The goofy smile was flashing again, a beacon of pearly whites atop an 87-inch tower. Boban Marjanovic gripped the ball like a grapefruit and reached up toward the rim and sent it crashing down toward a photographer’s head. A film crew from a Serbian television program was in town, and the country’s tallest wonder was the featured attraction.
It’s hard not to marvel at the ease with which Marjanovic navigates any setting. But as the Sixers look to put the finishing touches on the No. 3 seed in the East, a question looms just as large as their February acquisition.
Where, exactly, does Boban fit?
It’s a puzzle that Brett Brown acknowledged shortly after the Sixers acquired Marjanovic from the Clippers as an extra piece in the trade that brought Tobias Harris to town. And it’s one that has taken on renewed intrigue after a couple of back-to-back losses in which the team struggled on the defensive end. In Marjanovic’s last three games, the Sixers have been outscored by 18 points in his 24 minutes of action, which makes it nine out of 18 games that the big man has finished in the negative. Against mediocre teams, he has done an admirable job of filling the void when Joel Embiid takes a breath, his soft hands and ridiculous reach adding some worthwhile scoring juice off the bench. But a truer exhibit of his postseason capabilities might have come recent win over the Celtics and their versatile set of bigs, who outscored the Sixers by four points in the 4 minutes and 33 seconds that Marjanovic spent on the court.
On Wednesday, as the Sixers wrapped up practice in advance of Thursday night’s game against the Nets, Brown said that Marjanovic will have an opportunity over the final eight games to show that he can enter the postseason as the primary backup to Embiid. It’s a reasonable point of view, given the fact that the Sixers have also had plenty of defensive issues with Amir Johnson and Jonah Bolden on the court.
“I intend to trying to persevere with him, and I feel for sure the last eight games of the regular season he deserves to be given that opportunity,” Brown said.
At the same time ...
“I always have to think and plan,” Brown continued. "If in the event that it’s just not working, who is our backup to Joel? Do you go to Ben Simmons, do you go to Mike Scott, do you go to apples-to-apple with Amir or Jonah or whatever. You’ve got decisions to make.”
It’s fair to wonder why the Sixers are in this sort of situation. Last year’s free-agency period began less than two months after the Sixers had watched the Celtics blitz them into oblivion whenever Embiid took a breather. In the 187 minutes that the big man was on the court, the Sixers outscored the Celtics 400-383. In the 58 minutes he was on the bench, they were outscored 149-117. Granted, JJ Redick was also on the bench for all but a handful of those minutes, but the primary difference-maker was clearly Embiid. Absent his rim-protecting abilities, the Sixers allowed the Celtics to score the equivalent of 123.3 points per 48 minutes. That’s nearly 21 points more than they allowed when Embiid was out there on defense.
This is not a new thing now, and it was not a new thing then. Yet rather than bringing in a sturdier finger to stick in the dike, the Sixers brought back Amir Johnson, who quickly fell out of the rotation when he turned out to be, well, Amir Johnson.
It’s tempting to lay all of this at the feet of Elton Brand. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the Sixers would have been wise to pursue a backup big via trade, especially given the added value of having some insurance in the event of an injury. Still, without knowing who was available or at what price, that’s not the fairest argument. As for the free-agent market, the Sixers’ hands were tied by the fact that most basketball players like to play basketball, and very few of the more competent players are eager to sign in a place where they are guaranteed only 10-15 minutes per night. Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, even Alex Len -- all ended up signing places where they would average 19-plus minutes per night. The backup-big market was essentially limited to Kyle O’Quinn, Zaza Pachulia and our old friend Nerlens Noel.
This is something to keep in mind moving forward, too. Good help is hard to find at a position where there is only one starting spot on the depth chart.
As Brown noted, the Sixers have the option of using Simmons at the five. This season, he’s seen roughly 100 minutes of action as the biggest man on the court. In 38 of those minutes, they’ve used a five-man lineup featuring Redick, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, Harris, and Simmons. According to Basketball-Reference.com, that unit has played opponents even on the scoreboard (86-85 in the Sixers’ favor) and has actually been relatively sound on the defensive end of the court, with a defensive rating of 98.8 and an effective field goal percentage of .425.
“We’re a versatile team," Harris said, “so having that option will be good for us in the playoffs.”
A lot depends not only on the matchup, but on how many minutes Embiid can play. He averaged about 37 during last year’s series against the Celtics, although the 41 he logged against the Celtics last week would clearly be ideal.
It will be interesting to see how Brown handles his rotations over these last eight games. Marjanovic’s unique skill set is a double-edged sword, and coaches will be looking to take advantage of his weaknesses and force him to the bench.