SO THE EXPERIMENT of playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor is in its infancy, and the results thus far have been lukewarm. There's some good, like the fact that, for the most part, Okafor seems to be rebounding better and has more bounce in his step when he's paired with the 7-2, 276-pounder. His defense, however, is still suspect, and that can't be hidden, even by Okafor's monstrous frontcourt partner.
Embiid seems to get a bit frustrated at times at the team's lack of defense prowess when they are on the court together, and he sometimes finds himself playing too far from the basket at times, as Okafor is most effective when either getting the ball near the blocks or driving toward it with the ball in his hands.
Maybe the master plan of president Bryan Colangelo and coach Brett Brown has nothing to do with what we've been bantering about and forecasting since the summer, regarding Embiid, Okafor and Nerlens Noel, who should see his playing time increase eventually. Maybe it isn't about which of those two bigs plays better with Embiid. Perhaps we all really already know who best fits with Embiid, and all these rotational issues are just masking what the future really will look like?
If you really look at it, the team played its best basketball of the season, and probably the best basketball since Brown has been here, a couple of weeks ago, when Okafor was coming off the bench and Noel was out recovering from his knee procedure. Playing power forward was Ersan Ilyasova, the versatile veteran who does just about everything well when he is on the floor, no matter whom he's sharing the court with.
His outside shooting provides room for Embiid to work. When the two are on the same side of the floor, Ilyasova's man can't double-down on Embiid, because he'd be leaving a 37 percent three-point shooter open. The 29-year-old is the team's best entrance passer, with an ability to get the ball down low to Embiid at terrific scoring spots. He is a wonderful help defender, often drawing offensive fouls against unsuspecting opponents and is a consistent rebounder.
Ilyasova's future could play out in a number of ways. He is a free agent after this season, so he very well could wind up elsewhere. He could be used as trade bait, as he is playing the best basketball of his career right now. Or maybe he should be the answer the team is seeking at power forward and Colangelo should offer him a contract for about $12 million a year (Ilyasova is making $8.4 million this season).
There is not a Sixer who doesn't like being on the floor with Ilyasova. His game is contagious. He is a smart player who makes the right plays, and his teammates seem to follow that style when they are on the court with him. The ball is in constant motion when he is on the floor, and everyone seems to want to make that extra pass that makes a good shot a great one.
The franchise player, Embiid, profits most when there is good ball movement and teams can't concentrate solely on covering him. Defensively, it allows Embiid to hover near the lane, where he is becoming an elite rim protector and will only get better as time moves on.
Rookie Ben Simmons will make his NBA debut in a month or so, if all goes well with the recovery of his fractured foot. For a moment, forget about the minute restrictions that will be placed on him and the amount of time it will take him to get in full basketball shape, and remember the player we saw last summer. Now you would be talking about a starting lineup of Simmons, Embiid, Ilyasova, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez. But look further into the future. Imagine a starting lineup of Jerryd Bayless, a shooter/scorer obtained in the draft this coming June, Simmons, Ilyasova and Embiid. That is intriguing and matches up against a lot of other teams in the league and allows Brown to play the running style he envisions.
So what of Okafor and Noel? This is the tricky part, no doubt. So use the rest of this season to determine which of those two you would like to keep. Not solely on who matches up better with Embiid, but who will help the team's second unit the most and who, when matchups suggest, can be productive with Embiid at times. Then you are talking of a second unit that could consist of Okafor/Embiid, Dario Saric, Henderson and Nik Stauskas, among others acquired within the draft or from trades.
It is a tall task to ask someone who was a top pick in the draft (Okafor No. 3 in 2015, Noel sixth in 2013) to embrace a backup role, and there is little doubt both those players could start on most teams. But unless one of them undoubtedly emerges as a perfect starting fit with Embiid, it's probably the best route for this team moving forward to sign and insert Ilyasova. So while we all ponder who fits where for now, maybe the answer isn't among the two featured subjects. Maybe one of them will be the anchor to a really solid second unit, where he could prosper, help the team win and secure a profitable and long career.