It’s been the biggest question facing the Sixers during their thorough rebuilding effort that stretches back to the 2013 NBA Draft. The team has accumulated several high draft picks during the last four drafts and has more on the way. However, almost all the lottery picks the Sixers have made during what’s been coined as “The Process” have been used on centers. As the team created a logjam of big men, fans and media alike began to speculate on what the end game was. It was apparent that a trade would ultimately have to be made. Nerlens Noel sat out his first season while rehabbing from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Joel Embiid missed his first two seasons while recovering from a broken navicular bone. Jahlil Okafor missed the end of his rookie season with a torn meniscus. This season is the first time in which all three are healthy and it’s only becoming more obvious that all three will not be able to remain on the Sixers roster for the team’s long-term future. Here’s a look at why nobody involved in the situation is benefitting:
Nerlens Noel: The Kentucky product has been at the forefront of most discussions involving the frontcourt glut. Since the preseason, Noel has made several comments about his discontent surrounding the situation. After Friday’s home loss to the Lakers, a game in which he only played eight minutes, Noel spoke with reporters and said he’s “too good to be playing eight minutes.” For several reasons, Noel is the at the core of the issue. His recent knee injury that kept him sidelined for the first six weeks of the season and cut into the amount of time coach Brett Brown had to experiment with. The NBA’s trade deadline is approximately two months away and it would have helped the Sixers to have had those six weeks at the beginning of the season to evaluate different frontcourt combinations with these three centers and other recently drafted big men like Richaun Holmes and Dario Saric. Noel’s rookie contract is set to expire after this season. The clock is ticking on the Sixers to either trade him or re-sign him. Lastly, Noel’s open displeasure about the situation has not helped anyone’s cause either. Front offices across the NBA have reportedly grown skeptical about his character which hurts Noel’s desire to be traded and any return the Sixers may get. Noel’s assessments about the situation, as honest as they were, aren’t doing himself or the team that’s employing him any favors.
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Jahlil Okafor: After Okafor was drafted, debates already started about whether Okafor or Noel would be the right big to attempt to pair with Embiid. It’s been 18 months since the team selected Okafor and those debates have not stopped. The Sixers have recently attempted to play Okafor and Embiid together and it doesn’t seem to be working. Okafor’s lack of agility and quickness make it virtually impossible for him to guard stretch power forwards on the perimeter, and in handing that task over to Embiid, the Sixers are minimizing one of their franchise players as Embiid has proven to be a fantastic shot blocker and defensive anchor which is another thing Okafor cannot do. Offensively, Okafor’s range is very limited outside of the paint and therefore this forces Embiid to play almost exclusively on the perimeter when he is in the game with Okafor. While Embiid has proven to be an effective three-point shooter, his offensive repertoire stretches well beyond outside shooting and therefore Okafor is again minimizing Embiid. Given that Okafor’s skillset does not seem to be properly suited next to Embiid, it’s likely that Okafor would either be forced to accept a lesser role, or, regardless of what happens with Noel, also be moved.
Joel Embiid: Embiid has been as advertised so far in his rookie season and it looks like the Cameroonian was worth the wait. There’s no doubt that Embiid and 2016 number one overall pick Ben Simmons are the cornerstone pieces the Sixers should move forward with. However, Embiid has sounded less than thrilled recently about playing with Okafor and it’s hard to blame him when seeing some of the concerns about the fit between the two come to fruition. We have yet to see Embiid play with Noel this season, however the franchise is doing itself a disservice if it does not maximize Embiid’s full skillset.
Brett Brown: As if he hasn’t dealt with enough already. Brown is currently in his fourth season on the Sixers’ sideline. He spent the previous three seasons shuffling through rosters of journeymen who are fringe NBA players at best and now the result of that is a loaded front court that is currently posing more questions than answers. Brown told reporters it would be “an extreme challenge” if Noel, Embiid, and Okafor were all on the roster for the rest of the season. Whenever Simmons returns from a broken foot, Brown will only have more on his plate and must figure out who the best players are to help Simmons reach his potential.
Front Office: The architect of all of this is no longer with the Sixers. Towards the end of last season, ownership made a change and forced former general manager Sam Hinkie out the door and brought in Bryan Colangelo to seemingly enter the next phase. Perhaps Hinkie had an idea of how he would address this if given this past offseason to push the buttons, but that’s a moot point now. Many of the concerns about Noel in a contract year have fans eagerly anticipating a trade to be made and Colangelo has now stepped into a situation in which he likely has very little leverage in trade negotiations. Thanks to Noel’s open displeasure and contract situation, many believe the team has no choice but to cut their losses. However, executives throughout the NBA are aware of the Sixers’ roster imbalance and would be wise not to give up too much in a trade. After all, if Noel gets to free agency and signs an offer sheet with another team, then the Sixers either lose him for nothing or match the offer sheet and the front court problem will only linger. If Okafor is the big that the team would rather move, then it’s difficult to say the return would be much better. Many of the concerns about Okafor’s fit with Embiid could be concerns for other teams. Okafor has been billed as a throwback big man and his skillset is not ideal for a front court player in today’s NBA. Regardless, balancing out the roster is going to be a challenge for Colangelo and even if a trade is made, it’s not likely the Sixers will be on the winning end of it.