Monday, December 19, 2016

Everyone loses with Sixers' logjam at center

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.

                                                Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

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.

Monday, December 5, 2016

What should the College Football Playoff committee value?

The field of four is now set for third annual College Football Playoff.  On New Year’s Eve, the Alabama Crimson Tide will play the Washington Huskies in the Peach Bowl. The other semifinal will feature the Clemson Tigers and the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl. After having seen the process unfold for three seasons now, it’s fair to question the benchmarks for picking teams.
Let’s start by going back to 2014, the first year of the playoff.  Alabama and Ohio State were also a part of that playoff as well as Florida State and Oregon. There was little doubt that Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon were going to be in.  All three schools entered championship weekend in the top four, won their respective conference championships, and therefore stayed in the top four. However, it got interesting when TCU, ranked third in the playoff rankings heading into the weekend, throttled Iowa State in its final regular season game 55-3. The Big 12 did not have a conference championship game at the time and later Ohio State walloped Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big 10 title game and Ohio State leapfrogged TCU in the ensuing playoff rankings, claimed the final spot in the playoff, and wound up winning a national championship.

This was the committee sounding a loud message to the country that conference championship games matter and that a 59-0 win for Ohio State against a ranked opponent was more impressive than a 55-3 win for TCU against a two-win Iowa State team. The Buckeyes validated the decision by upsetting Alabama and Oregon in the playoff and suddenly there didn’t seem to be much of a debate over which team deserved the final playoff spot. Last season was relatively straightforward. While Oklahoma was idle during championship weekend, the consensus was that the Sooners had done enough. Clemson and Alabama took care of business in the ACC and SEC championship games and the winner of the Big 10 title game between Michigan State and Iowa was going to get in and the Spartans came out on top. The three most worthy conference champions qualified and the Sooners were the next best team and claimed the final spot.

Then, some believed this season tossed a wrench into the notion that a conference championship was paramount in the committee’s decision-making process. Ohio State became the first team in three playoffs to not play in its conference championship but qualify for the playoff. The first team out was Penn State, who won the Big 10 championship and beat Ohio State in the regular season. Ohio State had wins over Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska in conference, and more importantly a non-conference win at Oklahoma. Oklahoma was far superior to any non-conference opponent Penn State played and so non-conference strength of schedule seemed to be push Ohio State over the top.

So now after seeing three seasons of the selection committee make decisions, the question arises, what is the value of a conference championship? Many believe yesterday’s decision was a devaluation of the conference championship and a way of enabling the best four teams to qualify even though Ohio State lost to Penn State in the regular season. But, the counter argument there is that if conference championships were so important then each conference in the power five would have a spot guaranteed in the playoff. However, it gets more interesting when you consider the same reason Ohio State got in over Penn State, strength of schedule, is the reason Penn State deserved a spot over Washington. The Huskies’ non-conference wins came against Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State and some felt that if Penn State just scheduled an easier opponent than Pitt, who it lost to in its second game of the season, it would have gotten in over Washington. Penn State also has a win over Temple, who just won the American Athletic Conference championship.

In the end, it seems as if there isn’t a uniform criterion to make the field of four and rather the committee is going to try to pick the best four teams in the nation regardless of consistency from one year to the next. It is likely too early to expand to six or eight teams, but a season like this past one or another season like 2014, might make expansion a more plausible option. For now, somebody’s always going to be unhappy after championship weekend.