DETROIT - It could start as early (or as late, depending on how you view it) as Sunday. That is when the 76ers could have their full contingent of big men available for the first time this season when they face the Detroit Pistons.
Joel Embiid is expected to play, Jahlil Okafor should be recovered from his recent bout with gastroenteritis, and Nerlens Noel could make his season debut after electing to have a procedure on his left knee to ease pain in late October, right before the season opened.
This was the conundrum that dominated the team's offseason conversations, further complicated by Noel's words of dissatisfaction about the logjam at center, with three guys capable of starting on many NBA teams.
Now, it's even more complicated. The thought was that for the three bigs to be happy, at least two would have to learn how to play together. Last season proved that Okafor and Noel weren't a good fit, so the thought was that one of those two could pair with Embiid to man the power forward and center spots.
That thinking goes against conventional wisdom of today's NBA, where a power forward is now someone who steps out and shoots consistently from long range. The position has become one in which a big man can play the perimeter, but also bang on the inside when needed, and none of the three appeared to fit that bill.
Then along came Ersan Ilyasova in a Nov. 1 trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jerami Grant, and now Brown's options seem much broader. While he hasn't been able to do it much yet this season, Brown has more than hinted lately that he wants to take a look at pairing Okafor and Embiid on the floor more frequently. We've seen how much Ilyasova benefits from the attention Embiid commands in the low post, giving him plenty of open perimeter shots, which he's drained consistently, to the tune of 37.9 percent from the arc since his arrival. He also has rebounded well, (a season-high 17 at Memphis on Tuesday), and Brown has said he's the best passer on the team right now.
Now instead of looking at this as a trio of big men for whom Brown needs to find playing time, there are four, because Ilyasova has earned it. Some nights, if the opponent starts a traditional power forward, Brown could go with an Embiid-Okafor combination. That could mean Ilyasova and Noel coming off the bench, and maybe that pairing would work well. Or perhaps a Noel-Embiid pairing gels. Then maybe Okafor thrives with Ilyasova.
And what about Dario Saric? At the beginning of the season, he started at power forward, mostly because of injury and limited availability to some players. The idea from the start this season was for Saric to be a contributor off the bench; when Ilyasova arrived, it appeared the Sixers had their starter and backup at that spot. But recently, anticipating the logjam, Brown has had Saric play small forward and has liked the results.
Saric is as tough as they come, and he'll do anything he's asked. Brown also was intrigued by how big his team looked when the 6-10 Saric manned the small forward spot.
So, you see where this is going? Neither do I. But it seems as if Brown can toy with a lot of fun lineups.
Not only is Noel excited to get back on the floor, like everyone, he's eager to see how he and Embiid might mesh in this experiment.
"It would be interesting," Noel said. "Joel, I feel like I'd definitely be able to be on the court with him, probably just off of how well our chemistry is, being friends . . . Through that aspect of skills and with him being able to pop, too, I see what coach Brown is seeing."
Come Sunday, maybe we'll all be able to start seeing it.