- Chris Szagola/AP
When Sam Hinkie resigned as the Philadelphia 76ers GM last season, it signaled the end of his “Process,” the 76ers’ radical rebuilding plan in which they accumulated as many top draft picks as possible, often by intentionally putting together a non-competitive roster.
While Hinkie and the Sixers were chided for “tanking,” one of the bigger issues was what the 76ers were doing with many of their picks.
In 2013, the 76ers traded for center Nerlens Noel on draft day. In 2014, they drafted Joel Embiid, then drafted Elfrid Payton and traded him for Dario Saric. In 2015, they drafted Jahlil Okafor. In 2016, they drafted Ben Simmons.
In doing so, the 76ers drafted three centers of varying skills, a stretch power forward, and a 6-foot-10 point forward with otherworldly passing skills but little in the way of a jump shot. Every observer noted that the Sixers could not reasonably build a team with so many players of the same position.
Now, the 76ers’ poor use of resources is catching up to them. The 76ers decided to be more competitive this season, and thus far, they have been, winning seven of their first 27 games (7-20 is an improvement upon previous seasons). Joel Embiid, after two seasons lost to injury, has been a revelation, looking like the obvious candidate for Rookie of the Year. From there, things are not so pretty, and it begins with the team’s logjam at center.
There’s no feasible way to play combinations of Embiid, Okafor, or Noel for major minutes, let alone all three. Platooning them would cut into their respective minutes too drastically, which isn’t ideal for young, talented, and still-developing players.
Noel recently returned to action after having offseason knee surgery. After playing just eight minutes in his second game back, Noel was frustrated, telling reporters, “I think I’m too good to be playing eight minutes,” before adding that management needs “to figure this s— out.”
Since, Noel has been removed from the rotation completely after playing just 20 minutes on the season. Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters on Sunday that Noel wouldn’t be in the rotation going forward, barring an emergency (via CSN’s Jessica Camerato).
“I think trying to force feed three bigs in a game is unfair. I intend on going with two of those three bigs tonight. Nerlens will not be one of those people that will be in rotation unless something happens with foul trouble or some type of other circumstance.”
Later, Brown was asked if he feels bad for Noel being pushed out of the rotation. Brown spoke about how difficult it is to manage a logjam of players, noting that second-year big man Richaun Holmes is out of the rotation despite working with the team since training camp.
“I feel worse for Richaun [Holmes]. When I put my human hat on and then you go coach a team, make decisions, show leadership, that stands out to me as much as anything. Nerlens missed everything. Twenty minutes before the game last week, I learned he was going to play. He hasn’t been a part of us. … Richaun has been here from Day 1.”
As Yahoo’s Eric Freeman writes, Noel’s “Day 1” was earlier than Holmes’. Noel has been part of a tanking organization since 2013 and has seen his role dwindle, due to both injuries and positional overlap. As an impending restricted free agent, Noel’s decreasing role could possibly cost him money on his next contract.
Meanwhile, the combinations of these players haven’t produced good results. In 58 minutes this season, the combination of Embiid and Okafor has been outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions. On Monday, 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo called the pairing, “interesting,” hardly an endorsement for playing the two seven-footers together. Embiid’s defense has taken a hit when sharing the floor with Okafor, according to the NBA’s stats site. The same goes for Okafor’s defense with Embiid on the floor. And last season, the pairing of Okafor and Noel was outscored by 20 points per 100 possessions.
Simply put, Embiid, Okafor, or Noel can’t thrive playing together. In an era of small, pace-and-space basketball, platooning three centers doesn’t make sense, leaving Noel to be the odd man out. The wisdom of that choice can be debated. While Noel is older and injury-prone, he also fits the mold of an athletic, rim-protecting modern center who doesn’t command the ball on offense. Okafor, meanwhile, is already one of the best low-post scorers in the league, but hasn’t shown a knack for passing or playing credible defense.
Trading one of them – Noel, presumably – is the obvious choice, but the 76ers don’t have much leverage. The 76ers were reportedly shopping Noel and Okafor over the offseason, but didn’t make a move. Now, the rest of the league knows the Sixers will try to offload one of their big men, so there’s no need to offer a bounty to trade for a players the team is actively trying to move.
The 76ers staved off this dilemma for a while, but it’s finally caught up to them. While the solution is simple enough – trade one or two of the big men to clear up the roster – it seems increasingly unlikely that the 76ers will be able to get a bounty in return. While a trade could be a case of addition by subtraction, it may result in an awkward waiting period.