Even Brett Brown didn’t seem like he believed himself when he said he thought the experiment to play Joel Embiid at the power forward spot and start Jahlil Okafor at center went “okay.”
No it didn’t, not against a team like Toronto that spreads the floor and runs like nobody’s business. This is simple basketball math: Playing two centers means either taking the power forward off the floor or turning the player who fills that role into a big small forward — an oxymoronic term if there ever is one — and against a team like the Raptors, the game was lost before it even started.
Brown was right after the game to say that Okafor had a bounce in his step. The entire lineup was constructed around his limitations as a player. And hilariously enough, he was even more active on the defensive end, as if all he ever needed to play harder on that end of the floor was to have the future of the franchise marginalized for him.
Embiid is not a power forward. This is not news.
Brown is a brilliant basketball mind and a very good coach, so he doesn’t need anyone , let alone a guy watching on TV writing angry tweets about spacing issues telling him that. But playing Embiid at the four was the only thing Brown could do to make room for Okafor and Nerlens Noel to play alongside him.
Noel didn’t even play on Wednesday and he negatively impacted the lineup. He’s a good defensive player, but his grave limitations on offense are forcing Brown’s hand. If Noel and Embiid play together, Noel will have to play down low on offense, resigned to wait for offensive rebounds and benefit from slashing guards — or a slashing 7-2 center playing power forward, as Embiid showed he can do with his five assists Wednesday night — so Noel can dunk a few easy buckets and focus on the defensive end.
Noel could probably guard most power forwards on defense, but his help defending off the center was key for the Sixers the last few years, and he wouldn’t be in position to do that if he was out on the perimeter guarding a forward. Having said that, if he’s down low, like Okafor was for most of the loss to Toronto, Embiid is the guy chasing stretch fours and diving into the stands for loose balls.
That’s a terrible idea. Embiid is an elite rim protector. Pulling him away from that because Okafor can’t defend anyone or Noel is better at the rim than chasing people around the court is foolish.
Again, let’s give credit where it’s due. Brown knows this. He just has no other options.
Well, he has one option. He can bench one of his bigs every night, play each of the other two 24 minutes at center and then make up the difference with no more than 6 or 7 minutes with two bigs at the same time. But that’s just dumb basketball. Almost as dumb as having three starting centers on a roster and nobody to trade them to.
Herein lies the problem. The Sixers have too much talent at the same spot — we know, we know, you’ve been writing this for months, Dan — but, hear me out, two of them aren’t talented enough to warrant anything of value in return.
Okafor is a very good offensive player. The one bright spot of Wednesday’s loss was how well he played on the offensive end. But he’s one dimensional, and if the first game of extended minutes with Embiid as a ‘forward’ is any indication, the two lack any cohesion when it comes to spacing on the floor.
Brown ran decent sets, but as soon as the ball moved around, or the Sixers had to adapt offensively, both bigs ended up in the same spots, or somehow in the wrong spots for their skillets. Even when they did end up in the right position, and even when Okafor scored, it was the wrong decision for him to make from a fundamental basketball standpoint.
The experiment was not okay.
Embiid finished the game shooting six shots, two from three, hitting three of them, for nine points. He was a -10 in the game. That is not okay
The game was okay for Okafor, yes, and it showed another facet of Embiid’s game, which is his incredible court vision facing the basket. Against a slower-moving team there’s a chance going big could work, and when Ben Simmons returns there’s a greater chance the perimeter defense won’t suffer as much as it did Wednesday. But how many teams are there like the Sixers?
More teams than not, at least more good teams, play the way the Raptors play, with pace and spacing. The lineup Brown rolled out cannot defend that.
Those rebounding numbers are bad. Really bad. Which doesn’t make any sense given the Sixers played two bigs almost the whole game.
None of this makes any sense, and Brown knows that until one (or, frankly) two of his bigs are traded, this is all he can do to keep everyone happy.
Only, Embiid didn’t look very happy. Neither did Ersan Ilyasova, who has been a pleasant surprise this season. Dario Saric didn’t look too happy either, forced to play most of his minutes at the small forward spot, guarding the likes of DeMar Derozan, which is just laughable to even think about, let alone watch.
All this, to accommodate Okafor and, to a lesser extent, Noel, when flipping them for a sharpshooter (or a draft pick to try to get a sharpshooter) and a bonafide perimeter defender is what this team really needs.
Only, again, where are these trades going to come from? Who wants either of these guys?
Brett Brown is obviously trying to prove a point, while keeping his young roster hungry and happy. But if it’s a point he’s really trying to get through, he should start all three of his centers, hell add in Richaun Holmes and Ilyasova at the point, then after tipoff, just turn around and stare at Bryan Colangelo with his arms up and his back to the court until one of these guys gets dealt.
The great fear, mind you, is that Colangelo gets desperate to make a move and trades Saric. He is the odd man out right now, playing just 13 minutes Wednesday while he tries to figure out how to learn a new NBA position on the fly. He has value, and he might get something back for Colangelo who, remember, did not draft him.
But that still wouldn’t fix the big problem, that’s about to get bigger when Brown has all three of his marquee centers available this week.
This is bad. This might stay bad, until Brown is giving a chance to coach a roster that has some balance, not just a ton of potential at the same position.