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Don’t sweat the Sixers’ backup center situation

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Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

As the Sixers careen towards the upcoming NBA postseason amidst a battle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, many fans are projecting forward in an effort to identify the roster’s warts, which may ultimately undermine the team’s playoff fate. Common refrains in this regard include Joel Embiid’s health, Ben Simmons’ inconsistent season and spotty postseason track record, or the team’s reliance on Tobias Harris in the fourth quarter of close games, given his recent difficulties in the playoffs.

All of these concerns, of course, should be weighed appropriately. None of them have inhibited the team from its excellent season-long performance. The Sixers are 35-16, 0.5 games behind the Brooklyn Nets. Philly just held its own by going 7-3 as two-way fulcrum Joel Embiid missed time with a bone bruise. Embiid’s MVP caliber season, Simmons’ Defensive Player of the Year caliber season, and a career year from Tobias Harris have combined to put the team where it is: fighting tooth-and-nail with a star-studded Brooklyn team for Eastern Conference preeminence.

One potential issue that has been overstated, in my opinion, is the team’s lack of a stretch-5 option behind Embiid and Dwight Howard. This is not to say that I’m content with the Sixers’ current depth at center — since trading Tony Bradley for George Hill, Doc Rivers has elected to play Mike Scott, a lovely guy who should be getting DNP-CDs, as the third center when Embiid misses time. As we trudge through the remaining 20-ish games of this regular season, the team could surely use a third actual center to soak up some minutes on nights where Embiid is unavailable. And, sure, it would be nice if that third center could stretch the floor so that he’s more of a sensible on-court fit with Ben Simmons.

What I struggle with is the sentiment that seems to be pervading Sixers fan discourse lately that the team should grab a stretch center from the scrap-heap so that he can play instead of Howard. The Sixers’ lack of a third center who can shoot threes is the least of my worries for this team.

Dwight Howard is not perfect. He fouls at a rate that is truly unparalleled — sometimes he commits fouls that make me think he’s secretly filming an episode of Impractical Jokers, and that Joe Gatto just urged him via earpiece: “Okay, now shove that guy with two hands and then act surprised that the ref calls a foul.” Howard also can’t shoot, which is the main thing gumming up the minutes shared by Howard and Simmons (and these numbers grow even more nauseating when Matisse Thybulle joins the fray).

But I think that Howard adds much more value than he takes away. He is still an elite rim protector and completely disruptive rebounder. The Sixers’ ability to maintain high-level rim protection is one of the biggest reasons for the team’s second-ranked defense. And with potential dates with Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving or Giannis Antetokounmpo upcoming, you’d better be able to guard the goal when it matters most.

Players that have been bandied about in this mold of stretch-5 (Kelly Olynyk, Nemanja Bjelica, Luke Kornet) would add a new dimension to the bench’s offense, to be sure. Those players would fit offensively with Simmons just fine. But I worry that they would also yield a conga line to the rim, defensively, that would be difficult to overcome.

In a perfect world, Dwight Howard would be able to protect the rim, switch 1 through 5, and drain threes, all while playing on his veteran-minimum level contract. But a perfect roster is unattainable (certainly at this point), and I’m glad that Daryl Morey didn’t replace Howard with a better offensive fit that would have plugged one hole while opening up another.

But while I’m content with Howard as the team’s backup center, I’d sure like some more ingenuity in bench lineups from head coach Doc Rivers. The aforementioned Howard-Simmons-Thybulle lineup cannot go on. Mike Scott’s minutes should be completely excised once George Hill takes the court. On nights without Embiid, I’d like to see Rivers give a longer look to friend of the Liberty Ballers Podcast Network Paul Reed. Or even to Ben Simmons at center, which I don’t love (as it can restrict Ben’s defensive versatility which is his outlier trait on that end) but is a more attractive proposition than rolling Scott out there.

The other layer to this is that when you keep Simmons and Howard separate, the bench lineup with Tobias Harris has performed great. The Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, Dwight Howard lineup is a remarkable +11.62 on the season, per PBP stats. Rivers needs to lean on those lineups and avoid playing either all bench or Simmons and Howard as often as possible. For much of the season, Rivers has tied Simmons and Embiid’s minutes together while allowing Harris to buoy the bench units to great success.

So, yes, I wish the Sixers had a better third center who would fit with the team’s lead ball-handler who refuses to shoot jump shots. But the sad truth is that if Joel Embiid is absent for any significant stretch of time in the playoffs (thus thrusting this third center into action) the Sixers are cooked anyway. Embiid is that important, that dominant, that vital.

So I’m not sweating the team’s lack of a third center who shoots from range. And given Howard’s play, Embiid’s importance, and the data that tells the story of the Harris + bench unit’s success, you shouldn’t either.