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May 25, 2016

Sixers trending toward a far-too-crowded frontcourt

Sixers NBA

Brett Brown was asked the question time and time again this past year: How can a couple of centers, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, coexist on the floor at the same time?

(Answer: They probably can’t, at least not if you’re trying to win games.)

After the season ended, the same ol’ question was remixed to include the team’s other highly drafted young big guy, Joel Embiid: How can a trio of young centers coexist on the same team?

Embiid Workout 051616 from Rich Hofmann on Vimeo.

(Answer: They still probably can’t, especially because two already have proven they likely won’t fit together with a minus-20 points per-100 possession debut.)

“I do think it’s difficult,” Brown said. “If that’s the situation I’m presented, probably Jerry [Colangelo] said it better than anybody, that’s a high-class problem to have.”

Brown may be correct, but it is a problem, one that potentially became, um, classier when the lottery gods finally smiled on the Sixers last week. Most reports indicate that the team is leaning toward selecting LSU point forward Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick. Simmons projects to play and defend the 4, so for argument’s sake, let’s assume that the Sixers draft the Aussie import and pencil him in at 30 minutes per game at the 4. Then Okafor and Noel split the minutes at the 5 right down the middle:

Power forward (minutes)
Center (minutes)
Simmons (30)
Okafor (24)
  Noel (24)

That leaves 18 minutes per game at the power forward position. Let’s be positive (but not crazy) with an Embiid estimate at 20 minutes per game. The first problem we run into is that Embiid is a center, end of story. The good news is that the Kansas product might possess the raw talent to make a pairing with either Noel or Okafor at least palatable. Let’s have them split the backup minutes at both the 4 and 5.

 Power forward (minutes)Center (minutes)
Simmons (30)
Embiid (20)
Okafor (9)
Okafor (14)
Noel (9)
Noel (14)

Even in this scenario, the pairing with the highest upside by far (Embiid-Simmons, can you imagine the pick-and-roll possibilities?) would receive about two minutes per game if you tried to avoid the dreaded Noel-Okafor two-man lineup at all costs. So you can sort of see where this trending. There are few good answers.

It doesn’t end there. Brown and Bryan Colangelo are also heading over to Istanbul sometime this month during the Turkish playoffs in an attempt to persuade Dario Saric to join the NBA. For Saric to come over, even when it doesn’t make a ton of financial sense, the 22-year-old power forward will likely want an assurance that he will be in the 2016-17 rotation. Even if you were able to experiment with Saric and Simmons at the 3 and 4 for a few minutes here and there, this simply seems like too many young players in one frontcourt.

We don't need the charts anymore.

(All of this discussion doesn’t even include Jerami Grant and Richaun Holmes, second-round picks that showed promise in different areas. Even Robert Covington found success as a small ball 4.)

“We have had some experiences testing different things with 4s and 5s and 5s and 4s with Nerlens and Jahlil, but it will probably be a lot easier to comment on if [Embiid is healthy],” Brown said.

That is a major “if." Making any potential decision more difficult is the major uncertainty that associated with some of these players. At least Colangelo knows whether he’ll select Simmons or Brandon Ingram, but Embiid’s foot is a dicey proposition. Saric might decide that the rookie scale isn’t for him and wait another year.

Something will likely have to give, whether it’s drafting Ingram, trading Okafor or Noel, Embiid missing more time, or Saric staying in Europe. The Sixers could potentially have way too many important young pieces in the frontcourt in 2016-17. 

So if Boston does indeed end up offering a package including the No. 3 pick for Okafor, it might be hard for Colangelo to pass up, even if the draft is projected to drop off after No. 2. Risk is a two-way street: Just as giving up on a player too early could come back to haunt the Sixers, so could burying a valuable trade commodity on the bench.

Sam Hinkie left Bryan Colangelo some good stuff. The potential logjam in the Sixers' frontcourt doesn't qualify.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann