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Inside the 76ers: Noel, Okafor yet to find a fit together on court

MEMPHIS - The 76ers are trying to buck a trend. They have gone away from the NBA's move toward small ball and decided to build their team around their two talented big men.

MEMPHIS - The 76ers are trying to buck a trend.

They have gone away from the NBA's move toward small ball and decided to build their team around their two talented big men.

Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor are perhaps the two best healthy draft picks of general manager Sam Hinkie's tenure. They have shown they are talented centers in the league's point guard era.

Today, few teams boast true centers. The Sixers (0-17), however, have two.

Seventeen games is truly a small sample to decide whether these two 6-foot-11 players can complement one another. But they will have to show drastic improvement if they want to remain paired together in the long-term future of the franchise.

That's not to say they won't be individually successful in the league. It's just that as a pair, they've got a lot of work do in order for this to work.

That's why coach Brett Brown has decided to go stretches without both bigs on the floor at the same time. The Sixers drew criticism for sitting Noel in the final 2 minutes, 11 seconds of Monday's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"If the journalists research the numbers, the plus-minus while those two are on the floor - they have to do better," Brown said. "I have to do better, because it isn't good at all. It's [the least] efficient offense . . . we have."

The Sixers score 90.2 points per 100 possessions with Noel and Okafor on the court together. To put things in context, the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets, who had what is believed to be worst offense in NBA history, scored 92.2 points per 100 possessions.

However, the Sixers are at 93.8 with just Okafor on the floor, and 93.3 with just Noel.

The disparity on the defensive end is mind-boggling.

According to the statistics website, the Sixers rank 28th in the league defensively when the duo are on the floor. They are 30th when Okafor is out there without Noel. But they are second when Noel plays without Okafor.

So what's the problem?

"I think it's those two guys learning how to play with each other," Brown said. "I think it's me coaching them to play better than I have. I think it's a partnership that's on all of us."

Individually, Okafor has shown why he was the preseason favorite to be the rookie of the year with his offense. The 19-year-old leads all rookies with 18 points per game. He's third in rebounding behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, with 7.9 per game.

Meanwhile, Noel, 21, has struggled while being paired with Okafor. Part of it has to do with the growing pains of learning the power forward position after being a standout center since the time he began playing. The team also struggles because, defensively as a power forward, Noel has to chase stretch-fours on the perimeter. He's more effective as a rim protector.

Lately, his reactions have appeared a step too slow. He's averaging 10.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.3 assists, and 1 block. His statistics are comparable to last season's - 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.7 assists, and 1.9 blocks. However, Noel improved drastically during the year en route to finishing third in the rookie-of-the-year voting.

"You know I just [have] to stay at ease with this whole process," Noel said of playing alongside Okafor. "Things will be figured out. It's a process. Something like this is so new. It takes a lot of time to ease things over and fix all the little things."

Perhaps, but the major problem is spacing - or lack thereof.

Neither player has a consistent jumper to keep defenders from crowding the paint when they're both on the floor.

In comparison, Tim Duncan and Hall of Famer David Robinson were effective as twin towers in San Antonio from 1997 to 2003 because both were highly reliable shooting from as far out as 18 feet.

The Sixers haven't given up hope that this pairing will work.

"That's the challenge of growing two players together that are 19 and 21 years old," Brown said. "We are only 17 games in. It's a C, and we have to bring it up to a B-plus in the not-too-distant future."


The Sixers will try to avoid tying the record for consecutive losses to start a season on Saturday at the Memphis Grizzlies. They are one loss shy of the league record of 18, held by the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets.