The Sixers are now in the middle of their fourth season among the worst teams in the NBA, combining for a 54-222 record and 23 wins less than any other franchise during that time. Four years is a long time to be terrible, and if you’re going on a multi-year endeavor of not even pretending to sign NBA players, you have to come out of it, at the very least, in a promising situation.
Sam Hinkie failed to build the next great Sixers team during his time as the general manager, and even though it’s possible he would have succeeded eventually, the optics of what Philadelphia was doing became too much to bare. Perhaps even more importantly, after four years the Sixers didn’t even look the part of the next great young team – something the Timberwolves still clearly are despite their struggles this season.
Under Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers haven’t exactly pivoted and moved assets to become better now, but adding Sergio Rodriguez to actually run a real NBA offense and Gerald Henderson as a veteran shooting guard option were signs the Sixers wanted to actually look like a proper basketball team for the first time in a while. Trading Jerami Grant for Ersan Ilyasova and a conditional first-rounder (which may convert to two second-rounders) was a move right in line what the Sixers have been doing previously.
Even so, the Sixers now have a bit of a mess to clean up, since in the last four drafts they’ve selected three centers in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel and two other frontcourt players in Dario Saric and Ben Simmons in the first round. Simmons may play a point guard role in the offense running pick-and-rolls when he gets back on the floor, but he’s not going to defend any of the quicker guards, making him a power forward (or someone you hide on a non-threatening wing) in most lineups.
The analytics have shown that the best strategy for teams in the draft is to not care about positional overlap and just go for the best player, but Hinkie may have pushed that philosophy a bit far, and in part the Sixers were unlucky the best player available to them was a big. It’s easy to criticize team’s draft decisions in hindsight, but at the time of the 2015 draft, for example, selecting Kristaps Porzingis with the third pick would have been quite controversial, and probably the best player selected after that was Myles Turner. Both are big men, though Porzingis plays power forward it’s likely he’ll be eventually better at center as well.
That doesn’t mean the Sixers didn’t have opportunities to select wings and guards. Michael Carter-Williams was selected four picks before Giannis Antetokounmpo. Zach LaVine went a pick after Saric in 2014, and Gary Harris and Rodney Hood not long after that.
Almost every team has more misses than hits in the draft, and it’s somewhat unfair to point to players who, to one degree or another, surprised everyone. But if the strategy is to build through nothing but the draft, you have to hit. Teams get one first-rounder a year, and maybe acquire another through trade, and with those one or two chances over the course of multiple years there has to be success if no other avenue to being a good team is being pursued.
Now Noel desperately wants out of Philadelphia, and Okafor with Embiid makes precisely zero sense together. Both need the ball in the post, and there’s just no way to have a good defense playing Okafor next to another traditional big. In 80 minutes with Embiid and Okafor on the court together, the Sixers have been outscored by a ridiculous 21.5 points per 100 possessions.
It’s easy to focus on how Embiid is being hurt by the fit issues, but it’s not that great for the other young players either. Okafor, despite his flaws rebounding and defensively, is a really talented player, and just two years ago Noel was a favorite among the basketball analytics crowd due to his defensive versatility. Saric has been pushed to small forward minutes with Brett Brown trying to open up front court minutes, and he has no chance of guarding anyone on the wing.
The Next Great Center
Hadn’t Embiid broken his foot, he would have been the first pick in the 2014 draft, and after missing two full years before playing a single game, it’s a miracle he’s been able to prove why in less than half a season.
The Sixers are still limiting Embiid’s minutes, but the raw numbers are staggering. Per 36 minutes, Embiid is averaging 27.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 3.5 blocks and 40.3 percent on three-pointers taking 4.3 per contest. All of this on an above average 57.5 True Shooting Percentage and a 35.9 Usage Percentage, making Embiid the player with the third highest usage rate in the NBA only behind Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins.
For now, Embiid has managed to avoid the trap that nearly every young player putting up big stats falls into – which is that the numbers aren’t translating in the the plus/minus splits. Andrew Wiggins is in his third season, and still the advanced stats recognize that he’s a terrible defender and doesn’t actually make the offense better by as much as you’d think. The Sixers have been 7.1 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the court, a nice figure considering Embiid’s plus/minus is being destroyed by playing together with Okafor right now.
Embiid is already a very good player, and in larger minutes should warrant consideration for an All-Star spot.
Consider everything Embiid has going against him and how he’s succeeding. Two years of not playing basketball, playing in bad lineups with not much shooting. Turning that into an All-Star level 22.7 PER using over a third of his teams’ possessions, which then is translating nicely into team success. (Philadelphia has played at a .500 pace for most of the season with Embiid on the floor).
What’s most exciting about Embiid is that he’s already good at everything, except limiting turnovers. He isn’t like Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns in terms of switching on the perimeter, but a different type of player – a true center who is a better rim protector than either Towns or Davis already at this point.
In the post, Embiid is averaging 0.8 points per possession, which is only slightly above average, but the notable part is that he has a multiple moves and counters, from drop steps to up-and-unders, and can finish with either hand. Switching has become increasingly popular in modern defenses, but it’s impossible to put a smaller guy on Embiid without immediately sending help.
Embiid post-up on Trevor Booker.
The play above shows multiple interesting things. Embiid is actually able to push Trevor Booker twice right under the rim, first on his initial post-up and then a second time after pointing for Okafor to get out of the way. Embiid is too strong and big for Booker to guard, and finishes right through him on the play.
He has also been a really efficient shooter, making just over a three per game on 40.3 percent shooting. Defenses aren’t really running out to Embiid at the three-point line. Although it feels weird to say since Embiid already shoots so much, he could take more threes if he wanted to. On closeouts, Embiid is skilled enough to put the ball on the floor and find players at the three-point or baseline when the help comes.
Embiid drive on Timofey Mozgov closeout.
Already in-season, Embiid has grown tremendously as a passer, and after avoiding assists like the plague through his first 10 games, Embiid has had at least one assist in each of his last 11 contests.
Opponents are shooting 42.3 percent at the basket with Embiid defending the play, which is the second-best mark among 76 qualified players. Currently, the only players comparable to Embiid in terms of volume and defensive efficiency at the basket are Rudy Gobert and (surprisingly) Porzingis.
Embiid is a great rim protector, and likely athletic enough to stay on perimeter switches if required, though that’s not something we’ve seen from him in the Sixers defensive system thus far. Offensively, he can do everything at above average rate already from posting up, to shooting and even, in flashes, dribbling and passing, which is why it’s hard to put a ceiling on what Embiid can potentially do.
He can still get better at everything, and likely will. Creating his own offense in the post and on the perimeter, the Sixers haven’t really explored having Embiid as a Marc Gasol-type distributor in the elbow area. With the right players around him, the full vision of what he can become is much more likely to be realized.
Building Around Embiid
The Sixers can’t be blamed for not building their roster to fit Embiid. If any player, regardless of age or talent level misses two full years of basketball activities, franchises have to operate under the assumption that player will not be a part of their future. And the Sixers have to remain cognizant of the fact that Embiid still is a huge injury risk.
This is why I actually prefer trading Okafor over Noel. With Noel, the Sixers would still have another elite defensive option, and staggering the center minutes out shouldn’t be a huge problem. There may be 8-10 minutes of overlap between the two, but that’s just the cost of doing business in this situation. Embiid still stretches the floor when Noel is on the roll, and there are ways of playing two traditional bigs successfully together.
What doesn’t make sense is having two low-post options, as would be the case with Okafor.
Embiid has been somewhat helped by the Sixers having Rodriguez, who runs a pretty nifty pick-and-roll and is a good partner to Embiid. The Sixers need longer term options with higher upside at the guard and wing and have to be looking at packages that include young players like Moe Harkless or Marcus Smart.
It’s easy to imagine a spread pick-and-roll and post-up team with four shooters around Embiid, and that probably is the simplest path for the Sixers to build a successful squad. We don’t know yet how Simmons will look playing next to Embiid, and what the dynamic of the team looks like. But with Simmons, the Sixers should have a long-term solution on the ball, which means filling in the supporting roles is the priority.
Philadelphia has some good draft picks coming in, most notably their own this season and a 2019 pick from the Kings, the year after Cousins hits unrestricted free agency (though that pick lost value thanks to the new CBA agreement, which heavily incentivizes Cousins to stay with the Kings). Embiid isn’t a 19-year-old anymore, and building around a 22-year-old means there’s a timetable the Sixers will have to fill. Drafting young players for the next few years and then waiting for them to grow isn’t a short process, and it’s easy to imagine a future where Embiid is in his prime but Philly hasn’t figured out a way to fill out the rest of the roster.
While trading away Okafor, Noel or both isn’t going to look great, and it may be that they won’t find a deal that matches the value they need, the Sixers are entering a phase where they have to start filling out the rest of the roster, and the next move they make may define the team for the next 10 years.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.