Why the Joel Embiid, Al Horford Duo Isn’t Working (Sort of)

Last season, the Philadelphia 76ers won 51 games and were a Kawhi Leonard miracle away from going to the Eastern Conference Finals. General manager Elton Brand and his staff made two essential deals over the summer to give the Sixers a changed look. One of those moves was the highly publicized Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade to the Miami Heat, taking back Josh Richardson.

The other changed their identity completely.

Essentially swapping JJ Redick (signed with New Orleans Pelicans) in exchange for Al Horford (signed from Boston Celtics) has its tradeoffs. Philly has a brand new defensive firepower never seen before. Joel Embiid and Horford are dual rim protectors and shot blockers that use their immense length to lock down the paint. Ben Simmons as the point guard can fluster other teams. Richardson and Tobias Harris are long, disruptive wings that can slide up or down a position. Even the role players all fit this mold.

But push aside their defensive potential for a moment.

This Sixers team features five All-Star-caliber players in their starting group, and yet it feels like they are falling far short of their offensive potential.

In the last week, Philly has been pushed to the brink by a bad New Orleans Pelicans team, blown out by the Brooklyn Nets (without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant), silenced at home by the Miami Heat zone defense and dropped a double-digit loss to the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks. Sitting at 20-10 feels underwhelming given this team’s obvious talent.

Below is a screengrab of the Philadelphia 76ers catch-and-shoot jumpers so far this season, as of December 21st:

This… is surprisingly good. Nine players getting more than a point per possession when they shoot it without a dribble—on a team that lost Redick and is filled with size. Matisse Thybulle is shooting it well, Embiid is making defenses pay that over-collapse on Simmons, and guys like Mike Scott and James Ennis play their role well. A little more out of wings like Harris and Richardson would be nice, but they’re fine.

The number to worry about is actually Al Horford.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers offense with both Horford and Embiid sharing the court is generating 102.1 points per 100 possessions. With just Embiid, that number jumps to 112.0 points, and with just Horford, it’s 114.8. The two-big lineups don’t work if Horford is going to be at 33 percent on his catch-and-shoot attempts, particularly if he’s defaulting to Simmons, Embiid and Harris for the lion’s share of creation duty.

Embiid has been doubled in the post for years. One of the one-on-one top post threats since prime Shaquille O’Neal, sensible defensive strategy would be to crowd and surround Embiid.

Putting Simmons next to Embiid takes away one kick-out option, so the other three guys better be knocking down those catch-and-shoot opportunities. With Horford garnering fewer than 0.9 points per possession on catch-and-shoots, teams are leaving him on the perimeter when they sink to double Joel:

Mainly, Horford’s man is either sent to double (because he has length to trap) or Simmons’ man does, and Horford’s defender then drops to take away a cutting Simmons. Late in games, when the two bigs share the floor, Embiid’s offense is neutralized.

During the fourth quarter of a close game, how would you choose to make the Sixers beat you: an Embiid post-up or Horford taking a 3-pointer? The Denver Nuggets likely feel the same way:

Embiid knows how to beat double-teams, but this same problem persisted last year as well: The Sixers shot only 31.8 percent on passes out of double-teams to spot-up guys, according to Synergy. This year, that number is much higher and his turnover rate is down. Joel’s willingness to share the ball earlier when he recognizes doubles has helped his teammates.

Nonetheless, he must fight the urge to jack up difficult turnaround jumpers when he sees a double coming. When the double comes from the top or the middle-side, Embiid will spin back to the baseline and take a difficult fadeaway instead of zipping the ball to the open man:

Part of this has to do with rotations and the lack of consistently excellent shooters surrounding JoJo. The other has to do with spacing. So many Sixers are trying to post-up with their size advantages, and guys like Horford and Simmons are more effective near the rim, but lanes for passing out of the post simply aren’t there.

Where should Embiid go on a possession like this?

It’s an epidemic that’s invaded Philly. Having so many long, gangly scorers that tower over their opponents can lead to times when they simultaneously want to exploit their matchups.

Throw the ball into one guy and two more will flood the lane looking to post-up. That shuts the kick-out windows, brings extra defenders to the lane and indeed makes their offense look like it’s straight out of 1998.

Brett Brown can try to account for the location of his non-shooters by running controlled sets. He’ll try to navigate the Horford-Embiid combo by placing Horford in the corner or calling for a hi-lo. Even those don’t work, as long defenders can easily find their way off of Big Al and alter Embiid’s shots down low:

Embiid is impactful enough to dominate games despite the lack of space he’s afforded. That’s the benefit of an All-World talent down low: defense doesn’t really matter, he can produce against anything.

But those other times—when the Sixers do synchronize their attempt to exploit another size advantage—crush their spacing. Embiid is a solid-yet-unspectacular 31.8 percent from 3-point range but is now the one doing the floor spacing. He and Simmons are bound to spot-up duty, and that’s always been what kills this Philly team. It even doomed Jimmy Butler a season ago.

Right now it’s torturing Horford.

In the minutes when he shares the floor with Embiid, his post game is severely limited. There are two Sixers on the perimeter he can be doubled from, so his options are eroded. When he posts and passes out to Embiid, the possession can routinely turn into another post-up.

The first time around on a possession, spacing around the block is adequate. Players who are better cutters than shooters (like Simmons) will play off that action and seek a dive to the rim. As a second post-up occurs, the rogue cutters looking for a layup when the defense collapses are now in the way and fudge up the play:

Other times, Horford is just surrounded by guys that cut too much. Similar to how the spacing may not exist around Embiid, those issues become compounded with Big Al:

Part of the issue of playing through Horford is that he’s, well, pretty bad at finishing when he does have time one-on-one inside.

As the biggest opponent will check Embiid, Horford now tries to exploit his advantage. But he isn’t an exquisite scorer. He spent the last two years in Boston picking defenses apart from the top of the key. Horford is scoring on 47.4 percent of his post-up plays, similar to the 47.9 percent he had with the Celtics.

When the Sixers tried to play through Horford while Embiid is on the floor, Horford has to be stationed in the low post. If he’s at the elbow, there’s nowhere for him to utilize his lanky bounces and crafty game. Embiid’s man stands in the way.

Just watch Enes Kanter of the Celtics here on opening night:

Kanter sits at the free-throw line and takes away the middle. Horford is forced to his non-dominant left, where Gordon Hayward bluffs hard off Simmons and forces Horford to pick up his bounce, spin back right and jack up a 12-foot hook shot. That’s a win for the defense, especially when they swarm the glass like this.

Not to break any news here, but JoJo also isn’t a blazing-quick penetrator that can knife past poor closeouts. When Horford is double-teamed, defenses can fly around and use their speed to prevent a shot, not only taking away open catch-and-shoot opportunities but chasing shooters off the line to force pull-ups:

While the Sixers are going all-in on their size and playing inside-out, their smaller opponents are finding great counters who are legitimate threats. One is the trapping down low, where they use their speed to fly around the floor. Great defensive units like the Toronto Raptors (who also have length) don’t worry about mismatches once they settle the ball out of the trap, and can compensate for one smaller player.

The other strategy is to zone Philly.

Over the last twelve months, the 2-3 zone has made a comeback among NBA circles. Teams employ it out of timeouts to take away guarding special actions. They’ll zone lineups that struggle to shoot from 3. And they’ll use it as a change-of-pace when they struggle to guard. Nearly every team deploys some sort of zone variation, some more frequently than others.

Only two teams in the NBA are actively zoned as a means of strategy, meaning the opponent thinks a zone is a preferred way to guard them through the night. The Houston Rockets face a zone 9.3 percent of the time: The thought process is that it prevents having to help on James Harden and dares someone else to try and beat them.

The Sixers are second-highest here, seeing a zone 5.7 percent of the time. That number may seem small, but they are the only two teams above three percent. (Their rate is almost double the next-highest.) The Sixers score 40.1 percent of the time against zone, as opposed to 44.1 percent against man, so the zone is clearly working.

Why? The 76ers have a more difficult time throwing the ball inside and commanding post-ups against a zone. Instead of posting a man, they’d have to post a spot. Their forte isn’t shooting the ball, and by playing a 2-3, defenses are daring them to beat them from outside. It’s a bet that’s paying off thus far.

None of this has even taken into account how other Sixers would try to post while both Horford and Embiid float on the perimeter. The result is usually defenses giving up exactly what they want: an Al Horford 3-pointer. With the way he’s shooting right now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing:

The entire substitution pattern from Coach Brown is built to limit the time Horford and Embiid share, which is now about 15 minutes a game. The pair will start, then Embiid is the first guy replaced. Big Al will run the 5 for a bit. They’ll join each other again in the final few minutes of the half. Rinse, lather, repeat.

To be clear, the Embiid-Horford experiment is succeeding in many facets.

In the times where they share the floor, the Sixers only yield 96.6 points per 100 possession, which is in the top percentile league-wide. Nobody can score and nobody gets an offensive rebound. Philadelphia’s net rating is higher by 5.5 points, so it’s not like this is sputtering out of control. It just doesn’t feel smooth. Teams will continue to collapse on Embiid, dare others to shoot and zone them to find success.

Until Philly finds a way to blend these two together on offense, their advantage on defense isn’t as impactful as it could be.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 21, 2019.