THE TSUNAMI of big men that have been healing in the various pools in the 76ers new practice facility are about to crash in on coach Brett Brown as, very soon, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel will all be healthy enough to see significant minutes.
But how is it all going to work itself out while they are all still here? It is the most often asked question to the Sixers' coach, and a definitive answer isn't one he can supply. At least now he can analyze instead of speculate.
Of course, since the team added power forward Ersan Ilyasova last month, it all has to be looked at a little differently. Here is the good and the bad of the possible pairings that Brown will trot out on the court for however long he still has those three centers.
Embiid and Okafor: It's no secret that I've been wanting to see these two start together for quite some time. But, as with most everything when it comes to the Sixers, obstacles (mainly injuries) have prevented it until Wednesday Wednesday against the Toronto Raptors. Now, with Embiid cleared to play 28 minutes and Okafor with no limitations, that is going to become a reality more often.
What I like about it is the possibilities it gives the team on offense. First, both are extremely smart players when it comes to the offensive end. They both are good readers of defenses and are both gifted at handling the basketball. That puts them in the above-average category when it comes to passing. The thought is that Embiid will roam the perimeter and Okafor will man the low-post area. But to keep Embiid solely as an outside threat is ludicrous. This is where the passing comes into play. When Okafor has the ball down low, he'll often command a double-team. A cutting Embiid is an inviting target when that happens, and Embiid can return the favor by feeding Okafor when he is posted low. The thought of more than 14 feet and close to 550 pounds is a pretty intimidating one. Surrounded by a shooter or two, it could be a lethal offensive pairing.
The problem, of course, is the matchup at the defensive end. If the team is playing what is now "traditional," stretch four, then which of these two is out there guarding? Embiid is more mobile, but taking his rim protection away isn't optimal. Brown will have to come up with some sort of scheme at the defensive end if the mismatch presents itself. Some of Okafor's defensive deficiencies would probably be covered up by Embiid's rim-protection ability, however. Another problem would be how much the team would be able to run, something Brown always wants to do. Neither of these guys is going to be leading a break, or trailing many for that matter.
Embiid and Noel: This is the only combination we haven't seen together thus far as Noel has played just 10 minutes this season after coming back from a knee procedure in late October and is out again with a sprained ankle. This pairing would seem most natural to some as Noel seems to have enough athleticism to be able to play perimeter defense on a stretch power forward. Noel is also terrific at coming off his man and blocking shots, so a team trying to attack the rim with these two in the game at the same time most likely wouldn't be too successful.
Offensively, like Okafor, having Noel in the game would probably force Embiid to step away from the basket. Noel's scoring is basically non-existent when he's more than three feet away from the basket and he is at his best setting high-picks and rolling for lobs or crashing the offensive glass. Noel is a very gifted passer, usually when he's on the move, which is an attribute the two could exploit. That is a huge plus. When the team is running, Noel is a good big-man finisher, so playing both a faster pace and revolving the halfcourt around Embiid is doable.
Okafor and Noel: Of course, we saw these two together on the floor many times last season, to mixed results. The problem is that neither really compliments the other offensively. Perhaps it's just unfamiliarity, but most likely it's because they both want to finish at the basket. Okafor has shown an ability to take his man off the dribble, but that mostly happens in the 10- to 12-foot area. With Noel, that just makes things too crowded.
The worry, again, is the defense of Okafor, who would be pitted down low when paired with Noel. If Noel is chasing fours defensively, his rim protection is taken away, leaving the team with none.
So moving forward, what is the ideal pairings? The addition of Ilyasova really puts another wrinkle into it, but I think in a good way. Embiid is here to stay. Ilyasova is a free agent after this season. I say sign him. Overpay him if you must. Either Okafor or Noel has to be moved. Some say both, but I say keep one. That way you can do multiple things.
If you start Ilyasova at the four, he automatically opens things up for Embiid who, as Brown said, is the best passer in the program right now. He's also a good defender. A starting lineup of Embiid, Ilyasova, Ben Simmons, a scoring point guard who doesn't need to have the ball in his hands a lot, and then a shooter isn't bad. Then you'd have Okafor/Noel coming off the bench, along with Dario Saric, Nik Stauskas, another shooter and Sergio Rodriguez. If Okafor/Noel commit to thriving in their reserve roles, this could work out well. The team could go big, small, fast and slow. And they could do them all relatively well.