned to play Embiid around 38 minutes a game in the playoffs like he said in May. 

“I don’t know what footage is coming out of our practices,” Brown said, “but I will tell you when we got up and down and you watch Joel move and you watch him run, there is zero doubt that he would’ve had to put in a lot of time to arrive into Orlando in the shape that he’s arrived."

Brown essentially doubled down on the fitness level of Embiid. We’ve all seen this movie before so it’s fair to be skeptical. 

While there are certainly things Embiid will want to work on, the ultimate goal is delivering the All-Star center to the playoffs healthy for the first time in his young career.

Will Ben Simmons shoot?

If Embiid’s conditioning is the No. 1 question mark surrounding the Sixers, this saga is easily No. 2. While Simmons shooting isn’t as important as Embiid’s health, the idea of the two-time All-Star stroking the occasional three is intriguing.

Just like with Embiid, Brown didn’t conceal his optimism.

“His three-point shot is looking good,” Brown said last week. “He’s shot more threes in practice the last few days than he might’ve for almost half a season. And he looks good, he feels good, and I know he’s getting tremendous encouragement from his teammates.” 

This was especially worth noting since Brown got burned when he said he wanted at least one three-point attempt a game from Simmons back in December.

Simmons playing free and shooting — and making those shots — when the opportunity presents itself would be a huge storyline, but how much would it change? Would opponents sag off him less? Would it actually open things up for the offense?

Simmons said at media day, “If it’s open, I’ll take it.” He’ll likely be open a time or two once the season resumes.

Will the new-look starting five help the offense’s clunky fit?

Well, it likely can’t hurt. The fit of Al Horford was awkward all season long. The veteran big didn’t stretch the floor next to Embiid the way GM Elton Brand had hoped. That two-man lineup was abysmal for the Sixers offensively.

If Brown does go with Shake Milton at the point, Simmons at the four and Horford on the bench to start games, that could theoretically present the Sixers with more options. Milton’s proficient shooting and ability to run a pick-and-roll should allow Brown to unleash Simmons as a screener and roller.

“The last few days I played [Simmons] exclusively as a four man,” Brown said last week. “He’s so dynamic. … Let’s just talk about running: There’s nobody faster in the NBA. And so to always have Ben have to have the ball and dribble it up against five guys … I think dilutes some of his potent weapons.”

This one could take time. This unit hasn’t played a single minute together this season, so everything is basically in theory as of now. Milton and Simmons will need to build chemistry in the pick-and-roll, while Embiid, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson will also have to adjust.

What is Al Horford’s role?

This is one is tricky. The Sixers gave Horford a four-year deal that could be worth up to $109 million this offseason. Brand didn’t sign him to that kind of contract simply to serve as Embiid’s backup.

That’s why it was a little odd to hear that Horford and Embiid have yet to take the floor together in Disney World.

“One of the groups that we haven’t done since we’ve been down here is pair Al and Joel up together,” Brown said earlier this week. “The Clipper game is a very good reference point to what I’m trying to explain, and then at that point you’re going to feel out what’s best for the team. I think that Al to date, when I watch him get up and down the floor and just his intelligence defensively, you’re again reminded of all the great things he can do."

In the win over the Clippers Brown is referencing, Embiid played just 28 minutes and Milton wasn't part of the rotation yet. It was Horford's first game off the bench this season and he shared the floor with Embiid for less than nine minutes.

Don’t expect Horford and Embiid to play big minutes together. The seeding games will likely tell us more about the Sixers’ plans to use Horford. 

We'll also get a chance to see where the 34-year-old is in terms of health. He admitted before the team left for Florida that he wasn’t where he wanted to be physically at times this season.

What about the rest of the rotation?

Brown has said that his rotation will start with 10 players and be shrunk down to nine for the postseason. We know Embiid, Simmons, Milton, Harris, Richardson and Horford will be a part of it. 

Brown also referenced a lineup he’s been using at practices where Simmons is running the point alongside Harris, Horford, Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz. If that five-man unit is used, that’s eight players.

That leaves two spots in the seeding games for three players in veterans Mike Scott, Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III. Nothing has been set in stone and there’s still plenty of time before the playoffs begin. The scrimmages and seeding games could be a good opportunity for guys fighting for rotation spots to stake their claim to one.

The good news for the Sixers is that they have way more options than they did last season.

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Even with new starters, Sixers can't avoid the issue of the Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing

Even with new starters, Sixers can't avoid the issue of the Al Horford-Joel Embiid pairing

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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