NEW YORK -- Back in October, there were a lot of questions you might have envisioned the Sixers asking about themselves in late January. Not included among them was the one that stood at the top of the list by the end of the second quarter on Monday afternoon.
Can they survive without Norvel Pelle?
Even before the Sixers looked destined to suffer a death by a thousand pick-and-rolls, there was an argument to be made that their decision to take the court against the Nets without their best healthy rim protector constituted an act of self-sabotage. By halftime, that position seemed indisputable, as Brooklyn spent the second quarter flatly ignoring the presence of backup centers Kyle O’Quinn and Jonah Bolden while scoring 14 of their 36 points within 5 feet of the rim. Set aside all of the perfectly valid reasons that the Sixers had for telling Pelle that they would not be in need of his services against one of the most active pick-and-roll teams in the NBA, the fact remains that they made a conscious decision to take the court at less than full strength.
This is not a small point, not even now that the Sixers have managed to escape the Barclays Center with a 117-111 win. With one day of NBA eligibility left on Pelle’s two-way contract, and six games remaining before the trade deadline, the Sixers could need to play as many as five more games without their best backup big man before they achieve the roster flexibility they clearly feel they need in order to offer the rookie a full-time spot. Included in that stretch are three games against teams they are currently chasing in the Eastern Conference standings and a fourth against the No. 1 team in the West. Pelle might not be Joel Embiid, or Dikembe Mutombo, or even the sort of player an alleged contender should be counting on for critical minutes. But the fact of the matter is that the Sixers at the present are a better team with him than they are with the players they called on instead. If their decision to play without him ends up costing them a win that in turn costs them homecourt advantage in a playoff series and/or forces them into a tough first-round matchup, it will be a difficult decision to defend.
And, yet, from a broader point of view, it is a decision that almost has to be made. For those unfamiliar with the wild world of the NBA collective bargaining agreement, a quick crash course: Each NBA team is allowed to carry two players on a two-way contract, which enables a player to shuttle back and forth between the NBA and the team’s affiliate in the developmental G League. Players who are on two-way deals are limited to 45 days of NBA eligibility. Once those 45 days are up, a player must be added to a team’s 15-man roster in order to play in any more NBA games. At 44 days, the Sixers can use Pelle for one more call-up, after which they would need to free up a roster spot in order to keep him around.
The obvious solution is to promote Pelle and jettison one of the two bigs who are currently behind him on the depth chart. But it really isn’t as obvious as it sounds, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the Sixers are hoping to swing a deal for a veteran shooter or ballhandler at some point before the NBA’s trade deadline, which falls on Feb. 6 at 3 p.m. In order to acquire such a player, they would need to trade away an equivalent amount of salary, which makes every contract currently on the books a valuable chip. If the Sixers were to cut Bolden in order to sign Pelle to an NBA deal worth the minimum $898,000, that would leave them with nearly $1 million less in salary to send out in any deal. That could end up preventing them from being able to cobble together enough outgoing money to acquire a certain player, or it could force them to part with somebody else on the roster who would bring more utility to the court.
The second is that any trade that the Sixers make will likely open up a spot for Pelle. Given their need to match salary, there is a strong possibility that they end up trading away more players than they acquire. To come out of the trade deadline with the strongest possible roster, it makes an abundance of sense to wait for that moment to plug in Pelle.
The problem with that plan is that the Sixers are in a spot in the standings where every win counts. And if Monday’s victory was any indication, Pelle’s absence could end up costing them one or more notches in that department. Once Al Horford went to the bench in the first quarter, the Sixers looked powerless to stop the Nets’ pick-and-roll attack. Jarrett Allen picked up two straight buckets after O’Quinn left him to contest a layup. Caris LeVert hit a couple of pull-ups in the paint over the big man’s outstretched arms and later scored an easy layup when O’Quinn’s feet never left the floor. The first quarter ended on a lob from LeVert to Nicolas Claxton, who encountered no resistance while dropping it into the net.
If the NBA’s tracking stats are to be believed, Pelle has been a dramatically better rim protector than O’Quinn, who entered Monday allowing opponents to convert 71.6% of their attempts from inside the restricted area, the second-worst mark among NBA bigs. Pelle, on the other hand, has held opponents to a 50.5% field goal rate. Inside the paint, opponents were shooting 51.7% against O’Quinn, 37.5% against Embiid, and just over 30% against Pelle.
It came as no surprise that coach Brett Brown opted to keep O’Quinn and Bolden on the bench in the second half in favor of a small-ball lineup that featured Ben Simmons at the five.
“Whether that can be the recipe going forward until we get Joel healthy, I don’t know,” Brown said.
It worked against the Nets. But, again, they still have six games to go until the trade deadline. If the lack of a dependable backup big man ends up costing them one or more wins, the Sixers’ current roster tightrope could look deadly once playoff seedings are finalized.