Another season, another 0-fer start. It's been a frustrating first three weeks of the season for these Sixers, especially because it felt like the team had made progress last year, and much of the progress feels as though it has been negated. However, this start shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. This Sixers team was the third worst in the league last year, and the only major off-season additions were a rookie, a sophomore, and an injured Kendall Marshall. Of course they were going to be bad. Then you look at the Sixers' schedule, and you realize just how badly they've had it so far:
They've faced the hardest schedule in the league by a landslide. It's no accident that the only two other teams more than 2 points above league average have wildly underachieved so far this season.
Add in an injury crisis that forced the team to file for a roster exception, and it's perfectly logical that the Sixers would have lost all of their games so far. Still, it doesn't make it any less frustrating, especially given the media's hard-on for any negative Sixers' press.
Jake wrote effectively about many of the issues with the Sixers' start following the embarrassment against the Pacers. In doing so, he touched upon one of the main differences between this year's poor start and last year's-- even with the injuries, this squad isn't as woefully, comically undermanned as previous editions. There's no Chris Johnson forced to start the opening game of the year. Brandon Davies and Malcolm Thomas were fun for a hot second, but they're gone, too, replaced by players with actual staying power. Lickface and his aversion to Comcast's customer service are out the door.
I mention this because it means this team isn't so hopelessly outclassed by regular NBA teams as to be unable to adjust. Brett Brown has provided everything this team has asked of him in his first two years, but there's been little available in terms of evaluating his actual tactical acumen. This has been due largely to personnel and to the focus on putting players in learning situations, rather than in situations that contribute the most to the Sixers' chances of winning games.
Brown could easily ask Noel to stop taking any jump shots, focusing on getting the most efficient production out of the big man by utilizing his ability as a dive man in a pick and roll and asking him to do little else. Instead, Noel has been encouraged to work on his jumper and post-up game, in an effort to train those skills for the future. That's fine. It's smart, even.
But the time has come for Brett to demonstrate acuity as an in-game manager. This team's lineups aren't working, and for the first time, the Sixers have enough talent to where they can shift those lineups and introduce players with different, varied skill sets that might complement each other well. This begins with the starting lineup, which has been horribly, irreparably broken in the minutes they've logged together. And at this point, it looks like the Okafor-Noel pairing needs to be un-paired.
The big question coming into the season was whether Nerlens and Jah could play together, and thus far the answer has been a resounding "no." On both ends of the court, lineups featuring both precocious big men have been unmitigated disasters:
|Team Pts/100||NBA Rank||Opp Pts/100||NBA Rank|
|Okafor & Noel||85.3||30||111.3||28|
Stats courtesy of NBAwowy.com.
Obviously, the Sixers' offense is bad no matter what, as practically any lineup they trot out has had what would be the worst ORtg in the league. But that Okafor and Noel pairing is historically poor. The '02-'03 Denver Nuggets had the worst offense of all time at 92.2 points per 100 possessions, and lineups featuring Noel and Okafor shatter that by a full 7 points per 100 possessions.
Let me repeat that: Lineups featuring Noel and Okafor are a full 7 points per 100 possessions worse than the worst offense of all time. The difference between these Sixers' lineups and that Nuggets team is equal to the difference between the 4th and 27th offenses in the league this year. That is atrocious! It's shocking. It's honestly appalling how poorly these lineups have functioned.
And in case you missed it, these numbers show Noel-Okafor lineups getting outscored by 26 points per 100 possessions. Let's go to Pete Campbell for analysis here:
It's no secret why this has been the case, either. In a league in which spacing has become more and more important, these two players are unable to provide even an inch for the other to operate. Here's LaMarcus Aldridge mercilessly ignoring Nerlens' jumper to clog passing angles to Okafor:
On defense, Okafor's presence has forced Noel to tackle assignments that don't play to his strengths, while replacing an all-world defender at the center position with a decided negative. It's just been bad news.
It's likely that these lineups are going to get better. Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten have yet to put on Sixers' uniforms this year. Robert Covington has only played three games, and he and Nik Stauskas have struggled to connect on even open shots.
RoCo and Stauskas shooting a combined 19-84 for 3 this year. That's 22.6% from our two best shooters. RoCo has yet to make one.— Marc Whittington (@MWhittington13) November 19, 2015
But the time has come for Brett Brown to take initiative and separate these two players. It's demoralizing for a team, especially one already facing a talent deficit, to start games in a gaping hole because their two most valued players can't play together. And he should do so by benching Jahlil Okafor.
Nerlens is a far superior player to Jah in their current iterations. When provided the opportunity to play in his most effective center position, he props up the defense to what would be second in the league all on his own. He isn't a skilled offensive player, but that doesn't mean he is a poor one. If he is given the opportunity to work as a roll man in space, he'll be productive, and that should help him as both a leader of this team and as an individual who wants to perform well.
Moreover, Okafor's defense has been bad enough to deserve a benching. Look at the team's defensive numbers with and without Okafor and Noel:
|Team DRtg||NBA Rank|
|Okafor & Noel||111.3||30|
|No Okafor w/ Noel||96.8||2|
There's an obvious trend here. Okafor makes the defense really bad. And at this point, it can no longer be excused. One of these two players needs to come off the bench, and Okafor's cardinal sin is far worse than Noel's. In fact, lineups featuring Noel but not Okafor have scored more efficiently than converse lineups. Noel is clearly affecting the game more positively than Okafor on both sides of the ball.
Coming off the bench could also be beneficial to Okafor. Rather than going up against stud post defenders every night, he'll be going against second string players, whose inabilities to provide adequate defense are often the traits that sentence them to the bench. He'll still be able to score efficiently and effectively, while being able to focus much more his defensive shortcomings. Instead of battling Andre Drummond on offense and trying to contain Reggie Jackson in space on defense, they would be replaced with Aron Baynes and Spencer Dinwiddie. These are match ups Okafor can and should win.
And these lineup changes don't mean that the team should stop trying to figure out how to play these two together. But Brown can be much more prudent in how it does so. The prime juncture would be at the end of 1Q and beginning of 2Q when most bench mobs play. Brown could easily sub Noel early for Okafor, and then return with the two big lineups as they try to learn to harmonize with each other against weaker lineups. There's balance that can be reached that allows both player development and better competitiveness.
The Sixers' impotence has reached a point where ignoring these changes is no longer excusable. Brown should look long and hard at splitting up the starters. If he doesn't, then perhaps we'll have a new set of questions to ask about this group of Sixers, but it will have more to do with the staff than with the players.