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Pompey: Sixers big men experiment taking its toll

DENVER - The 76ers are adamant that they're no longer tanking. Folks want to believe they are not, and that this season's 8-24 record is more about injuries to key additions than sacrificing wins.

DENVER - The 76ers are adamant that they're no longer tanking.

Folks want to believe they are not, and that this season's 8-24 record is more about injuries to key additions than sacrificing wins.

However, there were six straight games that centers Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor were paired in the starting lineup. All it took was eight minutes to realize that lineup would struggle. So the more they rolled it out the more you wondered just how committed this team is to winning.

Everyone knows the team is overcrowded at the center position with Embiid, Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Richaun Holmes. We also know the Sixers are having a tough time trading Okafor and Noel for what it perceives as equal value. And their value will continue to plummet if they're not playing.

One of the best ways to showcase Okafor is to start him. But you can't start him over Embiid, the franchise player. So you have to play both.

The only problem is that nothing he and Embiid did on the court during the pairing increased Okafor's trade value. It might have decreased it.

Because he's more athletic and a better shooter, Embiid lined up at power forward when the two played together. Opposing teams usually drew Embiid away from the basket, and it was open season against Okafor in the paint.

Offensively, the duo's spacing was bad. They often ran to the same spot, confused about where to go. Another problem was the lack of ball movement when the two were on the floor together.

To their credit, the Sixers started playing the two big men less and less together. As a result, they were only on the floor at the start of the game and the start of the third quarter.

But the overall performance of the team also took a hit. The Sixers are 1-5 in games they have both started.

The Sixers didn't utilize the lineup in the last two games.

Embiid had a scheduled off day during Thurday's 100-83 loss to the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. Then on Friday, Okafor dressed, but did not play in a 124-122 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Colorado. The Sixers were only going to use Okafor in an emergency because of soreness in his left hamstring. It was the final game of the Sixers' four-game West Coast trip.

Coach Brett Brown had said that he would assess the Embiid-Okafor pairing at the conclusion of the road trip.

But . . .

"Whether to say we've seen enough [of the pairing to make a decision], I'm not prepared to say," Brown said before Friday's game. "I can say we've seen a lot."

Against the Nuggets, the Sixers resembled the squad it was before the unveiling of the twin towers starting lineup against the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 14.

Back then, they had solid ball movement and were playing perhaps their best basketball since the 2013-14 season. They even won consecutive road games for the first time since winning four straight from Dec. 29, 2013, to Jan. 4, 2014.

On Friday, they had a balanced attack with all five starters and reserve power forward Dario Saric scoring in double digits. Reserve center Nerlens Noel added nine points.

Embiid and power forward Ersan Ilyasova played well off each other just like they did before the team started experimenting. They scored 23 points apiece on Saturday to lead the Sixers.

"Oh man, he brings a lot since he got here," Embiid said of Ilyasova, who was acquired in a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 1. "He's a stretch four who plays defense all over the place, taking charges. He's all over the place.

"I love having him next to me."

That's understandable. The Sixers are 4-5 when they're together in the starting lineup.

So it will be interesting to see whether the Sixers stick with the pairing that gives them the best opportunity to win.