Philadelphia 76ers: The Al Horford-Joel Embiid lineup is unfortunately back

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

After an exciting stretch with Tobias Harris locked in at power forward, Al Horford is back in the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting five alongside Joel Embiid.

Is there an unluckier franchise in the NBA over the last few years than the Philadelphia 76ers?

Markelle Fultz breaking Joel Embiid‘s face. The rookie curse. Markelle Fultz in general. For a team that entered the (last) decade a lame-duck franchise trapped in the perpetual mediocrity of a .500ish record, it’s almost unimaginable to look back at just how much potential has been amassed through the ‘Process’ only be straddled with a third straight team capped off at a .62 winning percentage.

But in a cruel twist of fate, it looked like Brett Brown and company had finally found a path to crash through their glass ceiling, only to have it ripped from their hands with yet another injury.

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Allow me to elaborate.

After trying fruitlessly to run a four big set built around Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons – plus a pinch of Josh Richardson for good measure – Brown finally admitted what we all could plainly see and opted to shake up his starting five – kicking Harris to his natural position of power forward and inserting a player like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III into the fray at small forward.

And unsurprisingly, these moves, which subsequently shifted Horford to an off-the-bench-role, worked. Spacing was better. Defensive assignments were more conventional. It was good. After months of struggles, it looked like the 76ers had finally found a way to bolster their bench, energize their starting five, and build an all-around better product to test against the NBA’s best opponents.

Unfortunately, that lasted all of one game.

In the team’s final game before the All-Star break, the 76ers thoroughly dominated the Los Angeles Clippers despite Korkmaz failing to score a point. GRIII gave the team a flashy rim running 3-and-D spacer, Horford provided some pop coming off the bench with a very own-brand nine points and six rebounds performance, and Alec Burks gave a glimpse of his prowess as a herky-jerky sixth man off the bench in limited action.

Sure, the Clips were without Patrick Beverley, but how useful would the 6-foot-1 guard have really been against Elton Brand‘s ‘monstarting five’?

Had Philly kept it rolling with said nine-man rotation, also featuring Matisse Thybulle, it’s possible we’d be talking about of the league more encouraging turnarounds, but as these things so often go, it just was not meant to be.

Fast forward to the 76ers’ post-All-Star break practice, and Simmons suffered a back injury that held him out of a February 20th bout against the Kyrie Irving-less Brooklyn Nets. The team won it in overtime, so no biggie, but when Simmons reaggravated that pesky injury midway through the first quarter of a nationally televised contest against the Milwaukee Bucks, it threw everything out of whack.

Simmons is now out for the foreseeable future, and needless to say, the team is not equipped to weather this sort of loss moving forward (but I did it anyway here).

With Simmons gone for an indeterminate length of time, the Sixers have had to return to the drawing board and shake things up yet again for the umpteenth time this season.

Gone are the days of Glenn Robinson as a starter and in his place? Horford, back and the same as ever.

Now this new, old, new-look starting five that also featured Shake Milton at the one had little trouble handing the Atlanta Hawks a loss on their home court to the lowly, but is that really replicable against better competition?

Over the by my count 20 minutes where Embiid and Horford shared the court, the team had a +21 point differential versus an identical +19 overall real plus-minus in their 34 and 31 minutes of total action respectably. That’s pretty good. However, Embiid finished out the game with a career-high 49 points, whereas Horford only amassed seven, tied for the fifth-best mark on the team.

RPM and other advanced stats are useful, but how often can the 76ers expect to get 50 points from their best player and only win by 17? That is not a tenable situation.

With games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks on the books before a four-game Western Conference road trip, the 76ers will be able to look solid based on their talent differential alone. That advantage becomes moot against the Clippers and the Lakers.

If the Philadelphia 76ers can weather Ben Simmons’ absence without falling too far in the stands, it will go a long way to securing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but at what cost? These last 25 or so games were going to be vital in building chemistry, establishing connections, and fortifying a nine-man rotation with Glenn Robinson locked in as a starter, and Al Horford coming off the bench. If five, 10, *gulp* 15 games go by, and Simmons still isn’t back, the chances of that rotation getting enough work together to be potent in the playoffs feels like a pipe dream.

Next. The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t built to weather a Ben Simmons injury. dark

My final takeaway from this entire ordeal? Allen Iverson was right about practice all along, it causes nothing but trouble.