NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers
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Embiid, Okafor lead Sixers to back-to-back wins, with Noel’s return looming

A lot happened in Sixerland on Monday, most notably Brett Brown’s troops won a game, again, beating the Miami Heat 101-94 at the Wells Fargo Center. The win marked the fourth-straight victory at home for the Sixers and the first time the franchise has won back-to-back games since March 18 and 20, 2015 — a span of 107 games over three seasons.

Though just 4-10 on the season, the Sixers are showing marked progress. In 2014, they didn’t win their fourth game until December 23 (also over the Heat). Last season, they didn’t win their fourth game until January 7, 37 games into the campaign.

Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 22 points in 23 minutes, though he was outpaced by Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, who dropped 32 points and 13 boards on the Sixers bigs Monday night. Jahlil Okafor added 15 off the bench – both he and Embiid were 7-of-13 from the floor — as Brown’s rotation at the center position has begun to round itself out, especially with the minutes restriction lifted for Okafor.

Like we said, a lot happened on Monday.

NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jerryd Bayless got his first run of the season, shaking off the rust in 15 minutes with five assists, though just 1-for-7 shooting for four points and a -12 in the contest. How Brown balances his minutes with Sergio Rodriguez and T.J. McConnell will be worth tracking. But, hey, this series isn’t a point guard tracker, it’s a big man tracker, and there was some big big man news on Monday as well.

Nerlens Noel, the forgotten Sixers big man, was back on the court for the first time since his knee surgery in the preseason. Brian Seltzer’s story on the Sixers website about Noel’s return is dripping with shade.

Nerlens Noel returned to the Philadelphia area recently, and reported to the 76ers’ training complex in Camden, New Jersey Saturday. It was his first known visit to the team’s practice facility since choosing to have minor arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

“It was great seeing Nerlens,” Brett Brown said before Saturday’s game at The Center, a 120-105 win over Phoenix.

Damn.

“It was his first known visit…” “since choosing to have minor arthroscopic surgery…” “It was great seeing Nerlens…”

Okay the last one was probably genuine, but let’s just say that lede was carefully worded for purposes of future negotiations. The story ends with a note that Noel “opted to go through the first phase of rehab in Birmingham, Alabama,” again making sure people know this wasn’t the team sending him away: Nerlens chose to do this and opted to leave the facility until now.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors
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Brown wouldn’t say when Noel will be back, telling reporters he will need at least a few weeks to re-acclimate to playing basketball, and fitting in with the current roster. A lot has changed since Noel got hurt, and Brown was clear that Noel is going to have to earn his way back into the rotation.

“Just embracing the team aspect of everything, to come into this and to try to draw his own line in the sand,” Brown said, via Sixers.com, “and reclaim minutes that he will want. This is going to be on a deserved basis. We have a lot of people at that spot. We will help him. I will coach him. I will put him in an environment where he can succeed, and get him back in shape and integrate him with the team. Then, the team will tell me who’s on the floor, and who isn’t.”

(Psst. This is the exact reason we are doing this Big Man Tracker(TM)! It’s all happening!)

Brown talked about Noel’s strengths on both ends of the floor, as well as his limitations, namely he can’t shoot and his free throw percentage is horrible. “It’s just effort, athleticism, fitness and energy stuff.”

In other words, why would they play Noel when Richaun Holmes has taken over that role and makes a ton less money and won’t complain when he doesn’t get minutes?

sixersbigmanminutes-11-22
Billy Penn Illustration

Holmes is averaging just under 13 minutes a game, featuring more in the contests either Embiid or Okafor sat. But with Okafor off the limits restriction, Holmes is going to lose a ton of minutes. In the last five games, Holmes got 19 minutes against Washington, when Embiid didn’t play, and got a total of 18 minutes in the other four games, including a DNP against Miami. (Note: We count DNP for rest or injury differently than a game a player gets zero minutes. Our minutes per game stat for Holmes reflects an average that accounts for zero minutes on Monday, not a DNP, which simply doesn’t count the game in calculating his average. Our number gives a truer sense of his average minutes, per Brown’s coaching decisions.)

If Holmes is already getting his minutes sliced, when will Noel’s minutes come? Okafor is limited defensively, but he is a much better offensive player than Noel. With Embiid as good as advertised so far this season, Brown and Bryan Colangelo will surely be shopping both Noel and Okafor, hoping for a buyer for one or the other.

Brett Brown

Brett Brown

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Given Embiid’s minutes restrictions and the rawness of Holmes’ game, it’s crazy to think the Sixers will trade both Okafor and Noel this year like some fans want. But Brown has been clear there aren’t enough minutes for all of them, and there’s little chance Embiid isn’t getting his full 24 minutes every game.

Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times reported that Brown was admitted the minutes rotation is going to be difficult, especially with a power forward tandem he really likes.

“It’s going to be hard,” Brown said. “You can talk about maybe playing two of them together to free things up. None of us can underestimate that we have pretty good ‘4’ men in Dario (Saric) and Ersan (Ilyasova). It’s not like we just bump people down. It’s on me as the head coach to figure it out.”

This is a problems good teams have, and with the Sixers winning three of their last four games — the blowout at Minnesota on TNT the one loss — maybe they’re finally becoming a good team.

sixersbigmanpoints-11-22
Billy Penn Illustration

Let’s not forget, Ben Simmons will be back, hopefully within six weeks, so whose minutes will he steal?

This might seem like a good problem to have — too much talent — but it’s not when most of the players are young and need to get on the court. Brown will soon be faced with potential continuity problems, rhythm issues and, his biggest concern, discontent in the locker room.

For now, the Sixers won, again, and everyone is happy. Even the guys who aren’t getting on the floor.

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