The Sixers are big. Too big. As the 2016-17 NBA season begins, the Sixers roster is entirely too top heavy with frontcourt players. This isn’t anything new.
During the Sam Hinkie ‘Trust the Process’ Era, the team drafted as many bigs as they could, year after year, expecting at least one to become a bona fide NBA superstar, ostensibly rendering the rest as valuable trade bait.
Only, The Process didn’t exactly go according to plan. Injuries and missed lottery balls left the Sixers — the year’s Sixers — with a ‘big’ problem. There are six players on the roster 6-10 or taller and all of them could, and perhaps should, earn valuable minutes this season. (Yes, that’s a problem.)
The Sixers weren’t able to find a trade partner for either Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor before the season. With Joel Embiid as healthy as he has ever been so managing his minutes will be head coach Brett Brown’s most important job this season.
Dario Saric, who opted to come over to the NBA this season, has looked good in preseason too. He should start at power forward, until Ben Simmons is healthy enough to play. Brown said last week that Simmons was on schedule to return in January after foot surgery, but then walked back that timeline a few hours later after someone got in his ear to stop giving people timelines for injured players. (See: Embiid, Joel.)
Embiid is going to be a star, that’s clear, if he can stay healthy. Embiid played limited minutes in the preseason, and the team already announced he won’t play on back-to-back nights this year. That wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for the fact Nerlens Noel played just one game this pre-season and needs surgery to clean up an issue with his knee. Per CSNPhilly.com, Noel will be out for three-to-five weeks — let’s just say a month — while he recovers.
Jahlil Okafor had a knee problem at the end of last season that needed surgery, and he played just eight minutes in his only appearance in the team’s seven preseason games. How can anyone expect him to be ready and at full speed when the season tips off on Wednesday?
And so, for a team with too many bigs, the Sixers don’t seem to have enough bigs.
Richaun Holmes has shown some quality as well, and if he can stay healthy, the Sixers’ problem with having five players rotate in for two positions may eventually be six.
Holmes is probably just a rotation player for now; added depth in a position beset by injuries. But he did average almost 11 points per game in the preseason, and on a squad without a ton of healthy bigs in front of him, he might deserve more minutes early in the season.
Big picture: Even if Embiid stays healthy, he’s looking at playing 60 to 65 games this season. Noel will miss about 10 to 15 games to start the year. Simmons is slated to miss more than 30 games before he comes back, and that’s if he’s ready in early January. How many minutes he gets once he’s cleared to play, and how long it takes him to get to full speed in his rookie season, will be worth monitoring.
All the Sixers big men are worth monitoring.
How will Brown manage Embiid’s minutes if he’s playing well and seems to respond to the rigors of the early season schedule? With Noel out, Okafor also limited and Simmons in street clothes until 2017, will the plan change for Embiid? Half the roster is hurt — it’s ridiculous how injured the Sixers are headed into the season — so someone has to play all these minutes.
Will Holmes, who averaged 13.8 minutes in his injury-riddled 51 games as a rookie, get more or less time this year? Saric will have a much bigger role early on than the Sixers planned, but how will that change as the rest of the bigs get healthy?
We’re going to track all of it — minutes, points, rebounds, blocks and assists per game. We’re calling it the Sixers Big Man Tracker, and we will be updating this at regular installments throughout the season, to see how health has dictated what the team can do in the frontcourt, but also how Brown is able to manage the roster.
Here’s a look at their preseason minutes per game.
There are two important things to note. First, the players’ minutes per game will not always match up with the official season box score (Side note: good luck trying to navigate NBA.com and Sixers.com to find any useful player information after their off-season redesign.)
We’ve decided to include DNP-Coach’s Decision differently than DNP-Injury. Last season, Holmes logged 702 minutes, which averaged out to 13.8 minutes per game of the 51 one he played. On January 14, after missing two games, Holmes played just 2:50. Had he been held out of that game, it wouldn’t have counted against his average, but since he played, his minutes per game dipped. Including DNP – Coach’s Decision as zero minutes will give a truer sense of how many minutes each big man plays out of the minutes they were available to play.
That situation won’t happen much, but it’s important to note. The second stat — the red line on the graph — is more noteworthy.
We’ve included a stat we’re calling Minutes Per Team Game, which will track a player’s minutes based on the total number of games the team has played.
If Simmons plays just 40 games this season and averages 25 minutes per game, that’s 1,000 minutes. And yet, the Sixers will play 82 games this season, no matter who suits up. Based on that fact, Simmons will only average 12.2 minutes per team game.
With so many injuries, and tough decisions for Brown when the roster is back to form, this number — and the variance between the two — is certainly worth tracking all season.
While our database will track additional stats, minutes and points are the easiest to show trends and fluctuations. Noel is never going to average as many points as Simmons, but seeing how his numbers move will be interesting. (Note: we may add graphics for rebounds or blocks as the season rolls along and all the bigs are playing.)
The second chart, above, shows the bigs’ preseason points per game, and preseason points per team game. Okafor scored four points in his only preseason game, and Noel scored six in his only appearance. That average means far less when you remember the Sixers played seven times this preseason.
That Holmes and Embiid played in every game is significant, and their points per team game is far more illustrative of the impact on the court than comparing everyone’s average.
As the season rolls along, the points per team game — and how that number connects to each player’s points per game — will be fascinating to track.
There are other players who will get minutes at power forward, and other ‘big’ men on the team — Robert Covington, who primarily plays small forward but could see minutes at the four when he’s healthy, is 6-9 — but we’ve opted to keep our tracker to the biggest bigs. Every player on the roster listed at 6-10 or taller will be tracked all season. Until they get traded.
All eyes in the NBA will be on the Sixers this season, and surely other teams will see how the team balances the bigs. To think all of them will still be here by season’s end is foolish, but they’re here now, and they aren’t even close to full strength. So, as the team goes from Process to Progress, we’ll be here, to track the process of that progress.