Hor­ford can’t pass on ‘op­por­tu­nity to win now’ in Philly

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Tom Moore Tom Moore: [email protected]­er­times.com; @TomMoorePh­illy.

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.

CHRIS SZAGOLA/AP

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.

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