76ers’ center logjam is proving to be a stumbling block to their longterm development
After several years of ‘trusting the process,’ the 76ers currently find themselves with a logjam of capable centers, and changes might be on the way by the trade deadline.
Two months into the 2016-17 season, the Philadelphia 76ers (8-24) are on pace for one of their better seasons in years — for better or worse. After years of tanking and accumulating high draft picks, Philadelphia now has to find minutes for their three young big men: Nerlens Noel (drafted sixth in the 2013 draft), Joel Embiid (taken third in 2014) and Jahlil Okafor (third in 2015). Embiid has made the center problem even more glaring, as the 22-year-old is putting up near-All Star numbers, despite still playing under a minutes restriction (averaging 24.8 minutes per game) due to his ongoing recovery following multiple foot injuries. Per 36 minutes, Embiid would be averaging 27.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Perhaps most encouraging for Sixers fans is that he is putting up these numbers efficiently, shooting 46.4% from the field and 38.8% from 3-point range.
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
This season has been a bit of a disappointment for Jahlil Okafor so far, who seemed to be the franchise cornerstone this time last year. While he is seeking a place in the Sixers’ starting five, the Okafor-Embiid pairing has not been fruitful for the team this year; Philadelphia is 1-5 when the two start together. So far, Okafor is averaging 11.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game in 2016-17. When paired together, Okafor’s flaws seem more apparent, most notably his average performance on the boards, and his struggles on the defensive end of the floor. When Okafor is on the floor, the Sixers’ opponents have an offensive rating of 112.9, compared to 107.1 when he is off the floor. The Sixers also rebound at a worse percentage with Okafor (46.1%) than without him (50.2%). If he continues to see his minutes reduced or refuses to play backup to Embiid, Okafor may demand a trade in the near future.
Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Richaun Holmes and Dario Saric have all learned NBA pick-and-roll defense. It’s not coaching. It’s Jahlil Okafor.— Jake Fischer (@JakeLFischer) December 24, 2016
However, the most likely player to be traded is one of their first ‘process’ draft picks, Nerlens Noel. While also recovering from nagging knee injuries, Noel seems to be the odd man out right now. Over just seven games this season, Noel is averaging a meager 11.6 minutes, 6.3 points and 2.6 boards per contest. As an exasperated Noel said after a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on December 16th, “I think I’m too good to be playing eight minutes. That’s crazy.” His attitude, whether his statements are justified or not, may cause the front office to jettison him as early as the trade deadline.
There are a number of possibilities when considering potential trade partners for a deal involving Noel. Almost every team in the NBA would be willing to put together a package for a player that could anchor their frontcourt defense for the foreseeable future. However, there are fewer teams who could put together a sufficient package for the 76ers’ front office, who would probably hold out for a valuable deal, considering the ‘starter potential’ of Noel and Okafor. However, there are definitely teams with some interest, such as the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics.
The Portland Trail Blazers have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA (perhaps second only the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson), featuring perennial fringe All-Stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, the Portland frontcourt has been lackluster, with Mason Plumlee as their best big man. The Trail Blazers’ defense is also in the league’s cellar, ranking 28th and giving up 110.9 points per game. Perhaps a package featuring journeymen like Mo Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu and a few of their coveted draft picks may be enough to bring Noel’s defensive talents to the Pacific Northwest.
Another frequently-mentioned trade partner for the services of Noel or Okafor is the Boston Celtics. Boston currently has the starting center role sewn up by free agent acquisition Al Horford, but they have been interested in a high caliber backup. In return, Philadelphia would most likely try to make a play for guards Marcus Smart or Avery Bradley. Both are orchestrating guards that can score, and Bradley is lauded league-wide as an excellent perimeter defender (earning an All-Defensive First Team nod last season).
Photo: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
The Sixers will try to get their roster to work as it is, but it would be in their best interest to try and find a young starting guard to complement their burgeoning star in Joel Embiid (and Ben Simmons, whenever he gets on the court). Team chemistry is weak on the current Philadelphia squad, and NBA fans would be surprised if all three big men were still in Sixer uniforms by the time the trade deadline hits.
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