A long and unfortunate 2015-16 Sixers campaign was exacerbated by playing two centers together whose skill sets didn’t fit. Based on word out of practice today, Brett Brown might make the same mistake with Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.
Pressed on whether he’d start the pair together, Brown rejected the idea, but left the door open for crunch-time minutes:
Brett Brown says he doesn't plan to start Embiid and Okafor together. Plans to be selective in matchups. Might end games together.— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) October 17, 2016
I’m all for experimentation, and this is yet another year in which the Sixers need to find out who they can pair together long-term. But if this is any sort of regular fixture in the way they close out games, rather than an occasional curveball to force weird matchups, it has disaster potential for the Sixers.
On the offensive end of the court, you’re creating a multi-layered problem. First, you’re taking one player out of the area they prefer to operate in. While it isn’t a death sentence on the level of the Nerlens Noel-Okafor pairing on that end, it’s sort of nonsensical to dull the impact Okafor and Embiid can have on offense. Just because they can knock down jumpers to keep defenses honest doesn’t mean they should be placed in that position with regularity.
Both guys are at a stage where reps are a priority, particularly in Embiid’s case. They were each selected with the hope they can feature as a hub to build your team around, and the only way to do that is to give them proper room to operate.
Defense would be a major concern. Without harping on last year’s struggles too much, Okafor’s issues on defense would only be exacerbated by playing him at the four. As teams push towards more shooting and spacing from all five positions, asking him to chase around modern power forwards would be unrealistic and unfair.
This goes double for Embiid. Playing him at the four on defense minimizes his impact as a rim-protecting big man and rebounder. The reason he’s considered such a special prospect is his merging of elite offensive gifts with elite defensive instincts and ability. Taking him out of his comfort zone in order to best hide Okafor — or any other player for that matter -- is nonsense.
We’ve harped on this all offseason, but there are no easy solutions for the logjam in the front-court. All three centers deserve time and attention, their limitations notwithstanding, and remaining on the same team isn’t fair to the trio. Assuming rosy outlooks for even two of them would put the team and coaching staff in a bind. Once Ben Simmons is back, this only gets worse.
The way around that is not to force them to play together. Brown and Bryan Colangelo will have to be creative in order to keep them involved and happy; maybe that means rotating starters and finishers to give them all a fair shot, maybe it’s finally pulling the trigger on a trade to provide opportunity.
Regardless, this isn’t the way forward. If it wasn’t clear enough last year, forcing square pegs into round holes is no way to build for the future.