Sixers Mailbag #10: Joel Embiid and the Sixers Future Frontcourt Rotation

In this week's edition of our 76ers mailbag, we take a look at how the frontcourt rotation could look in the future.
Big men Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid work out prior to a game against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this year | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Big men Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid work out prior to a game against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this year | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue our 76ers mailbag series, where we discuss some of the pressing topics around the team.

In the 10th edition of our Sixers mailbag, we take a look at the Sixers’ late game offense, about whether we’re too critical of rookie Jahlil Okafor, about the focus of the team shifting to Joel Embiid, and about Ish Smith’s development as a jump shooter.

You can read previous editions of the Sixers mailbag here. If you want to submit a question for a future mailbag either shoot me a message on twitter or send me an email.

Note: any opinions expressed here are my own opinions, and not reports or expectations based off of inside information, unless I explicitly state that a statement is based off of inside information.


Zach:

“In today’s NBA, if a team needs a big shot, they usually have a guard or wing to give the ball to and let him go to work for that bucket. As the Sixers are currently constructed, who is that big shot maker in the future? Rarely do you see a team down 1 with 10 seconds left throw the ball down to the block to a big. Do the Sixers do that with Embiid/Okafor or do they rely on Simmons (hopefully) or Ingram or another wing/guard?”

I think the most honest answer to this question is they just don’t have a player on the roster who you want filling that role in the future.

It’s part of the reason why, with the Sixers, Ish Smith‘s usage rate jumps from an “already too high” 29.4% to 41.1% in the fourth quarter. There are so few on this team who can reliably create their own shot that Smith, even though he’s not necessarily a natural scorer, can at least use his speed to create separation and get a look at the basket without turning the ball over, and can take advantage of bad rotations with kickouts and lobs should defenses make mistakes.

The only other real shot creator that the Sixers have, Jahlil Okafor, actually sees his usage rate go down in the 4th quarter of games, especially since the addition of Smith: Okafor has a 28.8% usage rate for the game but only 22.9% in the 4th quarter since Smith’s arrival.

Most of that is just the difficulty of running late game offense through a post player, especially those late-clock situations you described. It’s just too easy for a defense to game plan the ball out of the hands of a big man, especially when time can be used as the 6th defender.

I do think there is some hope that Joel Embiid can help in this capacity, mostly because I think he can be an elite pick and roll threat as a big man diving to the hoop that could give the Sixers’ perimeter players an option in late game situations, but even in that role he’s secondary to what will hopefully be a dynamic scoring point guard or perimeter player.

The Sixers were always going to need a perimeter player to form a two-man game with the big men, even if Okafor and/or Embiid turn into legitimate #1/#1a type offensive players, and that’s especially true in late game situations.


Rodney:

“Do you think that we are being a little hard on Okafor’s overall game? Is it his fault that he doesn’t fit well with Nerlens to this point?”

Yes and no.

Offensively, I think we’re a little too focused on the “how he’s currently impacting the team” angle. 19 or 20 year old high-usage rookies usually don’t have a positive impact, in terms of plus-minus, on an offense. Not only because the edges of their game — such as the addition of new skills, the ability to get to the free throw line, continuing to extend range, etc — that make an experienced player even tougher to guard haven’t yet been fully developed, but also because of situation. If a guy enters the league as a 25%+ usage player, he probably doesn’t have much help on that side of the court. He likely doesn’t have elite perimeter players creating looks for him, or the kind of offensive talent around him that could present defenses with a real decision about whether to double team him or not.

In that regard, I do think we’re too quick to jump to the “is his high-usage post game really helping the team offensively” conclusion. I do think that having more high-level shot creators around Okafor will help get him easy looks. I do think he’ll get better at getting to the free throw line. I am fairly confident he’ll develop into a plus 15-17′ jump shooter. I’m also fairly confident that as the Sixers get more talent around Okafor, and as he gets more experienced in reacting to NBA double teams, that he’ll become much more effective at passing out of them, and using that attention, just like he did at Duke, to make his teammates better.

And I think you’re already starting to see that. Okafor is shooting 60% from the field in the 114 minutes he’s been on the court with Ish Smith, despite a 28.3% usage rate. Obviously, he’s not going to maintain that, but add in an enhanced understanding and recognition of NBA defenses, his teammates learning how to get themselves open when he has the ball, and improved talent level on the wings and I think we undersell his ability to function in an NBA offense.

(Note: I also think we’re too quick to label him a “post scorer”, and thus a dying breed. Not only will the percentage of his offense derived from the post naturally drop when there’s a high-level shot creator on the perimeter to pair him next to, but there are just some players who are naturally gifted offensively, and Okafor falls in that camp. You watch how quickly his jump shot is is developing, how much of a feel he has creating space in his face-up game, and I think we undersell how diverse his game will be in 4-5 years, a time frame which would still place him at just the beginning of his prime).

(Note #2: I also think this label as a “post scorer” is part of why we undersell the impact he can have offensively down the line. There’s been so much talk about the viability of a post scorer in the modern NBA that when you see a guy operating largely in the post, it’s easy to dismiss the long-term viability of him. Combine that with the Sixers’ offense struggling with Okafor on the court and the conclusion is relatively easy to jump to. But as I said to start this answer, I think a rookie being placed in a situation where his usage rate is this high is always going to look underwhelming in terms of efficiency and team results, and I think we undersell how much growth he has left in him as an offensive player).

I have very few doubts about Okafor’s ability to be a high-level offensive player in the NBA.

Now, the defensive side of the court is a different matter. Defense at the 5 is just so important, and Okafor’s combination of physical limitations and slow reaction difficult to overcome, that I think it’s a legitimate long-term worry.

I’ve said before that when watching Okafor play defense, it almost seems as if you’re watching somebody who, over the course of his entire career, coaches have said “Look, focus your energy on carrying our offensive burden. Avoid foul trouble. Just be big around the rim and challenge shots when they come at you.”

It’s a strategy that makes sense at the lower levels of basketball, where zone defenses can make that more viable, and where his offensive dominance is even more pronounced. But changing that mindset, instilling a new mentality, and forging the kind of elite defensive awareness he would need to overcome his below average physical tools is a tough turnaround to make.

Improvements can certainly be expected, but he really has to turn his biggest weakness into a legitimate strength to overcome his physical limitations. It’s a tough expectation to have.

That’s all complicated by the combination of the high-level frontcourt talent the Sixers have coming into the pipeline (Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons in a best case scenario) and the Sixers (and their fans) being desirous to find out who they can build their team around so they can take the next step in team building.

There is going to come a time when the Sixers will likely have to decide which of these big men are the ones they want to build around, and that decision, while not yet required, is likely to happen before Okafor’s physical skills and mental understanding of the game are fully developed.

Because of that it’s natural for fans to try to project out how much improvement Okafor has in him, on both ends of the court. The Sixers aren’t really in a position to just let everybody develop over the next 5 years and see what happens. Combine that inevitability with the debates that are bound to occur when your three most highly-touted young players are questionable fits next to each other, and fans being hard on Okafor’s game isn’t really being surprising.

The “pro Okafor” and “anti-Okafor” crowds are really just two sets of people making the same long-term guestimation of improvement, they just disagree on their projections.

As for fit with Noel, that’s never been my primary concern. As I said at the time of the draft, my goal at this stage isn’t to build a working team, and I do think both Okafor and Noel have enough trade value that when you find the guy you want to build around, you’re still going to get value for the other in a trade. If I’m confident Okafor can be integrated into an offense and grow into a plus defender, his fit with Noel is a secondary concern.


Noah:

“Given how well Carl Landry has played, do you see the 76ers trying to move him? If so, what type of value do you think they could get in return?”

If you would have asked me this question in November, I would have said yes. He’s exactly the type of player where his long-term role with the team is obviously limited, and getting a draft pick for him is exactly what Sam Hinkie would be looking to do.

But in this new era where roster spots are being used by players like Elton Brand who may never suit up in a meaningful role, I’m not so sure. The Sixers have so much of their future invested in the frontcourt that I think they’re investing a similar amount in experience to teach that youth. If Landry thrives in that role as a teacher, I could see him sticking around past the trade deadline. Even if he isn’t a natural teacher, if head coach Brett Brown likes Landry’s steady hand, and it appears that he does, Landry could remain with the team for the remainder of the year.

Value? Even if a contender thinks Landry could fill a role, a second round pick is really all we’re talking about, especially since he has guaranteed money on the books for next year.


Arun Sundaresan (@ArunSundaresan)

“Has Hinkie inflicted any permanent reputational damage to the organization? And have the 76ers been lucky/unlucky since he was hired?”

Nah. This is one of the talking points that I think is overblown a bit.

Do I believe that Hinkie’s reputation around the league is less-than-stellar? Of course, especially among agents, and among media members and executives alike who just don’t agree with the strategy.

But the NBA is fickle. If an agent doesn’t listen to an offer from a general manager that he doesn’t like because said general manager didn’t return some of his phone calls, then he’s doing a disservice to his client. If he continually does a disservice to his clients, he’s going to lose clients.

When the Sixers decide that they want to be players in free agency, agents will listen. Because that’s their job.  Much of the hoopla around the Sixers’ damaged reputation is because getting a quote from somebody who doesn’t like Hinkie is the easiest thing to do in the league right now, but I think that’s more noise than actual impact.

Where reputation does come into play is internally, specifically with Joshua Harris. If that noise changes Harris’ approach to running the team, that’s where the damage could happen. But it’s internal reaction to the external noise that is (in my opinion) the only major long-term concern. The rest is extremely fickle and can change at a moments notice.

Lucky vs unlucky? I’ve argued many times that all great rebuilds needs a bit of luck to truly take off. If the Sixers end up with Karl-Anthony Towns, or Joel Embiid’s foot cooperates, or the Sixers get Ben Simmons, the entire narrative (and, likely, the entire front office strategy) about this team changes on a dime.


Xsago:

I feel like with all the losing, the narrative between the supporters of the plan has switched from “don’t worry we have a bunch of assets to create our future core” to “don’t worry Embiid is our savior”. How fair is it to put such a heavy burden on a 20 year old kid who won’t step on the court until he’s 21?”

Eh. I think a big part of that change is just because of where Joel Embiid is in terms of his recovery. I think the same thing happened last year at this time as well.

And I think that’s a pretty natural reaction. It’s virtually impossible to watch Joel Embiid before a game, towering over Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, and showcase the kind of natural athletic ability and skill level that he has and not salivate as a basketball fan. Forget looking at it just through the lens of being a Sixers fan: the NBA as a whole will be a worse off if he’s never able to remain consistently healthy.

And in terms of assets to create a future core, I think it’s also pretty natural for fans to look at the assets that have turned into actual, tangible, human beings. Everybody has been painfully reminded about the uncertainties of the NBA lottery, and Joel Embiid has the most two-way talent of anybody currently occupying a spot on the Sixers roster.

In truth, he’s just one of the few remaining high-value “assets” who could turn the rebuild around, but I think it’s natural for the focus to be on him, especially at this time of the year. That could change after May’s lottery.


John-Peter Melle (@jp_melle):

 Ish Smith is improved from 3, midrange the free throw line. Did he learn to shoot this off-season?

I think, as your images show, it’s been more of a steady progression over the past few years rather than just something that happened this offseason. Starting with Phoenix during the 2013-14 season is when Smith really started adding a midrange game to his repertoire, and with his elite speed, it was a needed component to his game.

Still, it’s hard to take too much out of whether he’s been able to extend that out to the three point line. Even including what he did with New Orleans, we’re basing that improvement on a grand total of 15 makes. Three pointers make up only 11.5% of his field goal attempts on the season, and that goes down the higher his usage gets, as it’s only 6.8% of his attempts while he’s been on the Sixers.

It’s really hard to build an efficient point guard, especially one who has been used as much as Smith has been in the Sixers’ half court offense, when he takes so few three pointers and gets to the line so infrequently. Expanding that range to the three point line is the next step for Smith’s growth.

That will wrap it up. Once again, If you want to submit a question for a future mailbag, either shoot me a message on twitter or send me an email.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.