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December 21, 2016

In star-driven league, Embiid’s support of Noel should factor into Sixers’ big man dilemma

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After Tuesday night’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, the story of the game was clearly Nerlens Noel’s return to the lineup and the warm ovation he received from the Wells Fargo Center crowd.

Since last Friday night, most of the Sixers coverage has revolved around Noel’s unhappiness and all and any ripple effects it caused around the team. And rightfully so, as the center logjam is the most pressing matter at hand for the Sixers at this particular moment in time.

But as you might have heard, this is a process. Let’s take “the longest view in the room.”

If we zoom out a little and use more of a long-term approach, the Sixers 2016-17 season is still primarily about Joel Embiid. Can he stay healthy? (So far, yes.) How does he affect the team’s offense and defense? (So far, very positively.) How does he look playing next to Ben Simmons? (TBD). The team could have 500 qualified centers on the roster and Brett Brown would still allow “The Process” to play up to his minutes limit.

Unlike many modern stars, Embiid generally lets the media know about how he’s feeling. Maybe that will change moving forward, but for now, he has been pretty transparent. And as the Noel drama has developed, as Embiid has been consistently logging minutes with Jahlil Okafor, the 7-foot-2 “unicorn” had expressed some frustration with having to slide over to the four position.

"I think for once, since I’ve been a Sixer, I didn’t trust the process tonight,” Embiid said after a loss to Toronto a week ago. “I was just standing, I wasn’t moving, I was just standing on the perimeter. I wasn’t active on defense."

Compare those comments to what we heard from Embiid about Noel’s insertion into the game from Tuesday.

“I loved it,” Embiid said. “He’s my best friend on the team and I was really happy for him. He’s been working his ass off, too. The other day, he was in the gym just working out with Richaun [Holmes], playing 1-on-1, 2-on-2. So I was really happy for him and I thought he should have played more.”

“I also want to get on the court and see what we can look like together because I like him and I want to play with everybody. I feel like if we’re trying something, I feel like we should try the other thing, too. So hopefully in the future they do that.”

Bryan Colangelo did admit that Noel will be back in the rotation at some point, and in a star-driven league, Embiid stumping for Noel matters. Listen to how Embiid envisions the two playing together, an idea he has clearly thought about.

“I think because I have some type of relationship with him, I think I’m going to get him going especially on the defensive end, just being aggressive, blitzing every pick-and-roll, just flying all over the place,” Embiid said. “I think we can really do that while we’re on the court and then offensively, I’m sure we’re going to figure it out. But I mean, it’s a team game so just going to go out and compete every night with what we have.”

Embiid is intelligent, and he knows that while Noel and him would face offensive challenges, he’s as curious as the rest of us about what it would look like defensively. He also knows how poorly the team has played with him and Okafor on the court together, particularly defensively.

Embiid also feels that his opinion needs to be considered carefully, and in this whole situation, one thing is for sure: He’s right about that.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann