76ers face 'big' decision

Sixers 3 bigs Okafor Noel Embiid 0614016
The Sixers' three young big men (from left): Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid.

Bryan Colangelo went on the radio last week and said the 76ers were "top heavy" with big men, and he'd like to make the roster better balanced as soon as possible.

This doesn't come as a surprise. Too many big men, even in a game in which the basket is 10 feet from the ground, can be a problem. The challenge for Colangelo is to decide which Jenga piece to remove in order to keep the whole building process from collapsing.

Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor at the center position are at least one too many, and the rest of the league knows it. Each player brings a different mix of promise and peril. Which to choose? It is a quandary that, if solved properly, will set the team on the path to true contention. If botched, well, that path will still be lined with good intentions, but it will lead back to the nether world from which the team is slowly emerging.

If it is any consolation, the Sixers have seen worse. I had the great pleasure of covering every game of the Doug Moe era, a 19-37 slog that featured a roster with four centers, collectively referred to by Moe as "28 feet of [expletive]."

You haven't seen dysfunction until experiencing the frontcourt stylings of Charles Shackleford, Manute Bol, Andrew Lang, and Eddie Lee Wilkins on one team. All four were gone when the following season began, as was Moe, who didn't survive the previous one.

"He won 19 games with this team, and they fired him?" Wilkins said. "He should be coach of the year."

That was a different problem for the Sixers, but deciding which of those guys to get rid of was easy: all of them. The current situation is a puzzler because the three centers are very valuable, each in his own way, or at least have potential value that could become enormous over time. Forecasting their futures is the first big test Colangelo faces.

"I think we could be a better basketball team if we could distribute the talent better and maybe take one of those assets and address other needs on the roster," Colangelo said on SiriusXM NBA Radio while attending the summer league in Las Vegas. "Right now, it's best to say we like all of them and want to see if we can make the most out of them in terms of their contribution to the team. But at the end of the day, the reality says that one has to go at some point, but only when the deal is right."

The reality, however, doesn't say that one has to go before the season begins, or even by the February trade deadline. It wouldn't be a surprise if he set his sights on rebalancing the roster at the 2017 draft. That could be the wisest course of action, particularly since what the Sixers don't know about their team is still a lot greater than what they do know.

"We're top heavy, but we've got some good talent there," Colangelo said, "whether it's Nerlens, with a certain skill-set in terms of being more of a defensive player. You've got Jahlil, more of an offensive player, a lot of post action and now steps outside and hits that 15- to 18-foot shot, and then you've got Joel."

Figuring things out is a process, and while fans might like to see a choice made immediately to start the contending process this season, that would make choosing the wrong piece more likely.

Most of what we know about Okafor and Noel so far is that coach Brett Brown couldn't figure out a way to play them together because both operate best close to the basket. Now he needs to determine what mixture will work as Ben Simmons and Dario Saric are placed on the court, and as Embiid finally gets into uniform. It could be there will be plenty of offense to go around and Noel is the better fit. It could be that on a team of slashers, the dependable low-post presence of Okafor makes the most sense. And, of course, it could be that Embiid limps off in the first week of the season.

Waiting is the logical way to approach this, but there is a potential downside to being conservative, too. The season could decrease the market value of one of the three, and the Sixers would find themselves selling late and at a loss.

It wouldn't necessarily be Embiid, who has no definable value until he plays. It probably won't be Okafor, who is going to put up numbers regardless. The likely candidate is Noel, whose one-way skills might not mesh with the touch-pass offense the Sixers should develop. Additionally, Noel will become a free agent after this season (restricted if the team extends a qualifying offer), and the time line on assessing him is narrow.

For Colangelo, there is risk in waiting, risk in acting. At this moment, on the knife's edge of decisions that will divide success and failure, waiting is the obvious, prudent course. But if the choice is to act, which way to go is obvious, too.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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