After spending last season trying to figure out how to put Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor on the court together and have the 76ers thrive - and after pretty much washing his hands of the idea after a while - Brett Brown spent Tuesday talking about a similar topic. There were two fascinating things about what he said: his optimism, and his relative exclusion of Okafor from that optimism.
After missing the Sixers' first 21 games this season following knee surgery, then spraining his left ankle in his first game back Sunday, Noel could return Wednesday night against the Toronto Raptors or Friday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. So it's likely that sometime this week, Brown will finally confront the challenge that everyone knew he'd have to confront this season: He has Noel. He has Okafor. He has Joel Embiid. They're all 7 feet tall. They're all healthy. They all play center. They all have varying areas of expertise. Now what?
"You go into it with a mind-set and an attitude: If this is what it is, let's figure out how to make it work," Brown said after practice. "And that's my answer to 'Now what?' With that comment, there is a genuine response that I am excited to play this out and see where it goes."
The dirty details of this project - what Brown does, how he does it, what results he gets - promise to ripple throughout the team, through 2017 and beyond. Although the Sixers are 6-18 and a more talented, better balanced club than the 47-199 NBA-jayvee team they were over the previous three years - in a way their season is starting only now, and Brown is well aware of what's at stake for him and the franchise. Is there any chance he could keep all three players productive and happy? And if he can't, what then? The presumption, rightly, is that general manager Bryan Colangelo would have to trade at least one of them and that keeping Embiid, given his transcendent potential, would be non-negotiable. So how are Brown and the Sixers going to know what combinations work and what combinations don't?
"There are pairings that you think have a better chance of working given their skill package, and that's on my mind," Brown said. "When you go back to, if we do want to grow our program - and we do - defensively, and you say, 'Well, you'd better be a good rim-protecting team,' in Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel, that's a pretty good place to start. All those things, I feel like, are going to take more shape the more time we have to see it and play it. It's very much unfair to expect a real good continuity and flow right off the bat."
True, but it appears that Brown already has a pretty good idea of how he thinks everything might play out. Notice that he mentioned defense. Notice whose name, naturally, he omitted. Okafor may be as gifted an offensive post player as there is in the league, but among the Sixers' three big men, he ranks a distant third in both the ability to defend and rebound and in the foot speed that is necessary to thrive in today's NBA.
"Our sport is not getting slower," Brown said, "and we all understand there aren't [fewer] threes taken. And so if the game is fast, and the game is spread out, you become vulnerable in transition defense in a major way sometimes."
If there's to be an odd man out, if there's a player to be traded later, the signs suggest it's Okafor.
The players themselves know the score, too. Noel went through some individualized workouts Tuesday but said he didn't feel any closer to playing Wednesday, which means only that he, Okafor, and Embiid won't swim together in Brown's petri dish until probably Friday.
No matter when he returns, Noel said that, based on what he's seen during practices, his defensive responsibilities will draw him farther from the basket: "I think I'll be able to guard the perimeter better than Jahlil or Joel, even though I can still protect the rim." And since Noel is a natural center on offense, putting him on the floor with Embiid would necessitate moving Embiid - the far better and more diverse scorer, with terrific touch on his outside shot - to power forward, which happened to be where Embiid played during practice Tuesday.
"I've always wanted to be a point guard," Embiid said, half-kidding, but only half. "So that gives me a chance to get the ball, iso, play one-on-one from the three-point line, the pull-up jumpers. I'll be more of a spacer, more of a stretch four."
Of course, the Sixers already have a point guard/power forward on their roster. His name is Ben Simmons, and on Tuesday, for the first time since suffering a broken right foot in late September, he shot free throws on the courts at the Sixers' practice facility while wearing sneakers and without wearing a boot. As for what Brown will do once Simmons is ready to enter the lineup, well, isn't that just like the Sixers? Too many good young players? It's some problem to have, but at least it will be one Brown is familiar with. We'll find out over the next several months whether he can solve it.