Hayes: Forget meaningless wins, see if Embiid-Okafor combo works
JOEL EMBIID took a seat after playing what so far was the most important 6 minutes, 20 seconds of the interminable Process.
Joel Embiid took a seat after playing what so far was the most important 6 minutes, 20 seconds of the interminable Process.
If the Sixers know what's best for them, they will keep this facet of the Process going.
Embiid, the 76ers' rookie franchise center, and Jahlil Okafor, the 76ers' second-year franchise center, started for the first time together Wednesday. Lingering injury issues and chemistry concerns convinced cautious alchemist Brett Brown to keep them apart, but he acquiesced to common sense Wednesday.
This powerful composition could crescendo as the season progresses; that is, as long as Embiid commits to the combination and as long as Brown is not obsessed with the pursuit of meaningless wins.
Embiid, who usually starts at center, played power forward for most of his 26 minutes. He finished with a season-low nine points, fewer than half his season average, on a season-low six shots, less than half his average, with six rebounds, one below his average. He seemed mystified at times, disinterested at others and hobbled, too. He twisted his left ankle before the game, aggravated it during the game, took a shot to the nose that drew blood and was not upset to leave the contest after diving into the stands in the fourth quarter.
"I was kind of beat up tonight," said Embiid, his feet in a bucket of ice. "I've got to be more active, whether I am the 4 or the 5. I don't think I was tonight."
Okafor, meanwhile, seemed energized to be playing with the Process. He usually comes off the bench when he and Embiid both play. His 17 points, four rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes at center were high-energy stats.
"Jahlil had a bounce," Brown said. "He looked like he had an extra level of speed and enthusiasm. He probably reaped the benefit of this first opportunity to do that more than Jo."
"I had the mindset to go all out to make sure that this pairing worked," Okafor said.
For the most part, it worked. They played together for 17 minutes and were outscored by just seven points by the Raptors, the most efficient perimeter team in the league, in the 123-114 loss. Guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry scored 31 and 20 points, respectively, and DeRozan played just three quarters. They didn't lose because of Jo and Jah.
Brown didn't play them more, he said, because the defensive matchups did not favor the Sixers. He liked it when the Raptors played Jonas Valanciunas and Pascal Siakam, but not when three-point threat Patrick Patterson entered.
Will they start together again?
"If we're not hurting the team," Brown said. "This balance of developing our guys and experimenting . . . draped under, we want to win games."
Does that matter?
Okafor and Embiid combined for four points, three rebounds, two points and a blocked shot (Okafor's) in the first quarter. They clogged the lane on defense, deferred on offense and kept the ball moving. Brown sent them out to start the third quarter, when Embiid's dropoff to Okafor for a dunk provided the Twin Tower highlight of the night. They started the fourth quarter, too, but the Sixers trailed by 18. Embiid blocked Siakam's dunk, his personal highlight.
"I thought it was OK," Brown said of Embiid. "He was involved. He just wasn't involved to the level we have been used to."
With that, the Sixers took a clear step forward. This was predictable. After all, the only other time the pair shared the court, against Orlando on Dec. 2, they meshed nicely. Okafor was eager to take this step, a real step, and he wants this to become a march.
"I'm excited just to do it and live with it, rather than experimenting," Okafor said. "Give us a little leeway to try to figure things out."
They got 17 minutes of leeway.
Wednesday's pairing makes Friday's game all the more intriguing, because fourth-year center Nerlens Noel is likely to play that game, which is the next big step in the Process. Noel missed the first 23 games with a knee injury, played Sunday in Detroit and injured his ankle.
How the trio plays together eventually will influence which of them eventually, inevitably, gets traded. How they play together immediately will influence whether the Sixers can be competitive against real NBA teams.
Brown's team is almost that. It is 6-19, the worst team in the NBA once again but demonstrably better than the 10-win punch it was last season, and, likely, better than the first two seasons of the rebuild, too. The wins will come. It remains most important to develop young players as quickly and as completely as possible; especially Embiid, Okafor and their predecessor, Noel, who began the Process in 2013 as franchise center No. 1.
"I want it all," Brown insisted. "Especially in Year Four. Year One, development ruled the day. We're now three years along."
Technically, that's true.
Practically, it is not.
They are, at best, in Year 2. Noel sat out Year 1 with a knee injury. Embiid missed all of Year 2 and Year 3 with a foot injury. Embiid appears unlikely to play back-to-back games this season. Dario Saric, the intriguing Croatian rookie, lost his starting spot to polished veteran Ersan Ilyasova. Ben Simmons, the only No. 1 overall pick in the four years of reconstruction, has a broken foot and might not take the court until after Valentine's Day.
Combined, Noel, Okafor, Saric, Embiid and Simmons had played 255 man-games of the 1,350 since the Process began. Practically, has even Year 1 begun in earnest?
Practicality matters less and less in Brown's win-starved world.
"We want to win games. I want to win games," Brown said.
That, too, is a mistake, but an understandable one for Brown, who fell to 53-218 Wednesday night in his first head-coaching job. Brown believes that losing is more corrosive than experimenting is constructive. He has picked his poison as he navigates the latest bend in perhaps the strangest coaching assignment in NBA history.
Brown works in a Bizarro world with three 7-footers who are 22 or younger; all three, rookie of the year candidates at one point; all three considered franchise big men when they exited college; and, all three, years away from proving or disproving that profile.
"They're in their infant stages. And so are we," Brown acknowledged.
So why not just let them grow?
Brown remains unsettled by the failed pairing last season of Noel, an intriguing defender and a rebounding force, and Okafor, an indifferent defender and rebounder. He is unwilling to re-pair them this season, though he'd like to see Noel and Embiid patrol together.
"We learned different pairings sometimes struggle. When Nerlens comes back we will look at Nerlens and Joel together," Brown promised. "How can that not be exciting?"
Exciting, and crucial that Embiid buys in.
Because, right now, win or lose, determining the team's best big-man combination is the only thing that matters.