The most intriguing addition of the Sixers offseason wasn’t on stage Friday afternoon. Four others were there, lined up shoulder to shoulder behind a battery of microphones along with a couple of executives who’d been waiting nearly two weeks to introduce them. Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Kyle O’Quinn: each brings with him a package of skills that should add a dimension to the team’s rotation that did not exist for much of last season.
But the guy who will matter most come playoff time was somewhere else: the Maldives would be our best guess, judging by the series of shirtless pics that he uploaded to his legendary Instagram page.
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Over the last couple of seasons, various members of the Sixers organization have spent inordinate amounts of time talking about their desire to limit the workload of their burgeoning superstar center in order to maximize the shelf life of a body that has been equal parts prodigious and fragile. For the most part, those sentiments have proved to be either empty words or words spoken in vain. While the run-up to free agency was consumed by talk of the futures of Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and JJ Redick, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the biggest thing the Sixers were missing this past postseason was a healthy Joel Embiid.
It’s a remarkable fact that the Sixers came as close as they did to knocking off the eventual NBA champs when their undisputed centerpiece had nearly as many turnovers (28) as field goals (34) in the series. Embiid spent most of their seven-game loss to the Raptors as an afterthought on the offensive end of the court, hampered by a flu-like illness and a nagging knee injury, and the lack of conditioning that resulted from both. He shot just .370 from the field, averaged just 17.6 points, and was limited to 34 minutes per night. Despite his struggles, that last number was the most significant. In a series in which the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 89 points when Embiid was on the court, it’s not a stretch to suggest that they might have lived to see another round had their center managed to play 39 or 40 minutes per night.
In Friday’s news conference, general manager Elton Brand played the latest variation on a familiar theme when asked about the need to keep his cornerstone healthy.
“When I spoke to Joel and spoke to the group also in exit interviews, he understood that our goal is to deliver the best Joel Embiid to the postseason," Brand said. "So whatever it takes, he’s on board for that.”
It’s the kind of statement we’ve heard plenty of times from figures ranging from Brett Brown to Bryan Colangelo to Embiid himself. But as Brand spoke, there were two big reasons to believe that, this time, the Sixers might actually follow through. In signing Horford and O’Quinn, the GM has given his coaching staff a couple of viable options to fill the considerable defensive void that has existed over the last couple of seasons whenever Embiid took a seat on the bench. Most significant is the addition of Horford, whose prowess as a rim protector has been on display whenever he has matched up against Embiid over the last three seasons. While it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Sixers agreed to pay him $109 million over four seasons to be a backup center, the flexibility that his presence now gives them was certainly a contributing factor in their offseason pivot in his direction.
The biggest reason Embiid averaged a career-high 33.7 minutes per game last season was the complete dearth of options that Brown and his coaching staff had to replace him. Now, with Horford in the fold, the Sixers can stagger their two big men in a way that enables them to play all 48 minutes with a premier defensive center on the court. Limiting Embiid to 28 or 30 or 32 minutes a night will be a lot easier when Horford is in the game for the other 20 or 18 or 16 minutes.
The addition of O’Quinn won’t have nearly that kind of impact, but it should allow Brown to go through the season without playing either Horford or Embiid on both ends of a back-to-back. The exact composition of those rotations is difficult to project without knowing what to project from young players like Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle and Jonah Bolden, any of whom could factor into the options at the Sixers’ disposal when it comes to replacing either Horford or Embiid. But there should be a variety of options, which wasn’t the case when Amir Johnson and Boban Marjanovic were in the fold.
“Having these options, we did fall off a cliff once Joel was off the court, especially defensively,” Brand said. “Having these great options bodes well for our team success. And he’s on board for sure.”
It’s also reasonable to hope that the presence of two veteran bigs -- in particular Horford -- will help Embiid remain on board. Throughout an 11-year career, Horford has been one of the most consistent big men in the NBA largely because of his ability to remain in shape and show up for work. He has played in at least 67 games in all but two seasons and has played in 81-plus in three campaigns.
“I think I’ve said this in the past -- I’ve always been a fan of Joel,” Horford said. “Just everything he brings, on the court, off the court. There were some great battles, and when this opportunity came along and the possibility of teaming up with him, it got me really excited about the potential . . . "
The Sixers haven’t addressed any specifics when it comes to managing Embiid’s court time, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to target the kind of season that Horford had last season for the Celtics: 68 games, 29 minutes a night, a ramped-up workload come playoff time.