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How did Philadelphia’s new backup center situation fare in preseason play?

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Let’s have fun with small sample sizes!

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

One of Elton Brand’s clear objectives this past offseason was to upgrade the backup center situation for the Sixers. As a Sixers blog, I don’t find it necessary to rehash why Brand felt that was a vital task for the team to succeed moving forward. You’ve seen the on/off splits when Joel Embiid hits the bench over the years. You remember the playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, when the team lost two points whenever Brett Brown so much as glanced down the end of the bench at Greg Monroe.

Improving the backup center spot was one of the many reasons Philadelphia was happy to sign 33-year-old Al Horford to a four-year deal, and also why Kyle O’Quinn is now around to dish out dimes from the high post. After the frontcourt overhaul, how did the Sixers fare during the preseason in competitive situations without Embiid? I decided to take a look.

Setting aside the opening preseason contest against the Guangzhou Loong Lions, the Sixers had four games against NBA competition, during which the fourth quarters were largely empty-the-bench affairs. I only looked at lineups that had at least two starters on the court without Embiid (projected opening night starters, not whoever started in that particular game).

Understandably, this criteria left a fairly small sample size. After all, Ben Simmons sat out two games with back tightness. Horford received a rest day. The Magic game (a.k.a the invisible game very few people could watch) was the only preseason game against an NBA opponent where all five starters played. Still, we ultimately have over a full game’s worth of time from which to draw our conclusions, so feel free to run wild with your own personal theories.

Thanks to our Adam Aaronson for charting the Sixers’ rotations throughout the preseason, which made this exercise much easier for me. The Charlotte game when Embiid sat out but all other starters were available had a much larger sample, so I didn’t bother listing every single rotation there, but I’ve done so for each of the other three games against NBA competition.

10/11 at Charlotte

Start of game through 5:20 mark of third quarter: 76-50 (Plus-26)

Game Total: 30 minutes, 40 seconds = Plus-26

10/13 at Orlando

1Q: 6:45-3:26 - Ben Simmons, James Ennis, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Al Horford: 5-7 (Minus-2)
2Q: 8:41-6:58 - Simmons, Ennis, Thybulle, Harris, Horford: 0-5 (Minus-5)
2Q: 6:58-3:57 - Simmons, Ennis, Thybulle, Harris, Kyle O’Quinn: 12-8 (Plus-4)
3Q: 6:06-5:24 - Simmons, Furkan Korkmaz, Thybulle, Harris, O’Quinn: 2-4 (Minus-2)
3Q: 5:24-3:54 - Josh Richardson, Korkmaz, Thybulle, Harris, O’Quinn: 6-0 (Plus-6)

Game Total: 10 minutes, 15 seconds = Plus-1

10/15 vs. Detroit

1Q: 6:16-3:54 - Josh Richardson, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn: 6-8 (Minus-2)
1Q: 3:54-3:16 - Richardson, Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Harris, O’Quinn: 1-2 (Minus-1)
2Q: 7:19-4:39 - Richardson, Milton, Thybulle, Harris, O’Quinn: 5-2 (Plus-3)
3Q: 6:49-4:52 - Richardson, Milton, Thybulle, Harris, O’Quinn: 3-5 (Minus-2)

Game Total: 7 minutes, 37 seconds = Minus-2

10/18 vs. Washington

1Q: 7:02-2:23 - Shake Milton, James Ennis, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Al Horford: 8-6 (Plus-2)
2Q: 7:51-5:35 - Josh Richardson, Ennis, Thybulle, Harris, Horford: 3-7 (Minus-4)
2Q: 5:35-4:18 - Milton, Ennis, Thybulle, Harris, Horford: 0-3 (Minus-3)
3Q: 6:28-3:37 - Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Thybulle, Harris, Horford: 7-7 (Even)

Game Total: 11 minutes, 3 seconds = Minus-5

Grand Total: 59 minutes, 35 seconds = Plus-20

In the end, the Sixers played about five quarters with at least a couple starters and without Embiid. A plus-20 mark across that sample size is absolutely something Philadelphia management and fans would be thrilled to see over a largely time frame.

The more cynical among us might acknowledge that over half that time came against Charlotte, a team which provides any analysis with enough grains of salt to fill the Dead Sea. Yet, even during the other three games against slightly stiffer competition, the Sixers were at least able to hang around when Joel hit the bench.

Embiid is an MVP-caliber talent, and more often than not, Philadelphia will be able to build and expand upon leads when he is on the floor. The Sixers simply need things not to completely fall apart when he isn’t out there in order to be successful. With that exceedingly reachable goal in mind, and acknowledging the small sample size behind us, it’s so far, so good for Elton Brand’s roster power-ups at the backup center spot.