The Nerlens Noel-Jahlil Okafor fit experiment undoubtedly sucked the life out of a lot of Sixers fans. Regardless of the player you prefer, it was essentially like watching something we really enjoy be tied to an anchor and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. Noel couldn’t raise hell in the pick-and-roll and swat shots into the stands like he was accustomed to, being put in fewer of those opportunities at the four. Okafor had less room to create for himself and pass out of pressure with the already cramped spacing around both of them.
It compromised the problem of carving out sufficient playing time for both of them, but created an ultimately depressing brand of basketball that failed to put either of the two players in a position to succeed at a high level.
This, while presenting potentially similar problems, is different, and should be treated as such:
While a tad emotionally exhausting to go down the big-to-big rabbit hole again, Embiid is The Guy, and Okafor has the next-most dynamic set of skills on offense, despite his failure to put any of it together into a productive mold to this point. With The Guy theoretically in place now fans should take a breather on this one; Okafor obviously hasn’t fit in, and they can and should go to whatever lengths necessary to get the most out of their investment, only in its second year, to try to make it work.
I don’t think really any of us expect this to be the maneuver that magically makes Okafor productive, nor does the team for that matter. But it’s possible playing with a much stronger and more ground-bound rim-protector than Noel, one who’s also a weakside-helping menace like him, can simplify Okafor’s workload on D (and if you haven’t seen his help defense or his gapping, or really any of his defense off the ball, hoo boy does he need some simplifying).
It’s a similar philosophy to last season’s theory, and that obviously went pretty miserably. This probably won’t yield positive results. But there are a couple potential moving parts that could make this a smoother process. First, Embiid’s elite ability to step out and hit threes should ease some of the spacing concerns for the spot minutes we see this experiment in action, and the team is generally just more palatable for this kind of experiment with real NBA point guard play and more shooting in place. Second, making this work likely won’t be at the expense of Embiid’s defensive value like it was Noel’s. The team won’t have Embiid roaming 25 feet from the basket with his legs still barely under him; I’d think if that’s anyone, it’ll be Okafor this time. And hiding porous defense at the four should be a little easier when you have a 7-foot-2, 280-pound safety net behind you.
I suppose if you’re going to give it a try, doing so against the Cousins-Koufos front-line is a fine place to start. I’m not crazy about the idea either - I don’t have much faith in Okafor’s ability to play without the ball on every possession offensively, and taking the ball out of Embiid’s hands during any of his 24 minutes will be irritating enough to make some of us scream like overprotective soccer moms. Not to mention, “going big” with Okafor doesn’t really bring any of the advantages of size with his mind-numbing ineptitude on the defensive glass.
But the circumstances are much different. This isn’t a flailing effort to make something work in the absence of talent or creativity elsewhere. If anything, with Embiid proving himself to be the special talent they’ve held out for, this is more of an “experiment” than the ones prior. The stakes are much lower. They have Embiid. The rest is gravy.
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: CSN Philly
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic