December 18, 2016
At his pregame media availability, Brett Brown announced that the Sixers will start Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid against the Brooklyn Nets, citing what he thinks is a favorable (big) matchup against the Nets in Trevor Booker and Brook Lopez.
But this was a case of burying the lede: Brown later announced that Nerlens Noel will not be in the rotation for Sunday’s game against the Nets unless there is foul trouble. According to the Sixers head coach, playing three centers is something he feels upsets the balance for the rest of the team.
The Sixers’ answer is taking Noel off the floor completely, as an already difficult situation becomes even more uncomfortable.
“I feel trying to force-feed three bigs in a game is unfair,” Brown said. “I think that the ripple effects from those other people are painful. I intend on going with two of those three bigs tonight. Nerlens will not be one of those people who are in the rotation unless something happens with foul trouble or some type of other circumstance.
“And we’ll try to get Dario [Saric] and Ersan [Ilyasova] back into comfortable positions and get back into some level of a flow.”
The benching comes on the heels of Noel offering sharp criticism after playing eight minutes in Friday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I just want to be able to play basketball," Noel said when he was asked about who he wanted to be paired with. "I don't care who I'm playing with. I’m not an eight-minute player, so I don't know what that's about. So, I don't care where, I don't. I don't really care. I need to be on the court playing basketball.”
For Sunday’s game and potentially moving forward, Noel will be a spectator. Brown said that the decision has “zero” to with what his fourth-year center said to the press after Friday’s game, something that Noel agreed with.
“No, I think it’s been decided a long time ago,” Noel said. “I think it had nothing to do [with the comments], it’s been something that has been set in stone. And that’s why I’ve been staying very content and focused on bettering myself and worrying about the things I can control.”
Brown explained that moving forward, the idea of playing all three big men in the same game is mostly what you can take away from the decision. He did leave some wiggle room for Noel returning to the court at some point, but it seems like Embiid and Okafor could take all of the center minutes past Sunday’s game.
“I assume we’ll stick with this rotation for a while,” Brown said.
There are many questions to be answered by Brown and Bryan Colangelo, including why the Sixers are continuing to start Okafor and Embiid when Noel will sit on the bench if they are truly worried about balancing the roster. But for now, they have decided to address their problem by making Noel the odd man out.
“In this situation, it’s our decision,” Brown said. “We talked freely with Bryan, my staff, owners that we feel two out of three [centers] we can find ways to responsibly play without hurting the team.”
Post-game update: Brown was asked after the game if he felt badly for Noel not getting much of a shot this season, and almost assuredly thinking about what the team described as elective knee surgery, said that he feels worse for Richaun Holmes. Needless to say, this was very telling. Here is the full quote:
Q: You talked about humanizing [the situation] and how it is, but do you think he got a fair shot this year, a fair look? The guy only played 18 minutes, we didn’t see him with Joel at all, that was kind of the talk all summer. Do you feel bad that maybe there wasn’t a fair shot there yet?
Brown: I feel worse for Richaun. I think that when I put my human hat on and then you go coach a team, make decisions, show leadership, that stands out to me as much as anything. Nerlens missed everything. 20 minutes before the game last week, I learned he was going to play. He hasn’t been a part of us. I think this conversation goes to a higher level, a more real level in a few weeks when he’s actually had some practices. Richaun has been here from Day 1. I feel that is something that’s on my mind as much as Nerlens. I’ve spoken freely about my fondness for Nerlens Noel. I’ve been with him since you were here. We will coach him and I will help him and what that means, we won’t see on the floor. And maybe that’s where it could help him the most but I don’t believe at this moment that is best for our team. And that’s what we’re going to do. There’s nothing more important than the team.”
Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann