Even in the best of times, Al Horford is not a guy who gives a lot away. Everything you’ve heard about him throughout his career is accurate. He is pleasant, polite, consistently positive, reluctant to come within even an arm’s length of controversy. He is a consummate pro.
Yet that polish enables him to deftly avoid any question that asks him to offer more of himself than is already on display. He’ll give you what you are looking for, but he’ll do it without giving you much of anything at all.
To be clear, there is no value judgment implied here. It is not a good thing, or a bad thing, just simply a thing, and one that’s worth knowing before considering his take on one of the more significant developments of this wild Sixers season.
It’s also worth knowing that, on Tuesday evening, when the Sixers’ starting lineup was announced, Horford found himself in a position where he had not been since his rookie season. Instead of running onto the court with the rest of the first-teamers, he was standing off to the side, hearing five other names announced. That’s the sort of thing that can take a while to digest, even after a 110-103 win over one of the NBA’s foremost title contenders.
“I accepted it,” Horford said after the Sixers had wrapped up one of their most impressive wins of the season, holding a near wire-to-wire lead over the visiting Clippers. “Obviously it’s not the position that I saw myself in, but it was what was best for the team.”
That’s the complicated part of this whole thing, from virtually every perspective. For four quarters, the Sixers pounded the Clippers into submission the way they envisioned they would when they signed Horford to a four-year megadeal this offseason.
With the veteran big man coming off the bench, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons combined for what their coach said might have been their best combined game since joining forces two years ago. Simmons spent much of the game playing off the ball, bullying his way to the rim en route to 26 points. Of his 12 made shots, 10 came within four feet of the basket, a realm where Embiid also thrived en route to his own 26 points.
Elsewhere with the first unit, Tobias Harris scored 11 points in the first quarter and played an explosive brand of basketball while operating out of the four spot. Josh Richardson scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and finished with a +24. Along with Embiid and Simmons, it was hard not to notice how cohesive the offense looked.
“I think the ripple effects you feel, and when you study the tape, I’ll feel more," coach Brett Brown said. "I think the fact that we won can amplify, can magnify some things that maybe we’re concocting. I’ll look at it and see it all better.”
On the one hand, it would be a mistake to consider Horford a true odd man out. Against the Clippers, he finished with 28 minutes of court time, just shy of his average over the past several seasons. Two nights after failing to score a point for the first time in his career, he scored nine against the Clippers, grabbing six rebounds and connecting on three of his four shots from the field.
Yet this came on a night when, because of some early foul trouble, Embiid played only 28 minutes himself. And however the Sixers spin it, this was not the role they had originally envisioned for Horford, and, as he acknowledged earlier, it wasn’t the one he saw for himself.
With 27 games left before the postseason, the only thing that matters to the Sixers is the here and the now. Brown would not commit to any set rotation moving forward, but it seems clear that the future will include plenty of nights when Horford is in a dramatically reduced role.
“I said [to Horford] exactly what I just said [to the media]: Right now, this starting group has been struggling," Brown said. "You’ve done nothing wrong. I keep myself up late at night trying to find ways to better coach it and fix it and let it coexist. And to date, after 50-whatever games, we’ve struggled a little bit.”
“He told me about the decision, and I respected it, and we go from there,” he said.
Did he understand Brown’s rationale?
“Sure,” Horford said.
Does he have a good idea of what his role will be for the rest of the season?
“I honestly don’t think it changes much from what I was doing before,” he said.
At some point, though, there is a reality that both player and organization will need to confront. With three years and $81 million remaining on Horford’s contract, it is far from certain that the Sixers will even have the option of trading him whenever their season is done.
Take, for instance, a team such as the Clippers. Judging by what we saw against the Sixers, they could be in the market for a legitimate five man this summer. Yet would they really be willing to sacrifice the payroll flexibility that could enable them to land another max contract from what is expected to be a solid free-agent class in 2021?