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Exciting Sixers Need to Get Square at Center

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Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

No doubt about it, the 76ers are the most intriguing professional sports team in the Delaware Valley right now. Of course, “intriguing” should not be confused with “good.” But if you’re looking for a diverse cast of characters and a plot that’s filled with twists and turns, then the Sixers are your team.

Start in the middle. You can’t avoid it, because the Sixers have so many centers on their roster – four, by last count. Most teams play one center at a time, and three of the Sixers’ four centers were selected with one of the first six picks in their respective drafts – Nerlens Noel (No. 6 in 2013), Joel Embiid (No. 3 in 2014) and Jahlil Okafor (No. 2 in 2015). Former general manager Sam Hinkie obviously embraced the philosophy that a team should draft the best player available, regardless of position. And then he did it again and again.

That leaves coach Brett Brown with the dilemma of finding playing time for all of his big men and to see if they can co-exist on the floor together, especially Embiid and Okafor. Any team wants its best players on the floor at the same time, especially in crunch time. Well, so far the results have not been good. Maybe this grand experiment will work out, but right now it doesn’t look promising. You would think Brown and his coaching staff could come up with some kind of high-low offense that would work. But NBA action almost always comes down to instinct more than design, and none of those three young centers has the basketball IQ to make it work.

That doesn’t mean they’re stupid, but they are inexperienced. Noel started playing basketball late, as did Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon. And all three players left college after just one season to jump to the NBA, so they missed out on two or three years of hands-on coaching in college. And because all of them are big and athletic, they never had to concern themselves with the fundamentals and the mental part of the game when they were younger – they dominated simply because of their athleticism and skill.

When you focus on the Sixers, you don’t see focus. They have plenty of talented players, but the Sixers still don’t know what to do with them all. Part of that is Brown’s fault, but in his time with the 76ers he’s had to coach a team with no talent and now he has to coach a team with too much talent, at least at one certain high-profile position.

And let’s not forget we still haven’t seen rookie forward Ben Simmons, the first overall pick in this year’s draft who has been sidelined since breaking a bone in his foot during the preseason. Simmons isn’t a center, but he is another part of the puzzle that Brown has to try and fit into his frontcourt. Plus he has two other frontcourt players who need playing time – Dario Saric and Ersan Ilysova, who was acquired after the season began and who, other than Embiid, has been the Sixers’ best player so far.

Contrasting the overloaded frontcourt is an undermanned backcourt. Most of these guys – Sergio Rodriguez, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas and Gerald Henderson – should be playing for the Delaware 87ers, not the Philadelphia 76ers.

So, more than anything, the Sixers need balance and direction. Their players need to know what their roles are and they have to have a reasonable idea how many minutes they’re going to play and when those minutes will come. And they need much more production and leadership from the guard position.

And that brings us to the obvious solution to their problem: trade big men for little men. But that solution isn’t quite so obvious to the Sixers, because they have to decide which big man to trade. It’s not going to be Embiid, of course, although the Sixers must perpetually keep their fingers crossed that this often-injured big man doesn’t have a recurrence of the foot problems that forced him to miss two full seasons.

That, of course, is one reason why the 76ers are hesitant to trade one of their big men. What happens if they trade, say, Okafor, and the next week Embiid’s foot blows up?

Regardless, it’s just a matter of time before at least one of these big men is traded. We’ve always taken the position that it shouldn’t be Okafor, because he has the potential to be a 20-point, 10-rebound player and you just don’t get rid of that kind of production. He has a natural scoring touch that most big men don’t have, and that certainly includes Noel.

But we’ve changed our minds since then, because the more we watch Okafor play defense – and we use that term loosely – the more we realize that he just doesn’t have the natural instincts and quickness to be a defensive force in the middle. Sometimes the effort isn’t there on the defensive end, but even when Okafor tries to play defense he just doesn’t get it, and he’s always a step behind or a beat too slow.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re saying the Sixers should trade Okafor and keep Noel. They should get rid of both of them in a concerted effort to get talent for their backcourt. And the Sixers can survive without Okafor and Noel because of another big man on their roster who gets little notice and even less playing time — No. 4 center Richaun Holmes. He’s an athletic guy who can run the floor, rebound and play defense, and even though his offense isn’t great, he can score on occasion.

That’s what you want from your backup center – defense and rebounding. And Holmes can deliver it. That’s why the Sixers should trade both Okafor and Noel, and pray that Joel Embiid — their center and their centerpiece — stays healthy.

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