In the NFL, there’s an old adage: if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none. Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles aside, that truism generally holds; any quarterback worth his salt should find a way to separate himself from the competition.
Not long ago, the Sixers had a similar situation in terms of centers. In three consecutive drafts from 2013-15, the team selected a big man with its first pick in the draft, in addition to grabbing Richaun Holmes early in the 2015 second round. With four centers vying for rotation time, it would be impossible for all of these players to be developed appropriately. As a result, we had the Nerlens Noel as power forward experiment, and the weeks when either Noel or Jahlil Okafor was given a pre-determined DNP-CD. A reserve center receiving a standing ovation for checking into the game is not a normal situation.
Now, Joel Embiid has a mostly healthy season behind him. (Quickly heads to a lumber yard and knocks on every wood imaginable. Returns.) Philadelphia has its franchise player in the pivot, and with Friday’s trade of Richaun Holmes to Phoenix, all the others have blown away like chaff in the wind. In hindsight, the center position wasn’t quite as stacked as it first appeared.
The most notable part of Nerlens Noel’s career has been his halftime hot dog. He just signed a 1 + 1 deal with Oklahoma City for less than $2 million per year.
Jahlil Okafor probably wishes an offer for $2 million per year was available to him. The former Duke big man has drawn zero interest in the free agent market this summer. He may have much more time to watch movies in his immediate future.
Richaun Holmes is still looking for a basketball situation where he sees consistent playing time. Having traded for him, Phoenix is obviously intrigued by Holmes’ potential (although the price of cash considerations was as low as these things get), but it remains to be seen how much time he’ll see behind first overall pick DeAndre Ayton and Tyson Chandler, who is still around making $13.6 million this season.
While it’s understandable that the center situation has sorted itself out as it has, there’s no question Philadelphia failed to maximize returns on what was once perceived to be a veritable stable of talented big men. Noel, Okafor, and Holmes were all traded at the nadir of their value. At earlier points, all three players were rumored to be worth substantial draft picks in a deal.
Instead, Noel was shipped out for a guy the Sixers just gave away as salary filler (Justin Anderson) and second round picks. Okafor himself was salary filler in a deal for a guy the team soon after released (Trevor Booker). Holmes was traded for cash. Unless Dallas’ 2020 second round pick turns into a serviceable player, it’s likely Philadelphia extracted nothing of value from their “too many centers” situation.
Realistically, these players were in Philadelphia across three different management regimes, so it’s tough to know exactly how to assign blame for a non-existent return. While some believe ownership pressured Sam Hinkie into the Okafor selection, the fact remains that the situation was originally created under his watch. Bryan Colangelo waited too long to pull the trigger on any deals and the “fake” first-rounder from Dallas was a galling attempt at misdirection (although not exactly surprising given the later burner account reveals). It’s hard to blame Brett Brown for being thrust into a temporary role with zero front office experience, but the latest moves to clear roster spots represented rather uncreative uses of resources.
These moves on the margins do matter, but the most crucial part of building a contender in the NBA is finding franchise players. The Sixers appear to have two of them, so while it’s sensible to wring our hands over missed opportunities, the franchise is still in a position the vast majority of the league would envy. Philadelphia no longer has “too many centers”, but they do have “the center”. That’s enough.