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The Sixers must experiment at backup center this regular season

Philadelphia has options and should explore them.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Across four preseasons games, three different members of the Philadelphia 76ers received the majority of minutes filling in for Joel Embiid. When both Embiid and P.J. Tucker sat out the opener against the Brooklyn Nets, Paul Reed garnered the starting nod. When Embiid and Montrezl Harrell didn’t make the trip to Cleveland for a duel with the Cavaliers, Tucker took the reins as a small-ball center. In the preseason finale Wednesday against the Charlotte Hornets, Embiid suited up, with Harrell flanking him. Reed didn’t play until the latter stages of the night.

For the better part of a decade, the backup five spot has been a steadfast point of consternation for the Sixers. Embiid has been a star since debuting in 2016, but the challenge of staying afloat whenever he rests has confronted three different front offices.

Most choices have been insufficient. Dwight Howard was a fine regular-season reserve in 2020-21, but cratered in the playoffs. Andre Drummond excelled before being dealt to Brooklyn in the move for James Harden, which left Philadelphia searching for a new solution. The carousel of options in 2018-19 never yielded anything fruitful for the postseason. Amir Johnson performed admirably in 2017-18, yet the Sixers’ issues ran much deeper that year.

Now, the collection of talent behind Embiid is the best it’s ever been. Philadelphia has options.

Harrell is an exceptionally talented interior scorer, can create out of face-up situations and lords over the offensive glass for extra opportunities or free throws. He also has quite the rapport with Harden and previously played under head coach Doc Rivers. His defense, particularly in ball-screens, is problematic. He’s inactive and undersized. It’s a very hindering combination, and largely explains why he’s failed to translate his regular-season impact to a playoff setting.

Reed, in many ways, feels like the inverse of Harrell. He’s a tremendously skilled and active defender. His playmaking instincts, mobility and dexterity are a delightful trio. He’s also a very good offensive rebounder and cutter. But his aggressive defense leads to a number of fouls in compromising spots and he’s a highly limited play-finisher, not particularly adept as a floor-spacer or around the rim.

He props up the defense, Harrell buoys the offense. Following Wednesday’s win, Rivers described the situation of balancing their respective minutes as “fluid” and said either one could play the 4 if the context warrants it.

“Trez’s ball skills are amazing as far as his dribble handoffs, his touches. That’s something that Paul’s never done and he’s working on,” Rivers told reporters at the team’s Blue X White Scrimmage on Oct. 8. “He’s still very robotic in it, but they work together after practice, they see it. I think Paul will progress quickly in that because Trez does it so well.

“I think Paul’s probably a better on-ball defender. Trez is obviously a better scorer, better rebounder and better with the ball, just playing with guys.”

Tucker is the lone long-range gunner of the group, though he’s predominantly confined to the corners. Nearly 74 percent of his career triples have come from the corners, where he’s converted 38.3 percent of those looks. Last season, 88.6 percent occurred there and he buried 41.5 percent of them. Much like Reed and Harrell, he’s a feisty and persistent offensive rebounder, as he displayed this past spring against the Sixers. His passing in advantageous scenarios shines, and he’s a rugged screener.

“Obviously I’m not going to go down and post up to actually post up — mismatches, maybe,” Tucker told reporters during training camp. “But outside of that, at the five, it’s getting guys open, creating situations where they can’t help from the (three-point line), especially when I’m in the corner. And being a facilitator; being able to get guys open and give them the ball.”

He’s the premier defender of the bunch. He’s physical, highly attentive as an interior helper, denies well off the ball, can scale up against bigger defenders — remember how well he fronted Embiid at times in the playoffs — plays the nail astutely and can fluster a gamut of perimeter handlers. His defensive footprint is wide-ranging.

But he’s 6-foot-5, which leaves Philadelphia exposed on the defensive glass. That manifested in the Oct. 10 win over Cleveland. On a handful of possessions, sound defensive sequences unraveled because of an inability to secure the rebound. His offensive signature is also narrow. If the corner threes or floaters run cold, the occasional offensive board or connective pass are generally the scope of his contributions, though he’s nonetheless an upgrade from Reed. He’s the best player among he, Harrell and Reed, hence why he’s starting games. Whether he’s the best backup five among them is hazier.

“All three of us are all different. Me, Trez, Paul, we’re all different styles, and all of us can plug in with the matchups that we’re playing and what we need that day,” Tucker said. “So, it’s a good thing to have, especially going into a season where we’re going to need everybody.”

“Matchups” is the critical term there. That is what define the playoffs. Flexibility in scheme and play-style is a necessity. The regular season should be the ultimate playground for the Sixers this year to harbor as many counters and adjustments as needed when the postseason arrives.

Whenever Embiid is off the floor in the playoffs, which will not be often, Tucker, Harrell and Reed will distinctly shape what Philadelphia can do on either end. Use the regular season to decipher which matchup each big man is optimized for. Along the way, one of them might separate themselves from the others. Maybe, two of them do. Perhaps, playing the lesser reserves comes at the expense of a few victories.

But that’s fine. Regular-season wins and losses are so secondary for the Sixers now. They’ve been the No. 1 seed. They’ve made 50 or more wins the baseline expectation. Neither tradition has exorcised their second-round demons through five playoff appearances of the Joel Embiid Era. Figure out the proper lineup configurations whenever he sits.

They’re a worse team without him, that will never change while he remains a dominant superstar. There are other flaws present within the roster composition — namely, ball-handling depth. The six-month, 82-game slate presents a way to mitigate the harm of him catching a breather in mid-April and beyond, though. Experiment, tinker, make mistakes, reassess. Do everything possible to treat the regular season as a lab cultivating playoff success.

It is a luxury to have three divergent players who could each conceivably be the foremost choice at backup five. They should not squander it, and they certainly don’t have to.

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