Al Horford’s place in the rotation is perhaps one of the 76ers’ biggest storylines leading up the NBA restart.
All signs point toward the five-time All-Star going back to the bench despite standing out in eight straight starts prior to the shutdown. Surely, the 13th-year veteran wants to remain in the starting lineup as opposed to going back to the bench, right?
“For me, I just want us to be playing well and to be playing at a high level,” Horford said during Friday’s Zoom call with reporters. “I’m going to continue to work and be an assistance to a team any way I can. I do know for us to be successful I have to play with different lineups.
“I have to play with Joel [Embiid] sometimes. I have to play with different people. It really doesn’t matter.”
Here’s the problem: The pairing of Horford and Embiid, the three-time All-Star center, has been a failure most of the season, especially when Ben Simmons was on the floor with the duo. The team admitted as much when Horford was demoted to the bench before the Feb. 11 home game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Horford returned to the starting lineup three games later, but only because Simmons was sidelined with a pinched nerve in his lower back. Simmons, who missed the final eight games before the season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, will return in Orlando.
Horford and Embiid enjoyed some success starting alongside each other in a 124-106 home victory over the woeful Detroit Pistons on March 11, the final game before the league stoppage.
Embiid had a team-high 30 points to go with a game-high 14 rebounds after missing the previous five games with a left shoulder sprain. Horford had 20 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks.
In addition to serving as the starting power forward, Horford also was Embiid’s backup. So the two weren’t always on the court at the same time.
Their spacing on the court will surely take a hit with Simmons, who’s hesitant to shoot from the outside, back in the lineup. While he’s listed as the point guard, the Sixers like to use Simmons as a screen-setter on occasion. They also play him at small center. And the team likes to use him as a facilitator at the elbow, where his teammates played off him.
The Sixers will benefit from keeping sharp-shooting point guard Shake Milton in the starting lineup over Horford. Simmons will be listed as the point guard but would actually be a point forward while Milton is in the game.
“I just think at this time ... I think it’s going to benefit all of us, especially for Ben being able to be healthy now, being able to come in and have an impact,” Horford said of his playing with different lineups. “I really don’t think that stuff is going to matter that much, in my opinion.”
On Wednesday, Brett Brown tried to elude a question about Horford’s role, but his response was telling. Brown initially said he was going to feel things out at the start of training camp before admitting he already has some thoughts.
“Maybe this will help answer it a little bit better,” he said. “There is kind of a Team Al and a Team Joel, and you figure out what that world is. And then there’s the integration of the two of them.”
Translation: Don’t be surprised to see Horford back up Embiid and the two paired together when the Sixers close out games. That makes a lot of sense because NBA teams reduce rotations in the postseason, giving the better players the most minutes.
There’s no denying that Horford is one of the team’s best players despite his lack of success playing together with Embiid and Simmons. He could have a role similar to that of former Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, who excelled in a backup role.
“The way I’m going to look at it is, I’m going to make the most out of my situation and stay prepared and stay ready,” Horford said. “Coach will have to decide how and when to play me and how much to play me.
“I just have to be ready.”
The Sixers are conducting voluntary workouts at their practice facility in Camden until they travel to Orlando on July 9. After arriving in Orlando’s bubble-like atmosphere, the Sixers will be running a training camp until July 29 and face the Indiana Pacers on Aug. 1 in the first of eight seeding games. The Pacers will be without Victor Oladipo, who has told ESPN he will not be participating in the restart in Orlando.
The Sixers currently sit in a disappointing sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The postseason begins on Aug. 17.
“I believe that our group is built for the playoffs,” Horford said. “I believe there’s a second chance for us and a great opportunity.”