Horford can’t pass on ‘opportunity to win now’ in Philly
CAMDEN — Young guard Josh Richardson was an essential offseason pickup for his ability to improve the 76ers’ athleticism on the wing and defend opposing point guards.
Despite all that Richardson brings to a Sixers squad with NBA championship aspirations, Al Horford proved to be an even more important acquisition.
Horford will start alongside Joel Embiid in the frontcourt and probably be Embiid’s primary backup at the center position. Given his 12 years in the NBA and what he’s accomplished as a five-time All-Star, the 33-year-old Horford can help by mentoring Embiid and Ben Simmons too.
“I’m blown away that he’s here. I’m just so excited to have him,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown, citing the value of “somebody like Al with his resume coming into our program.”
Why wouldn’t Brown, who called Horford “a priceless gift,” be thrilled three days into a training camp in which Horford has appeared to fit in seamlessly?
Horford is capable of being a bridge between Brown and the other players. Hearing a suggestion from a highly respected veteran instead of the coaching staff tends to carry more weight.
To paraphrase the popular 1970s and ’80s commercial, when Al Horford talks, people listen.
Horford gained plenty of cachet in the Sixers locker room with the defensive job he did on Embiid and Simmons in the Celtics’ 4-1 2018 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals victory. Horford’s combination of size, quickness and strength allowed him to more than hold his own against two talented players with such varied skill sets.
Is there another player in the league who could’ve done that? The Pacers’ Myles Turner might be the only other possibility.
The 25-year-old Embiid and 23-year-old Simmons would be foolish not to take what Horford says into account.
“I can learn a lot from him,” Embiid said.
Horford, who has almost exclusively been a center in recent years, and Embiid give the Sixers a pair of versatile shot blockers capable of switching out on smaller players in pick-and-roll situations.
“[Our size on defense is] ridiculous,” Simmons said. “We’ve got Jo in the paint and Al in there.”
Horford is likely to cover the power forwards on most nights, though Embiid could defend the four man if it’s somebody such as the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam.
“I’ve never had the chance to play with a guy like Joel,” Horford said. “It’s really a dream come true for me — a guy who can do it all on the floor and I believe is the best big man in the league right now.
“I’m just here to help him and help our team.”
The offensive numbers suggest Horford would be best utilized on the perimeter with Embiid in the paint to take advantage of his footwork and low-post moves. Horford has hit 39.6% of his 3-point attempts over the past two seasons, compared to Embiid’s 30.3%. Horford also knocked down 50% of his shots from 16 feet to the 3-point line last year, with Embiid at 33.3%.
“It’s really for me to get used to the offensive system, where Coach wants me to be and understanding how to play off of Joel,” Horford said. “He can do so many things.”
Horford can also score inside and is an effective passer, averaging 4.2 assists and just 1.5 turnovers in 2018-19.
“I feel like one of the strengths I bring, especially on the offense, is being able to do a little bit of everything,” Horford said.
Though Horford has never won a championship, he’s been to the Eastern Conference finals three times — twice with the Celtics and once in Atlanta. His teams lost to LeBron James and the Cavaliers each time. The Hawks won 60 games and earned the conference’s top seed in 2014-15 before his Celtics finished first in the East two seasons later.
Horford realizes how high the expectations are in Philadelphia. It’s one reason he signed a four-year deal worth a guaranteed $97 million and why he’s so eagerly looking forward to the regular season, which begins Oct. 23 against, appropriately enough, the Celtics.
“The opportunity to win going into my 13th season is important to me,” Horford said. “I feel like we have an opportunity to win now. That’s something that was hard for me to pass [up].”
Just as general manager Elton Brand couldn’t pass on signing Horford.
Ben Simmons, left, and Al Horford, seen on media day, are two of the players on whom the 76ers will rely heavily in their quest to reach the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference.