CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Al Horford took a seat at one of the three tables needed to fit six players, an owner and a general manager and admired the Philadelphia skyline in the distance.
“This view gets me excited,” Horford said . “This view back there of the city.”
It’s the city he will call his basketball home for the next four years, one that hasn’t held a championship parade for the 76ers since 1983 and where the franchise went nearly 20 years without creating much of a stir until Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons arrived on the scene.
But to try to finally get over that title hump, the 76ers need more — they needed Horford.
Horford could be the difference for the Sixers this season, not just because he’s a four-time All-Star who can thrive as a low post defender and shoot the 3. It’s because Horford can spell Embiid, the notoriously injury-prone franchise player, at center. The theory goes, keep Embiid fresh and healthy in the regular season, and watch him carry the Sixers through a dominant postseason.
“We did fall off a cliff once Joel was off the court, especially defensively,” GM Elton Brand said.
Consider Game 6 in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Toronto: Embiid was a whopping plus-40, the highest plus-minus of his career.
No Embiid, no chance.
“It was a huge deficit last year and we corrected it,” Brand said.
Horford may have been off to the side on the dais at the 76ers’ complex on Friday, but he’s the centerpiece of a flurry of offseason deals that help them keep pace with Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn as top contenders in the East. Horford joined fellow newcomers Josh Richardson, Raul Neto and Kyle O’Quinn at the complex along with returning free agents James Ennis III and Tobias Harris.
Harris was one of two major in-season pickups last season and returned on a $180 million, five-year contract.
The other? Well, Jimmy Butler, the clutch shooter in so many memorable postseason moments, was traded and signed a $142 million, four-year deal with the Miami Heat. Brand and team owner Josh Harris were diplomatic and thanked Butler for his contributions that led the Sixers to a Game 7 loss against eventual NBA champion Toronto in the East semis. Brand, though, refused to engage in a deep dive on why it didn’t work out with Butler.
“I’d make that trade again. He gave us a great playoff run last year,” Brand said. “I’m not upset at all about that trade.”
Butler, JJ Redick and TJ McConnell — all key cogs in the Sixers’ transformation from losers during “The Process” to championship contenders — left this summer. But perhaps the Sixers might not have to look outside the organization to find another 3-point shooter. Perhaps they can get the occasional 3 from Simmons. Simmons was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft and wound up making his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season, earning Rookie of the Year honors. He was an All-Star for the first time last season and has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists in two seasons.
He is also 0 for 17 on 3s. Simmons missed all 11 3-point attempts his rookie season and was 0 for 6 last season, a combination of an awkward shooting form and a hesitancy to keep shooting shots he can’t make.
“Everybody was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the 3-point line, but it was really because he hit two of them,” Harris said. “When I dared him to shoot two of them, he hit two in a row. That’s why I was there. He’s made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good and he has the confidence to shoot.”
Imagine: a healthy Embiid in April, a 3-point threat in Simmons and maybe a better shot at the championship.
“We put in place the championship DNA, an elite team for years to come,” Brand said.