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September 29, 2015

Okafor and Noel begin to address the spacing question

Sixers NBA
092930_Noel_Rich Rich Hofmann/for PhillyVoice

Nerlens, deep in thought.

Even if the Sixers’ head coach left San Antonio with a PhD in Spurs, you can’t help but wince when he brings up the names. NBA champions, hall of famers, all-time greats, and the list goes on. But Brett Brown needs a blueprint, and the Twin Towers are what he knows best.

“I did a lot of studying over the summer, revisiting those Spur days with [Tim] Duncan and [David] Robinson,” Brown said. “We’ve studied a lot of people, different teams like lately Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. There are teams that recently play big-big ball.” 

How do you play “big-big ball” in an era defined by small-ball? It’s a tough question, but Brown has to find an answer out of necessity. The Sixers’ last three top-six draft picks were used on traditional big men (the Seventy-Centers!), and Brown understands that his team’s most pressing issue will be spacing because of it. 

Nerlens Noel will play around 30 minutes per game like he did as a rookie, as should Jahlil Okafor. Brown will stagger those minutes so each guy gets a chance to play their natural position, but the real intrigue will come when they share the floor. That specific situation, with the Sixers’ two most important players manning the 4 and 5 positions, is when the stakes are highest. How that lineup fares is arguably more important than wins and losses, at least for this season.

Not only is there a question if Noel and Okafor possess the talent to successfully coexist, they are also playing a different sport than the Spurs’ two bigs found around the turn of the century. The NBA has evolved from force-feeding players like Duncan in the post and spacing around them to spreading the floor around a 1-5 pick-and-roll.

“Any of the good big-big teams that you’ve seen play have just a tremendous understanding of how they play with each other,” Brown said. “There’s a relationship.”

Since neither Noel nor Okafor is currently a threat from the perimeter, the Sixers will have to be creative in unclogging those driving lanes. To his credit, Brown is aware that there will be growing pains even in the best of realistic cases. “I think it’s going to be a tremendous challenge” were his exact words.

Luckily, Brown has done his homework and spent a lot of time preparing for this very scenario. Well before Okafor officially became a Sixer, Noel was slotted to play alongside Joel Embiid in 2015-16. Brown had broached the subject long prior to draft night this past June.

So what did he find out? Brown believes that two bigs operating in tight quarters need to share the same brain. If both players are on opposite blocks and Okafor turns to the middle, Noel has to cut along the baseline at the same time. If Noel has a favorable matchup down low after running the floor, Okafor should automatically to run to the high post. These types of decisions have to be made within in a split-second of each other, which is obviously much easier said than done. 

“Any of the good big-big teams that you’ve seen play have just a tremendous understanding of how they play with each other,” Brown said. “There’s a relationship.”

That relationship extends to the other end of the floor, where the Sixers’ young duo will also face obstacles. The question is similar: How can two players accustomed to being stationed around the basket defend in space against teams with bigs who can shoot the three?

While Okafor might have to prop up the duo on offense with his polished post game, it’s clear that the onus to make the pairing work defensively falls on Noel. As a 20-year-old rookie, he impressively averaged over two blocks and two steals per 36 minutes while primarily playing center. His role will change this season.

Noel will be making the transition to the 4, which is kind of like moving from free safety to cornerback. Again, much easier said than done, especially after watching Noel struggle with the likes of Ryan Kelly at the tail end of last season when Brown was experimenting. This being training camp where anything and everything is possible, Noel believes he can pull off the difficult balancing act.

“[I want to] use all of my abilities on the defensive end to be able to guard the 4-men that can shoot the ball from three,” Noel said. “Being able to close out on them and still being able to stick around the basket and block shots.”

Nerlens on Jah. from Rich Hofmann on Vimeo.

Okafor’s defense is a major question mark and the reason he wasn’t the first pick in the draft. Just like on offense, communication is going to be a major determining factor of how well he holds up in pick-and-roll defense. The Sixers respectably finished with the league’s 13th ranked defense in 2014-15, and Brown is hoping that the culture he built last year can keep Okafor accountable.

While he was still in college, Okafor was able to watch Noel improve as the season went along. He believes that their skill sets mesh well together.

“The way he plays defense is going to help me out a lot and I can learn a lot from him [defensively],” Okafor said. “Then on the offensive end, I demand a lot of attention and I think that can help them out a lot.”

Jah on Nerlens. from Rich Hofmann on Vimeo.

It’s not an impossible trick. In addition to Brown, Noel also mentioned Gasol and Randolph as a success story. Both of those players provide an element of midrange shooting, but it’s true that the Memphis Grizzlies employ a traditional frontcourt that has outscored its opponents by 8.3, 6.8, and 4.9 points per 100 possessions over the last three years. The Spurs also had success with Duncan and Tiago Splitter in the starting lineup.

It’s a lot to ask of two young players, though, even if the perimeter shooting around them improves. I suppose that is the point, as the Sixers will likely collect their fair share of lottery balls again. After three months of waiting, they will finally start to get some answers on Tuesday at Stockton University.

“Tomorrow is the first day of training camp,” Okafor said at media day. “I think it will work fine, but I’ll let Coach Brown and all of the other coaches figure that out.”

Oh, they will be trying.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann