Just a week ago, I wrote about how the Sixers had come to a crossroad in their 2019-2020 season. While 7 days is not a big enough sample size to tell if the team has chosen the right path, a recent injury may have forced the Sixers into a very important realization. In Monday night’s game against Oklahoma City, Joel Embiid suffered a dislocated finger that ultimately led to a torn ligament requiring surgery. Embiid finished Monday’s contest, which seems to say that Embiid should not be hampered long term this year, but he will miss a few weeks as he recovers from surgery. In the meantime, Brett Brown will have to turn to veteran big man Al Horford to give his team more productive minutes in place of Joel. But if last night’s 109-98 victory over the Boston Celtics is any indication, Horford seems up for the task.
In fact, without Embiid, the combination of Horford and Ben Simmons had an offensive rating of 116 and were +7.1 per 100 possessions (per @bdetrick on Twitter). That’s pretty darn good. Also in those minutes where Horford and Simmons share the floor without Embiid, Horford is shooting 38% from deep. Al Horford recently griped to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey about his lack of opportunities to show his offensive skill set, and it appears that he has some legitimate reasoning to say so when he is coupled with Embiid. It bears worth mentioning, however, that the increase in production goes both ways. The combination of Embiid, Simmons, and Tobias Harris have an offensive rating of 122.4 and are +15.4 per 100 possessions when Horford is not on the floor. Horford gets pretty darn good when not paired with Embiid, and Embiid makes the Sixers close to unstoppable when he’s without his counterpart in the paint.
So where does this leave the Sixers? Well, if Al Horford’s improved play continues to shine as Embiid recovers from his finger injury, it will become even more clear that there is a lack of compatibility between the two. I don’t know about you, but if I paid $256 Million ($147m for Embiid and $109m for Horford) for two pieces, I would want those pieces to be able to fit together. It is up to Coach Brett Brown to figure out exactly how to fit those two very expensive and very talented players together when Embiid returns to the lineup. Perhaps this means a reduced role for the older Horford to maximize his energy come playoff time. We will undoubtedly see an uptick in Joel’s minutes once April rolls around, and maybe that will allow Horford to become more of a bench piece. But one thing is clear: until this point, Joel Embiid and Al Horford play much better apart from one another, and the Sixers need to figure out just how they fit in order to make the championship run that they desire.