The Philadelphia 76ers were stuck between a rock and a hard place when they were on the clock at No. 3 in the 2015 NBA Draft. With Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell off the board, Duke's Jahlil Okafor was widely thought to be the best prospect available, but adding another traditional center to a roster that already included Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid would make for an odd fit.
The Sixers took Okafor anyway, and those fit issues have reared their ugly head for much of the season. The Okafor-Noel pairing has been a disaster in its first year. While it's still early, there are fundamental concerns with the duo that have some wondering whether they're a viable long-term option together.
Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer spoke to a league executive who feels the Sixers may have to ultimately choose between Okafor and Noel, with the health of Embiid playing a factor in that decision:
"Everything will come down to Joel Embiid. That's the big question," said the executive, who asked not to be identified. Embiid has been sidelined for the second consecutive season after foot surgery.
"If Embiid can play, then in my opinion, they will have to trade Okafor, because Embiid and Okafor cannot play together," he added. "If Embiid can't play, then they have to decide whether to keep both Noel and Okafor. But the combination hasn't worked out.
"Or they can trade one of the two and see if they can get strength at another position because, basically right now, they have three centers."
Counting on Embiid to be an impact player is risky at this point given his injury history. Still, the decision to move on from either Okafor or Noel will be made easier if the team continues to struggle so much when they share the court.
The Sixers have been outscored by nearly 22 points per 100 possessions in the 483 minutes the two have played together this season, per NBA.com. They're actually not the worst high-minute duo on the team, but it's up there. (It's worth noting that the three pairings worse that have played at least 400 minutes together all feature Okafor.)
Philadelphia is still bad when the two have been split up, but the results haven't been nearly as ghastly. The Sixers' defense has been quite stout with Noel on the floor without Okafor, giving up under 100 points per 100 possessions in those situations. That's the mark of a top 10 unit and a continuation of the solid defense the team played at the end of last season as Noel improved.
Okafor without Noel has brought better offense and equally terrible defense, which isn't surprising given the rookie's shortcomings on that end of the floor. While Okafor has great size and length, he's slow of foot, not an explosive leaper and has poor defensive instincts. It's hard to see him ever becoming an effective rim protector.
It's also unclear how Noel and Okafor reach their ceilings offensively playing alongside one another. Both players like to operate close to the basket, with Okafor a savant in the low post and Noel a pick-and-roll lob specialist. Okafor can't operate as effectively in the post with Noel hanging around down there as well, and it's harder to run spread pick-and-roll with Noel diving to the rim when Okafor is occupying the block. The Sixers have scored just over 86 points per 100 possessions with those two on the court together, and they've played at a snail's pace while doing so, which goes against what Brett Brown and Mike D'Antoni would ideally like.
The problems are obvious. Okafor can't protect the rim (yet) and can't chase around stretch 4s. Even if Okafor becomes a decent rim protector at some point, taking Noel out of the paint mitigates his defensive strengths. Offensively, neither player has much in the way of an outside shot, which cramps spacing and again mitigates their respective strengths while also putting a strain on the rest of the offense.
Brown knows these issues well, which is why he's brought both players off the bench at different points in order to limit their minutes together. While Brown has always gone back to starting both players together, he gave an honest answer about why he splits them up, via Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly:
"Every sort of gut feel, if you were just trying to win the championship now, says you would just split them up and off we go," he said. "You've got two great five men and you pair them up with the point guards and you sprinkle shooters around them and life's nice. But that's not my place now. My place is to develop these guys and try to grow them and give it a chance."
With the Sixers in the midst of another dreadful campaign, it makes sense for Brown to sacrifice optimal lineups to try to make this work. Philadelphia has a lot invested in these two big men, and perhaps the pairing improves with time and more talented players around them. In fact, there's already been some improvement with Ish Smith aboard. The Smith-Okafor-Noel trio has only been outscored by about two points per 100 possessions in 84 minutes, although the defense remains a big issue. So, don't give up on the Okafor-Noel pairing just yet.
However, the warning signs are there, and the return of Embiid and arrival of Dario Saric from overseas will only complicate matters further. At some point, Sixers brass will have to make some difficult decisions to maximize this roster. Those are decisions they've brought upon themselves by opting to draft centers three years in a row. Hindsight is 20/20, especially given Okafor was widely viewed as best player available at No. 3, but Kristaps Porzingis would've been a better fit in the frontcourt given his versatile skill set.
The Sixers don't get a do-over, though, and now they must deal with the consequences.
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