Cooney: Brown's biggest challenge is Embiid-Okafor pairing

THREE QUESTIONS are commonly asked about the 76ers, almost on a daily basis.

One concerns the recovery of top overall pick Ben Simmons. The 6-10 do-everything forward/guard had surgery Oct. 4 to put a screw in his right foot after suffering a Jones fracture to the fifth metatarsal on the last day of training camp at Stockton University. The recovery period for such an injury and surgery was put to me by two surgeons as 10 to 12 weeks. It is then when Simmons can start doing basketball activities, most likely at a slow pace, which is the norm for the Sixers and their sports science team. Twelve weeks would take it to Dec. 27. Factor in at least a few weeks of getting in basketball shape and that would go to mid-January. That is providing all the healing goes well in the eyes of the organization's medical staff.

The team has given no detailed updates lately, just relaying, when asked, that Simmons is at the practice facility almost daily, following his recovery protocol. It's a wait-and-see situation.

Nerlens Noel also hasn't been on the floor with the team since he started to feel pain in the preseason. At first, the 6-11 center was saddled with a strained groin, but then came soreness in his surgically repaired left knee. He had a procedure done for an inflamed plica on Oct. 25. He did his recovery in Alabama and returned to the area last week. He has been seen lately shooting at the training facility when the team finishes practice. His return, according to coach Brett Brown, is still a couple of weeks away.

The third, and main, question posed to Brown concerns playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, specifically about when the two will get on the floor together for significant minutes.

The answer, quite simply, is not soon. Or for the amount of time that you, and I, would like to see.

Many factors have played into this decision this season, as Okafor had been on a minutes restriction while he worked his way back from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee on March 22. His time restriction was recently lifted, so he is good to go. Embiid is still on a recovery schedule that not only includes a 24-minute restriction - which Brown said will go until at least Christmas - but also is randomly held out of games altogether, again, as part of his recovery process. The 7-2, 276-pounder missed his sixth game of the season Monday in Toronto, but has been excellent during his time on the floor, averaging 18.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, during his 22.8 minutes a game.

But Embiid's time on the court has minimally coincided with Okafor's - only a few minutes so far. Some of that is because Brown had to watch how he filled their allotted minutes. Now, though, it's because he hasn't yet figured out how they'll fit defensively.

With the league full of stretch power forwards, Brown's worries go directly to the defensive end, where Embiid is the better rim protector, but also the better than Okafor at getting out on shooting power forwards. So the coach will carefully pick his spots when/if he plays the two together.

"I stand by what goes on when people ask," Brown said. "It's the most asked question I get. I will say that I, too, want to do this. But look at (Sunday against Cleveland). It's a terrible, terrible matchup (with Kevin Love at the 'four'). As soon as I can, I will."

What also might be holding Brown back from experimenting with those two on the floor is the production he might be able to extract from them in combination. Sunday against the defending champs, Embiid and Okafor split the 48 minutes and combined for 36 points and 18 rebounds. That's pretty good production out of your center spot.

"I can't wait until the two of us can play together," Okafor said. "I know Joe can't wait, either. Once we are both fully healthy and not on any restrictions, I'm looking forward, and I know the fans are, also, to seeing what Joe and I can do on the floor together."

"Accumulatively, if you can get this out of your 'five' spot every night, that's dominating," Brown said. "If that's what your 'five' spot produces, that's a dominating effort. To the point about seeing what we have and trying to uncover, what do we really have, I very much look forward to playing those two together, but it is very, very reliant on the other team giving you something where you're not going to be punished. Although the league has turned into a perimeter game, it just might be interesting to see what two potentially dominant low-post scorers could do together."

After that, Brown thinks the roster has become more "positionally balanced," his and general manager Bryan Colangelo's goal since the end of last season.

"When you can look at a world with Joel Embiid and Jahlil, every so often they can play together, but the other team has to comply, it has to be a big ballgame," Brown said. "If you view the world with those two guys, you say that's your 'five' spot. Then you go (Dario) Saric and (Ersan) Ilyasova and that's your 'four' spot. And then you can go (Robert) Covington and (Hollis) Thompson, that's your 'three,' and then (Gerald) Henderson and (Nik) Stauskas is your 'two,' and Jerryd (Bayless), Sergio (Rodriguez) and T.J. (McConnell) and that's your point guards. So that is positionally balanced.

"You're looking at another world when Nerlens comes back into it, and what do you do with Richaun (Holmes), because Richaun deserves to play. It's as positionally balanced a team as we've had since I've been here."


cooneyb@phillynews.com

@BobCooney76

Blog: philly.com/Sixersblog

Continue Reading