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Why Al Horford’s presence and versatility will be a big boon to the 76ers’ championship aspirations

Two postseasons ago, Al Horford played a large role in ending the Philadelphia 76ers‘ hopes of winning their first NBA title since 1983 as a member of the Boston Celtics. Most Philadelphia fans can still vividly remember Horford putting the clamps on Joel Embiid throughout the semifinal series between the two teams, as well as his game-winning layup in Game 3. Now, after signing a four-year deal with the team in free agency, Horford is set to play an integral role in trying to help the Sixers achieve that same goal, and his versatility could be key to pushing them over the top.

Horford will be penciled in as the starting four man for the Sixers — sandwiched between Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia’s frontcourt — but he will be far from one dimensional. Horford is a multi-faceted forward, and the Sixers will be looking to take advantage of all that he brings to the team.

Here’s a look at some of the major ways that Horford will impact the Sixers: 

Versatility to lineup, insurance at center position 

Yes, Horford will start as a forward for the Sixers and play a lot of minutes alongside All-Star center Joel Embiid. Horford’s ability to stretch the floor with his shot and pass from the high post should allow the two to coexist well.

Horford, though, will also likely spend a substantial amount of time manning the center spot of an Embiid-less unit. Last season, when Embiid would leave the court, the Sixers’ production — on both ends — would plummet. This became extremely evident in the 2019 playoffs, when Embiid posted the highest single plus/minus of the entire postseason. The Sixers were significantly better than the Toronto Raptors when Embiid was on the court during the seven-game semifinals series between the two teams, but were significantly worse when he would head to the bench.

Embiid needing significant rest is inevitable, but having Horford on the roster should help to limit the drop-off in production that occurs when he’s off of the court. This season, when Embiid needs to rest for a quarter — or a game — Brett Brown can slide Horford over to the center spot, and adjust accordingly, either by bringing Mike Scott in off the bench to fill the four spot, or by bumping Tobias Harris up to the four (where he played last season) and bringing in a perimeter player like Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle or James Ennis off the bench to fill the other forward spot.

“We know that they can play together and we know that they can play well together. But the opportunity to have Al back him up at times, especially in the playoffs, is a great opportunity for us,” 76ers general manager Elton Brand said during Horford’s introductory press conference. “The versatility of this lineup is what’s important. He can play the four. He can play the five. We have many players that can play multiple positions.”

We might not see Horford at the five spot too often during the regular season, but the option is certainly something that Brett Brown will keep in his back pocket for the postseason so that the Sixers don’t have to deploy a lineup absent an All-Star-caliber big man.

Not surprisingly, the opportunity to play alongside Embiid — and form a dominant defensive duo — after battling against him for several seasons was a big part of the reason why Horford was attracted to Philadelphia.

“There were some great battles [with Embiid], and when this opportunity came along, the possibility of teaming up with him got me really excited about the potential — how good we can be — help our team be defensively,” Horford said. “Just get to working together and do some special things.”

A secondary playmaker

Following the departure of Jimmy Butler over the offseason, the 76ers are in need of a secondary playmaker behind Ben Simmons, and Horford will be able to fill that role to an extent.

By the time the playoffs rolled around last season, Butler had largely assumed that role for the Sixers, as he initiated much of the offense when Simmons was on the bench — and sometimes even when he was still in the game. Butler was second on the Sixers in assists during the regular season with 4.0 per game, and that number jumped up to 5.2 in the postseason.

With Horford on the floor, that level of potential playmaking shouldn’t drop much, as Horford averaged over four assists per game in each of his three seasons in Boston — a time during which he solidified his development as one of the league’s premier passing big men.

Horford dropping 10 dimes against the New York Knicks during a game in 2017 shows his varied skillset as a passer: 

Considering his ability as a passer, it’s safe to say that Brett Brown will have no shortage of sets where the offense is initiated through Horford from the high or low post.

Experience and locker room leadership

As good as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are, they’re both still relatively young, and both benefit from having experienced veterans on the floor and in the locker room, as all young players do. JJ Redick filled that role well for the Sixers for the past two seasons, but now that he’s filling that same role in New Orleans there’s a void that Horford appears primed to fill.

Horford, a highly respected player across the NBA’s landscape, has made the postseason in 11 of his 12 seasons in the league and has 120 games of playoff experience under his belt. His experience and composure should help center the Sixers when play gets frantic and mistakes are wont to be made. Horford has seen a lot in his 12 seasons and he isn’t easily rattled, and that type of demeanor on the court can be contagious.

After what he described as a disappointing end to his tenure with the Celtics, Horford, 33, should be especially motivated heading into the season as a member of Boston’s close conference rival.

“We all expected more from each other and from this group,” Horford said after the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs last spring. “I do believe that we gave all we had. Things just didn’t go our way,” Horford said. “We had an up-and-down season all year and, in the playoffs, we got off to a good start, and then for whatever reason we weren’t able to recover. Obviously that’s disappointing and it hurts because we were trying to do it for Boston, for our fans, and obviously we’re disappointed. We came up way short.”

With the mistakes made by the Celtics fresh in his mind, Horford could potentially help the Sixers avoid similar missteps.

Additional floor-spacer

“Do they have enough shooting?” is a question that’s been tossed around about the Sixers over the offseason, and it’s a valid one given the emphasis that is placed on shooting in the game today. It’s especially valid for the Sixers considering the fact that their two stars both happen to be dominant paint players. It’s no secret that they need to space the floor for both Embiid and Simmons, and Horford can help to do that.

After attempting just 18 total 3s through his first six seasons in the league, Horford evolved his game to fit in with the increased importance placed on outside shooting and became a legitimate threat from long distance. Last season, Horford connected on 73 3-pointers and shot 36 percent from beyond the arc, and he holds a respectable career 3-point percentage (36 percent). Thanks to this development in his game, Horford appears nicely suited to fit in well with the Sixers’ young stars.

With two of the game’s top young players locked up for the foreseeable future, the 76ers have an open title window, and a versatile veteran like Horford might be the perfect piece to help them capitalize.