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Pairing Embiid and Okafor won’t solve the Sixers’ big problem

Think managing Embiid and Okafor is a challenge? Wait until Noel comes back. And Simmons.

The more Joel Embiid plays, the better he looks. But the less he plays — Embiid has missed two of the last three games for mandated rest heading into Wednesday’s tilt with Sacramento — the lower his numbers have dropped.

Embiid’s actual stat sheet is impressive. He’s averaging more than 18 points, over 7.5 rebounds and better than 2 blocks per game this season, but in the 18 games the Sixers have played through November 29 — 4-14 in that span, heading into a four-game home stand this week — Embiid has sat out six.

With his minutes restriction set at 24 per game until after Christmas — Brett Brown has routinely talked about how difficult it is to keep Embiid off the court in close games, including overtimes –– ‘The Process’ has been on the court for just 274 minutes this season of a possible 884 the Sixers have played through 18 games, including two overtimes and a double OT contest.

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Billy Penn Illustration

By comparison, Jahlil Okafor — who had his restriction lifted but is still only getting around 25 minutes per game over the last two weeks — has played 359 minutes this season. That’s 85 more minutes, but across five additional games.

Okafor didn’t have much of a preseason, so a case can be made he’s just now rounding (pun) into shape.

“Defensively, [Okafor] is more of a positional rebounder,” Brown told Brian Seltzer of Sixers.com this week. “He’s not what I would deem length rebounder. He has to make his hits, hold his ground, and then chase balls.

“We understand Jahlil is a scorer, he’s scored his whole life,” Brown continued. “It’s the other parts of his game…that we’re trying to grow him where he becomes a more complete player.”

In other words, they knew Okafor could score, but he still can’t defend and he’s a one-dimensional rebounder. Until he can show improvement in other parts of his game, he’s going to be stuck playing half the time when Embiid is in the lineup, and a little bit more when he sits.

Until Nerlens Noel comes back. Then who the heck knows what Brown will do.

Can Brown Play Multiple Bigs?

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Billy Penn Illustration

Early in the season, Brown tinkered with playing both Embiid and Okafor together, and while fans were excited about the prospect of a “twin towers” situation, the experiment never manifested, because Okafor can’t play power forward on either end of the floor.

Okafor is hitting 49.4 percent of his shot attempts, and 75 percent of those come from inside 10 feet. Look at his shot chart compared to Embiid’s. While Embiid has shown a penchant for taking shots anywhere on the court, Okafor has attempted just 32 shots outside the paint this season, and 130 inside. Including the 21 attempts in the low block, Okafor has shown exactly zero range.

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NBA.com/Stats - Billy Penn Illustration

It’s not that Okafor and Embiid can’t play together, as Embiid can stretch a defense a little bit. It’s that Brown has better options at power forward on both the offensive and defensive sides of the floor than Okafor.

Brown prefers to space the floor with a stretch four, and both Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova play the position in a way that creates more spacing on the floor to, in theory, keep teams honest when trying to double-team Embiid.

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With Okafor also down on the low block, there would be no floor spacing, and both bigs would be easier for teams to defend.

The bigger issue, of course, is Okafor’s own inability to defend. He can’t protect the rim, he’s miserable in pick-and-roll situations and he’s not quick enough to guard a mobile stretch four on the perimeter. Embiid can’t be wasted defensively by being asked to chase guys on the perimeter, so it stands to reason that playing them together isn’t Brown’s best option.

Where Are Noel’s Minutes Coming From?

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Noel’s return is getting closer, and Brown is going to need to find minutes for him, if for nothing else than to showcase him for other teams looking for a big man in a trade.

But…how?

Seriously, how? How is Brown going to add another one-dimensional center to the mix and still give everyone their minutes?

Embiid is going to get his 24 minutes, leaving just 24 for Okafor, Noel and Richaun Holmes. As active as Holmes has been in his time on the floor, his minutes have dwindled as Okafor and Embiid play more. When Embiid sits, Holmes ostensibly gets his minutes, but when both Embiid and Okafor dress, Holmes does not get on the court. He’s had two DNP-Coach’s Decision in the last five games — he missed another to illness — and in his last eight available games, Holmes has played eight or fewer minutes in five.

So even if Noel is going to get Holmes’ minutes, they barely exist unless Embiid is rested.

A Total Minutes Game

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There are 48 minutes in an NBA game, and with five players on the court, that makes 240 playing minutes per contest, overtime notwithstanding.

Without straying too far from the point, let’s assume the two guard spots are filled by a rotation of Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez and T.J. McConnell at the point — the recurring wrist pain for Bayless is another huge concern for Brown — and Gerald Henderson and Nik Stauskas at shooting guard.

Brown can steal minutes for starting small forward Robert Covignton and his primary back-up, Hollis Thompson, at the two-guard spot if he goes big, which he undoubtedly will have to do. But even then, the frontcourt logjam doesn’t add up.

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There are 144 minutes per game for the center and two forward positions to share. Covington has been getting nearly 28 minutes per game, with Thompson around 19.5, but let’s say for argument’s sake Brown can slice some of those minutes, or push some into those taken by Henderson or Stauskas, depending on who has the hot hand.

There are 96 minutes in a game for the power forwards and centers to share. If, somehow, Brown can find another 10 minutes per game to put Saric at the three — Ilyasova can spread the floor offensively, but he cannot be asked to defend another team’s small forward — Brown can try to manage 106 minutes for his bigs.

Let’s round the numbers a bit, for simpler math and try to figure this out:

  • Embiid – 24 minutes (restricted)
  • Okafor – 22 minutes
  • Ilyasova – 25 minutes
  • Saric – 25 minutes
  • Holmes – 13 minutes
  • Total – 109 minutes

Well, that didn’t work.

Later, Holmes!

Richaun Holmes

Richaun Holmes

John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Assume Holmes has his minutes cut every time Embiid plays and this could work, but that total is still stealing 10 minutes per game from the small forward spot for a big.

We have to play the guessing game as bit as we add Noel, and assume Brown gives him 15 minutes until he’s back into playing shape. Embiid is not getting fewer minutes, but everyone else will have to.

  • Embiid – 24 minutes (restricted)
  • Okafor – 19 minutes
  • Noel – 15 minutes
  • Ilyasova – 24 minutes
  • Saric – 24 minutes
  • Holmes – 0 minutes
  • Total – 106 minutes

Hey, it works! Only Holmes never plays (unless another big is out) and Brown allocates an additional 10 minutes for his three centers, which means those 10 minutes would push Saric to small forward, and there would be 10 minutes of every game with a line-up that looks something like:

Bayless, Henderson, Saric, Ilyasova, Embiid

That’s not bad. Or it could be:

Rodriguez, Covington, Saric, Okafor, Noel

Maybe that could work?

Nov 16, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) reacts as he grabs a rebound in front of center Jahlil Okafor (8) and Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. (22) during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 109-102. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

But what about when Noel is back in game shape, and warrants more than 15 minutes?

And what about when Embiid is stretched beyond his 24-minute restriction? Here’s a guess.

  • Embiid – 30 minutes
  • Okafor – 20 minutes
  • Noel – 20 minutes
  • Ilyasova – 24 minutes
  • Saric – 24 minutes
  • Holmes – 0 minutes
  • Total – 118 minutes

Nope.

  • Embiid – 30 minutes
  • Okafor – 15 minutes
  • Noel – 15 minutes
  • Ilyasova – 23 minutes
  • Saric – 23 minutes
  • Holmes – 0 minutes
  • Total – 106 minutes

Again, that works, if nearly half of Saric’s minutes come at small forward, and at least 12 minutes — one full quarter — features two of the three centers on the court at the same time.

Oh, that also assumes Okafor and Noel are not only okay with coming off the bench, but only playing 15 minutes per game.

And neither will be.

Simmons. What about Simmons?!?

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Ben Simmons made national news for liking a tweet last week.

Simmons was asked to like a tweet if he expected to be back “before the All-Star game” and he did, creating excitement and fervor around the NBA Twitterverse. This year’s ASG is on February 19, so Simmons will hopefully make his Sixers debut much sooner than that. But let’s be conservative from the earlier prognostication of January and put his return around February 1, essentially splitting the difference.

The NBA trade deadline is February 23. If one of the bigs isn’t dealt by then, how is Brown going to find minutes for all his guys? Saric and Ilyasova could both drop to 15 minutes per game – Ilyasova has averaged 24 in his NBA career — but even that won’t help enough. Simmons could steal minutes from the point guards if he’s going to be the primary ball handler, and he’ll have to play the three the rest of the time, pushing Covington to a reserve role and Thompson to the end of the bench with Holmes and McConnell.

This can work, maybe. But we were told before the season began — and before the deal for Ilyasova — that Simmons was going to play the four. At some point Embiid and Simmons are both getting 25 or 30 minutes a game, which would be 50-60 minutes of a potential 96 at those two positions, leaving just about 40 minutes per game for five guys.

Winning games is the goal each night, but managing egos and injuries and developing this roster is Brown’s bigger challenge. The Sixers suddenly are going to have a problem they hadn’t had in Brown’s tenure: too much talent on the court. Something has to give, and if managing the minutes is keeping me up at night trying to figure all this out, imagine what it’s doing to Brown and his staff.

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