The Philadelphia 76ers have too many big men. We’ve known it since the day they drafted Jahlil Okafor in 2015, but the situation has finally reached its breaking point. On Sunday, Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters that Nerlens Noel was completely out of the regular rotation going forward.
And then, as if that wasn’t a bad enough situation for the team’s 2013 first-round draft pick, Brown said he had more sympathy for another benched big man.
“I feel worse for Richaun (Holmes),” Brown told reporters before Sunday’s game. “When I put my human hat on and then you go coach a team, make decisions, show leadership, that stands out to me as much as anything. Nerlens missed everything. Twenty minutes before the game last week, I learned he was going to play. He hasn’t been a part of us.”
Combine that with Brown’s earlier comments, saying it “would be an extremely difficult challenge” to coach the 76ers if they didn’t make any trades by the deadline, and the situation is pretty clear. Nerlens Noel may have played his last game for the 76ers, and it will be shocking if he’s still on the team by March.
Sam Hinkie’s philosophy brought the 76ers here.
The former Sixers general manager always believed in acquiring the most talented, regardless of fit or injury history. That thinking led him to acquiring five big men in the first round in the past four drafts.
Philadelphia started the year with Joel Embiid on strict minute restrictions, Noel out with an injury, and no Ersan Ilyasova, who they traded for a week into the season. But those three, plus Okafor, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons potentially returning next week, leaves a frontcourt with too many names and not enough minutes to go around.
This isn’t Hinkie’s fault, necessarily. He stepped down (or was forced out, depending on your perspective) in April, and the 76ers then passed on making any moves this summer when it was expected they would. There’s a good chance the unflappable Hinkie would have pulled the trigger on a deal for Noel or Okafor. The problem of having too many talented young players is not necessarily a problem at all, but given the current temperature and that a couple players who should be getting minutes are not, Philadelphia would have made it easier on everyone to cash in on a deal last summer.
Noel may have hastened his benching, but this was going to happen regardless.
Noel returned last week from a left knee injury, playing 10 minutes in his season debut against the Pistons. He sat out the next game before playing just eight minutes against Los Angeles, which upset him enough to complain publicly.
“I think I'm too good to be playing eight minutes," Noel told reporters after the game. "That's crazy. Need to figure this shit out."
ESPN reported Noel met with Brown about the minutes situation on Saturday, and Brown said Sunday that Noel would no longer be part of the rotation and only play as an emergency big man going forward. Noel was more diplomatic about the situation before Sunday’s game, but it’s clear he doesn’t approve.
“A lot of people knew it was going to get to a point like this,” Noel said in the video. “Now, I’m the one that’s in it. I’m going to deal with it the best way possible. That’s being professional, getting better at every aspect that doesn’t involve being on the court in the game.”
If Noel hadn’t spoke out, maybe the 76ers would still be giving him eight to 10 minutes per game. But as he also said, this appears to have been a predestined plan, and one that isn’t going away anytime soon.
#Sixers Brown: 'I don't feel the balance of the team with 3 big men (playing). The ripple effects are real.'— Tom Moore (@tmoore76ers) December 18, 2016
Philadelphia recently moved to starting Embiid and Okafor together, even though both are natural centers, to allow more minutes for both. And Brown was right about Holmes, a 23-year-old who flashed talent last season and played well when he has been on the floor this year. The 76ers have established a pecking order, and putting Embiid and Okafor at the top just doesn’t leave room for the others.
Should Noel really be the odd man out in the rotation?
Noel will be leaving the Sixers soon enough. He’s still talented with a top-10 pick pedigree, despite his injury concerns. This isn’t a tough decision. The Sixers have to shed a big man.
But Noel being the big man they’ve chosen means the pressure’s on Okafor, who scored three points on 0-of-10 shooting as Embiid set a career high with 33 on Sunday. Embiid has played better this year with Okafor off the floor, but instead of moving with that trend, the 76ers are doubling down on it. And while Okafor is a talented player, we all are aware how the NBA is moving away from back-to-the-basket big men who don’t pass or defend well.
Okafor’s value cratered last season after failing to show those two things, despite scoring a ton of points. Noel’s skill set is more desirable — his upside is potentially a future all-defense candidate with decent offensive skills — while it isn’t clear Okafor could start for most good teams yet. Maybe neither of them fit next to Embiid, if he’s the true franchise superstar that he looks like he could be. But trying to make Okafor work with him instead of Noel is upsetting Sixers fans already. (It also has them frustrated with Hinkie’s replacement, Bryan Colangelo.)
Only time will tell. In Sunday’s 108-107 win against the Nets, Noel watched the entire game in uniform from the bench. We’re used to Sixers big men watching from the sidelines, but not like this.