Having four young, talented big men on a roster is widely seen as an embarrassment of riches that could propel a franchise to stardom. The Philadelphia 76ers find themselves in this odd position; but don’t seem very happy about it. Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Šarić and Jahlil Okafor are all highly touted players that essentially play the same position. Naturally, this has caused a roadblock within the Sixers’ plans as there are only two spots available in the starting line-up.
The decision to draft players that are very similar did raise eyebrows, but the argument can be made that Philly had little choice when considering that their draft targets, bar Ben Simmons, were never available. The unfortunate cycle began when Noel was bound to missing his first season with an ACL tear and Embiid broke bone in his foot a year later. Michael Carter Williams didn’t help the situation, as despite winning the 2014 Rookie of the Year award, his level of play completely fell off and he was subsequently shipped to Milwaukee. D’Angelo Russell was snatched by the Lakers in the 2015 draft, necessitating the Sixers to select the next best player available who happened to be another center in Okafor. Okafor proved in large stretches of his first season that he just couldn’t mesh with Noel, creating further issues for the organisation. Philly’s tanking did finally reward them with Ben Simmons, the hottest prospect in the 2016 draft, and although they are back on track, there is no question that they are still someway off the position that they initially hoped they’d be in.
Nevertheless, if the Sixers can’t currently form the team that they want going forward, the talent on the roster can also be seen as assets. There is no doubt that all four have a level of quality that certain teams in the NBA would be desperate for, however it is up to general manager Bryan Colangelo to find the best deal available which, until now, has been nothing short of complicated. Lowball offers have been proposed left, right and centre to no avail, resulting in little progress being made. However Colangelo is smart enough to know that his men still hold in value and due to the fact that his team are still in rebuilding mode, he can afford to wait for a good deal.
Joel Embiid seems to be the one that is definitely out of reach around the NBA. Regarded as a franchise player for the future, a serious foot injury forced Embiid to miss his first two seasons in the league. However, the Cameroonian is reported to finally be healthy and when analysing recent videos of his workouts, his talent looks scary. He displayed his ability to spin with ease, shoot with both hands, drop hook shots without blinking and even crossing-over for a monster jam. If this 7’2” beast can translate these skills on the court for this season coming, Philly will really be in for a treat. Hence, Embiid is a mainstay in Philadelphia and a surefire starter in the starting line-up, if health permits.
A partnership with 2016’s first overall pick, Ben Simmons, will have fans licking their lips. Having already shown his vision on the court at the NBA Summer League, coach Brett Brown has confirmed that the point-forward will be the primary ball-handler this season. When their sizes are taken into consideration, the combination of Simmons and Embiid with several consistent shooters can contribute to a devastating offense for years to come.
Another center that wound up missing his rookie season in the NBA is Nerlens Noel, a defensive big that also caught the attention of many in his first two years in the league. An athletic 6’11” shot blocker, Noel has consistently shown his ability to defend around the rim exceptionally well, posting historic steal (2.9%) and block (5.0%) percentages at only 21-years of age. On the other hand, his offensive game is very raw. Unlike Okafor, Noel doesn’t possess any real post-game and also cannot match Embiid’s jump shooting abilities. Nonetheless, his defensive prowess should see him remain in Philadelphia. By taking advantage of Embiid’s capacity to draw double teams, Noel’s offense can only improve with time. Hence when taking everything in mind, it’d be surprising to see Noel moved this season.
With the long-awaited arrival of Dario Šarić finally upon us, the Croatian finds himself in the middle of a crowded frontcourt, for the time being. After spending two years playing in Turkey since being drafted, Šarić made the decision this summer to take the plunge and enter the NBA. His potential to stretch the floor will be seen as a vital strength in forming a line-up next season, mainly due to neither Simmons, Noel or Okafor being capable of this. In consequence, it’s unlikely that Šarić will be on the trading block. The need for multi-positional players is more significant than ever and his versatility to play either forward position will be highly regarded by coach Brown.
The man that seems to be the most likely to exit the ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ is 2015’s third overall pick, Jahlil Okafor. The former Duke center entered the league with high hopes and did to some degree impress, averaging 17.5 points (.508 FG%), 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. His low-post play is undoubtedly his best skill, evident in his high points-per-game average, and at only 20-years of age he could be groomed into an offensive star. However, issues off the court and a continuing concern over his defensive presence have slightly depreciated Okafor’s value. The 76ers clearly wanted to play quicker last season and in a more rapid system, Okafor struggled. This, along with his inability to play with Noel or Embiid, has cast him aside as the odd one out as Philly looks for flexibility and a lack of spacing issues going forward.
An NBA scout highlighted that an aura of clarity seeped around the league once Ben Simmons was selected by the Sixers:
“From the moment Philly drafted Ben, everyone around the league knew that they would have to trade a big, either Okafor or Nerlens,” said an NBA scout. “Okafor is the better scorer; it’s not even close really. But Nerlens has that ability to run the floor and can protect the rim. You can’t have enough guys in the frontcourt who call those two skills, strengths. That’s why Okafor is the more expendable player.”
Enter the Boston Celtics. The Greens are well known around the league to be trying to make a deal for some time and were rumoured to be very interested in Okafor before the 2016 draft. Having stockpiled draft picks over the past few years, Boston general manager Danny Ainge has to pull the trigger on a trade at the right time to make good use of his assets. They also have the advantage in being one of the few teams that genuinely have the assets to negotiate a deal with Philly. It is true that the Celtics recently acquired a high profile center in Al Horford, but Horford’s ability to stretch the floor should eradicate any spacing issues that may seem apparent with Jah. It’s not ideal for Boston, but it may be the best they can do after deciding against trading their 2016 pick and subsequently selecting Jaylen Brown at number three overall. Philly were desperate to land the Celtic’s first round pick due to their admiration for point guard Kris Dunn, a player that would’ve filled a glaring gap on their roster. But Ainge didn’t bite, instead taking his chances to wait for a better opportunity.
Although Boston are back in the race for the Sixers’ center, it is difficult to see how a deal can take place when taking into account that Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Al Horford and Marcus Smart are all reportedly not available. As aforementioned, Colangelo isn’t daft and will not accept anything short of Okafor’s true value. Therefore, if Ainge doesn’t budge, the Sixers may have to look elsewhere to possibly Phoenix or New Orleans.
Bryan Colangelo isn’t in a rush but he will want his ideal team to develop naturally together in the same mould of the Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and the Oklahoma City Thunder with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
Although his future decisions will essentially be franchise altering, the talent is finally in Philadelphia with the likelihood of a guard or two to be added from next year’s rich draft class. Whether it’s Okafor or Noel that will be sacrificed, Colangelo is aware that at least one has to leave to continue the evolution of the team. In spite of everything, he will still be able to call upon potential All-Stars in Simmons and Embiid to lead the line as Philadelphia seek to reclaim their status in the league and evoke memories in line with the Allen Iverson era.