In the interest of accuracy and fairness, any discussion about the Sixers’ resident fish out of water should begin with a brief mention of the attributes that he brings to the court.
While there is plenty of reason to wonder about the Sixers’ wisdom in signing Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million contract in the offseason, the veteran big man is indisputably a net positive for the team when considering production independent of financial sensibility.
Without Horford, the Sixers would be left to navigate the next however many weeks with a starting lineup featuring either Norvel Pelle, Kyle O’Quinn, or some other replacement-level center. Without Horford, they would have struggled to replicate the defensive scheme they used to harass Giannis Antetokounmpo into a season-worst shooting performance while beating the Bucks on Christmas Day. And, without Horford, there is a good chance they would not have the seventh-rated defense in the NBA, one that is allowing opponents to score nearly four points fewer per 100 possessions than it did last season.
It is these last two details, in particular, that muddy any attempt to assess Horford’s fit with the Sixers with a simple yay or nay. Currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, with a record that is roughly in line with the one they produced in each of the previous two seasons, the Sixers have fallen far short of the lofty regard in which they held themselves at the start of the season.
At the same time, they constructed their roster according to the belief that success and failure depended only on their ability to win eight out of 14 games in April and May against two out of a group of three or four teams.
And while it would certainly constitute a failure if their road to the NBA Finals ends up requiring them to win 12 of 21 against three of that group of five (which could be the case if they enter the postseason as the sixth seed), the fact remains that the strengths of their roster have largely expressed themselves according to plan in the handful of regular-season games that they have played against that group. That includes Horford.
Yet it is becoming impossible to ignore the multitude of stretches in which the Sixers look like they would be a much more productive team on the offensive end if somebody other than Horford had the ball in his hands in the situations in which Horford most frequently finds himself.
The latest example came Wednesday night, when he spent the first three quarters of a win over the Nets struggling to capitalize on a multitude of catch-and-shoot opportunities. While Horford salvaged the performance with a strong fourth quarter, he nevertheless finished the night having missed seven of his nine three-point attempts and 10 of his 14 shots from the field.
This is not an indictment of the player as much as it is the offensive role that he is being asked to play. And if you sometimes watch Horford receive a pass on the perimeter and catch yourself wondering how the situation might play out if he were some other player, you may not be alone.
Among the players that the Sixers are reportedly interested in acquiring before next month’s trade deadline are a group of catch-and-shoot wings and guards who would improve their offense off the bench. A subset of this group would give Brett Brown greater flexibility in subbing Horford out to create a more traditional offensive lineup. And one member of this group is particularly intriguing.
At first glance, a reunion with Robert Covington might not make a ton of sense. With a salary of $11.3 million, and having started 182 of the last 182 games that he has played, the one-time Sixer does not fit the profile of the sort of 15- to 20-minute-a-night bench scorer that you might project as a priority for the Sixers. And one would assume that the Timberwolves would price him accordingly on this year’s trade market, particularly when you consider that he still has another year remaining on his team-friendly contract.
But the more you think about the ways in which the addition of such a player would expand Brett Brown’s options on both ends of the court, the more the Sixers’ reported interest in Covington should intrigue you.
Given the composition of the starting lineup, and Covington’s switchability as a defender, he could conceivably serve as the primary backup for Josh Richardson at the two and Tobias Harris at the three, but also Horford at the four.
It is this last possibility that could serve as an antidote for the problems the Sixers have endured when Horford and Embiid are on the court together. The availability of Covington would give Brown the option of replacing Horford with a player whose skills are a more natural match for the catch-and-shoot opportunities the latter has been struggling to capitalize upon. This, without sacrificing anything on the defensive end, where the Sixers would have the potential to be just as imposing, given Covington’s ability as a perimeter defender.
Before Embiid’s injury, there were already occasions when Brown would opt for an additional wing over Horford in the closing moments of a half or game. Covington would only enhance the potential benefits of doing so.
It is debatable whether those benefits would exceed those that the Sixers could reap if they leveraged their limited trade capital to acquire a guard with more shot-creation ability or one who is a more consistent shooter.