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July 12, 2023

Could the Sixers really play a double-big frontcourt? Mo Bamba thinks so

The Sixers have a coach willing to use two-big lineups in Nick Nurse. Can Mo Bamba really play next to Joel Embiid?

Sixers NBA
Joel-Embiid-Mo-Bamba-Sixers Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

New teammates Mo Bamba and Joel Embiid.

It says a lot about the Sixers' offseason to date that the fanbase is most pleased about a move that actually complicates their roster a bit. Paul Reed's return on a three-year, $23 million deal puts four big men on Philadelphia's current roster, and though Montrezl Harrell is not currently expected to have a significant role for the team, the Sixers need to figure out how to actually use what they have on hand.

And center Mo Bamba, who is joining the Sixers on a one-year deal, believes it is possible for the Sixers to use him on the floor with Joel Embiid at the same time. 

"I think we can play together because Jo, I believe that he can be positionless," Bamba told reporters on Monday. "He's such a scoring threat on the floor, he's such a dominant force out there to where it might open up things for other players. And the way how I've kind of been progressing my game to be a stretch five, stretch four, I think it's very much a good chance that we could play together."

There has been a growing desire from the fanbase for Reed to get some time in a frontcourt spot next to Embiid, in part because we've rarely seen it and in part because they are dying to see Nick Nurse rattle the cage a little bit. And multiple Sixers players have made note of Nurse's proactive coaching style this offseason, with Tyrese Maxey and Jaden Springer both saying that Nurse was more hands-on and flexible than any coach they'd had in the past. But Bamba might have the best case for any of their bigs to play in a multi-big setup, in part because he has been working to fit in that sort of setup for years now.

Bamba's three-point rate steadily increased over his first few seasons, but it was the 2021-22 campaign that saw him grow into a larger role and find the range from deep. Playing almost 26 minutes a night, Bamba hit 38.1 percent of his threes and had his healthiest season on record, appearing in 71 games for the Magic. 

While Bamba had another strong shooting stretch last season prior to being traded to the Lakers, the 2021-22 season arguably had more evidence to support using Bamba in dual-big lineups. 2022-23 saw the introduction of No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero, a true forward who appeared in many of the most-played lineups involving Bamba. By comparison, 2021-22 stuck Bamba next to big man Wendell Carter Jr. quite a bit,and there were some (relatively) positive results in there.

Orlando's two most-played lineups with Bamba on the floor were as follows:

  1. Bamba/Wendell Carter Jr./Franz Wagner/Jalen Suggs/Cole Anthony — -1.2 points per 100 possessions overall (16th percentile offense, 80th percentile defense)
  2. Bamba/Carter Jr./Wagner/Gary Harris/Anthony — +5.8 points per 100 possessions overall (69th percentile offense, 43rd percentile defense)

Obviously, most lineups from a bad Orlando Magic team won't blow you away, but there are some positive underlying trends to look at, particularly with that second group. They were above-average attacking the glass, turned the opponent over at a solid rate, and perhaps most interestingly, they rarely fouled, finishing in the 92nd percentile in opponent free-throw rate. In theory, surrendering free throws could be an issue with a double-big configuration, with a blow-by on a big man defending the perimeter leaving you susceptible to more reach-in fouls. The opposite turned out to be true, with Bamba (or Carter) avoiding fouling too often if containment was broken on the perimeter.

But here's the concern as it relates to a multi-center lineup in Philadelphia: Bamba's shot profile as a stretch big would seem to be problematic for Embiid specifically, at least the Embiid who has risen to an MVP candidate. Bamba's three-point shooting has come almost exclusively above the break:

Season % of 3PA from "above the break" 
 2021-2272.6% (204/281 attempts)
 2022-23 87.9% (109/124 attempts) 

This is not out of the ordinary for a big man shooting threes, obviously, as using a floor-spacing big in the trail spot is useful partially because it's a shorter run back to rim protecting on the other end. But that's what makes it tricky to put someone like Bamba next to Embiid on offense — with the big man operating from the elbows, a floor-spacing big in trail potentially crowds his space and allows for easier doubles. And comparing Bamba to a generic guard or wing in the same spot, there's a much smaller risk of a blow-by if a kick out from a double or swing pass goes to a big man.

"A two-big lineup only really works if you have a back-to-the-basket player in one big, say your five-man, the four-man needs to be a really good shooter," Bamba said Monday. "It's just spacing. It gets really frustrating when you go to like a jump hook and the paint is being clogged. Or if you go to your face up and there's a guy just standing in the lane, two guys kind of like hugging the lane."

It's that fact that should urge caution when hoping for an Embiid/Reed combo in the frontcourt. While the Bamba pairing has issues, there's at least some proof of concept there and (in theory) complementary skills on offense. While you could argue he hasn't been given a chance to do so, there's not yet proof that Reed can space the floor at an acceptable NBA level. He has made just three three-point attempts on 20 tries in three seasons, and while there have been flashes at lower levels, Reed's funky mechanics cast doubt on his ability to hit shots consistently.

You can see the vision on defense, with Reed's switch friendly, chaos-creating style a nice fit alongside the traditional drop stylings of Embiid. If you can get enough stops, the logic goes, you can play on the break and in semi-transition more often, empowering the non-bigs on the floor to attack a scrambling defense. That has some definite appeal if you can get a stop. It would be up to Reed to prove he can avoid fouling in a role that allows him to play more aggressive defense, knowing Embiid (or Bamba) is the last line of defense if he gets beat on an initial move.

Nurse's two-big affinity is something Bamba noted at his own availability on Monday, and it is intriguing to think the Sixers will flash some more exotic looks next season. It's worth noting, however, that playing two bigs during their title run in 2019 was a product of having a pair of bigs (Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka) who were both comfortable as floor spacers, with Gasol also more of a playmaker from the middle of the floor than a scorer. And they, in turn, were surrounded by excellent shooting most times, flanked by the likes of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and so on. 

The players seem to have an open mind about the idea. Even if it's just one of the dozens of wrinkles they'll turn to under Nurse's direction, it's part of what should make next season worth tuning in for, playoff baggage notwithstanding. 

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