Al Horford’s Embarrassing Scream Is The Lasting Memory the 2019–20 Sixers Deserve
In July of 2019, the Philadelphia 76ers made their boldest gamble since the beginning of the long-term tanking strategy known now as the Process: they signed Al Horford away from the Boston Celtics, lavishing the then-33 year old big man with a four year, $109 million contract. The bet was that depriving the Celtics of a player who’d given Joel Embiid trouble, plus the value Horford would add with his shooting and savvy, would counteract the fit issues that would come along with starting two centers and two power forwards in a league gravitating more and more toward versatility and spacing. In game one of the first Sixers-Celtics playoff series since the signing, Horford provided a perfect encapsulation for this year’s iteration of the Sixers. It was not the sort of moment the team was hoping for when they signed him.
This rebound and bucket, which gave Horford seven and six on the night, would be his second to last and last of the game, a game his team would go on to lose by eight points. The guy he’s standing in front of while letting out thaty pateneted Al Horford rage scored 32 points and had 13 rebounds. It’s not ideal to pay a center $109 million for him to not reach a number of points and rebounds that should stylistically be denoted by numbers rather than text, but this moment is so perfectly represtantive of the team’s season that it feels masochistically better than the nothing he did in the game otherwise.
This sweep at the hands of the franchise’s chief rival without Ben Simmons laid bare atroubling truth: they’re every bit the incompetent nincompoops more famously bad franchises like the Knicks are, they just happen to have Joel Embiid’s brilliance to give them the veneer of potential contention. This was somewhat true of last year’s 4–3 loss to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, when the team outscored the Raps with Embiid on the floor but were so thoroughly run off the court in the short spurts when he sat that the Horford signing started to make a little sense if you squinted at it through rose-colored glasses; that series famously ended with a last-second Kawhi Leonard jumper bouncing four times on the rim before finally falling through for the win. Sixers fans likely thought that was the most crushing way they’d see their team lose a series. It turns out getting swept while it becomes clearer by the second that this team is in no position to even get back to that level is significantly worse.
As detailed by Kyle Neubeck at the Philly Voice, this is a team built for “bully ball” that often doesn’t show an ounce of bully. Tobias Harris is a power forward who plays like a shooting guard and seems scared of drawing a foul. AL Horford is a center who hasn’t average more than 7.5 rebounds since 2013–14. Ben Simmons is a super athlete who, like Harris, would rather attempt a difficult floater than get to the charity stripe, a signifcantly more damaging limitation than his refusal to shoot inefficient three pointers since it actually takes points off the board for his team.
A front office that boasts one of the largest analytics staffs in the league blamed analytics on the Al Horford signing — if your modern analytics staff said that starting two power forwards and two centers was a good idea, it’s not the fault of analytics as a tool, it’s the fault of the staff for not having any idea how to analyze things. Brett Brown was put in an awful position with the personnel given to him by Elton Brand and the front office, but he never found a way to maxamize the team’s talent, instead starting Al Horford for most of the season while he, Simmons and Embiid fought each other for space in the post.
The next coach of the Philadelphia 76ers will not be in an enviable position, which is something that would have sounded crazy a couple years ago. Since then, the GM of the team, who only got the job because the commissioner of the NBA forced the Sixers to bring his dad in as a consultant, resigned in disgrace following a burner Twitter scandal; the team has promised nearly $300 million to two players who play the same position as their two young stars; and the player their rival team took after trading down with them Sixers has blossomed into a future Hall of Famer while the player the Sixers pick has remained a Mutter Museum-level morbid fascination, cast off to Orlando for nothing.
After all that, it’s not even clear if the disniterested ownership vampires fronted by Josh Harris want to clean the front office responsible for many of those mistakes out. They haven’t done a real GM search since hiring Sam Hinkie, since Bryan Colangelo was a nepotism hire and Elton Brand was an internal hire; given the track record, it seems like maybe ownership just doesn’t care enough to do one, which could mean keeping the current front office in place out of laziness. If by some miracle they do clean house, that GM will have a mess on their hands as well, given that it would essentially take a Kawhi-level developmental miracle with Zhaire Smith or Matisse Thybulle to give this team the type of wing star is desperately needs. It’s easy to talk about bully ball, about star hunting, about all the GM candidates you interviewed before happening to hire the consultant’s son, to make bold moves to mimic continued shots at contention, but when everything falls apart, those moves just look like Al Horford, screaming at the top of his lungs, then disappearing. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.