Sixers Experiment With Okafor at Power Forward in Loss to Hawks

A day after Jerry Colangelo said Nerlens Noel is a center, head coach Brett Brown changed up Jahlil Okafor's defensive assignments for the game against the Hawks.

Whether or not Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor can succeed playing together is a key question for the Sixers this season | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers head coach Brett Brown could start experimenting with Noel and Okafor’s defensive assignments | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“I don’t think anybody really played that well,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after his team was destroyed by the Atlanta Hawks by a score of 124-86.

The 38 point differential was the Sixers’ second worst loss of the season.

While the Sixers have a 6-12 record since the acquisition of Ish Smith on December 24th, with a net rating -3.6 points per 100 possessions heading into last night’s game that ranks a respectable 22nd in the league, last night served as a cold reminder that the Sixers were still capable of being embarrassed if they didn’t come with their best effort.

The Atlanta Hawks seem to bring out the worst in the Sixers.

The Hawks will finish the season series against the Sixers with a perfect 3-0 record, beating Philadelphia by a combined 87 points in the process. The Sixers have given up 120 points or more in four games this season, including each of the three losses to the Hawks.

“I feel like we just didn’t come out with much energy, on both sides of the ball,” Brown said about the loss. “I think the common denominator ends up turnovers, but we don’t have many answers for them.”

You could look up and down and dissect the boxscore if you want. Nik Stauskas finished with a game-high 17 points on 5-7 shooting. Nerlens Noel finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and a block. Eight (EIGHT) Hawks players finished with at least 10 points on the night.

None of that matters. The Hawks opened up a 23-13 lead 9 minutes into a game that was never competitive.

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One change of importance was that Sixers head coach Brett Brown experimented with having Jahlil Okafor defend the perimeter, as Okafor started the first and third quarters defending Paul Millsap rather than Al Horford.

Okafor had primarily defended Horford during the first two contests between the two teams.

It’s a notable change because while both Horford and Millsap will take a significant percentage of their shots from the perimeter, Millsap tends to spend more time on the perimeter off the ball, specifically stationed in the corner to spread the floor while the Hawks run their offense, thus dragging one of the Sixers two big men away from the basket and out of position to provide help defense.

In the past, Nerlens Noel has been tasked with defending the more perimeter-oriented big man, in large part because Okafor doesn’t have the lateral foot speed to keep up with defenders in space.

“I don’t think Jahlil can guard and chase guys [on the perimeter],” Brown said just a few weeks ago before the Sixers played the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Wells Fargo Center. “I think foot speed and [Okafor’s] body right now won’t allow it. Nerlens [Noel] is an A+ athlete. I think the speed factor can put out fires for us for that reason.”

Yet here we are just a few weeks later and Brown was experimenting with different defensive assignments.

“Just trying to look at it. I think that we want to learn as much as we can about how to pair Nerlens and Jahlil, and give them different matchups from time to time,” Brown said after the game about the defensive assignments.

How did he do?

Millsap finished the night just 3-11 from the field. Okafor held his in keeping up with Millsap on the perimeter, although Millsap seemed to be having an off night in general.

Still, while the early results weren’t too bad defensively, Brown said that it could be a struggle if Okafor is asked to defend the power forward position on a regular basis, at least for the time being.

“I think it’s difficult for him. I think it’s difficult finding perimeter people,” Brown continued. “It’s part of his evolution. I think it’s not, right now, his strength.”

The move would be made, primarily, to keep Nerlens Noel in the paint and allow him to maximize his defensive abilities. As we noted recently, Noel’s defensive impact is drastically reduced when he’s playing on the perimeter in a frontcourt pairing next to Okafor.

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Atlanta is probably the best opponent to test the change out against. Both Horford and Millsap have range, so Okafor is going to have to defend the perimeter a little bit regardless of who he’s tasked with guarding, even if he might do that a little bit more frequently when placed on Millsap. While both Atlanta frontcourt players have range, neither are the kind of combo forward that has become common in the NBA, and the type which would be an athletic nightmare for a guy like Okafor to try to defend.

The experiment didn’t last long, as Brown used the lineup to start the first and the third quarters, and at no other time outside of that, providing the Sixers with a total of 13 minutes of data to evaluate. The Hawks scored 29 points in those 13 minutes, which would come out to just over 107 points over a 48 minute game. That sounds bad, until you realize the Hawks scored 95 points over the remaining 35 minutes of play, a rate of 130 points over 48 minutes of play.

The Sixers defense wasn’t stopping the Hawks regardless of which frontcourt pairing they threw out there, especially with the rate at which they were turning the ball over and putting their defense out of position.

Whether Brown continues to experiment against other frontcourts remains to be seen. Judging by Okafor’s reaction after the game, it wasn’t something he had talked to Brown about at length. In fact, he had just learned of the defensive assignment when he saw it written out on the whiteboard before the game.

“I have no idea,” Okafor said when asked whether his defensive assignment would be changed more frequently in the future. “I just saw the matchups and went out there and guarded him.”

Brown will likely be prudent when asking Okafor to defend perimeter players.

“It’s one thing for me to sit here and beat my chest about ‘We’re going to persevere and we’re going to grow these two young guys’, and it’s another thing to be too reckless and say ‘Jahlil go guard these high flyers and three point [shooters]’,” Brown said last month. “That’s never been him.”

Still, Brown showed last year that he’s willing to experiment towards the end of the season, when he started Furkan Aldemir at center so he could switch up Nerlens Noel’s defensive assignment in preparation for the expected addition of Joel Embiid to the frontcourt.

That change didn’t lead to any short-term success for the team — in fact, the Sixers closed out the season on a 10 game losing streak in part because of the change — but it did provide Brown the ability to grow, and evaluate, Noel in his presumed future role.

With Jerry Colangelo‘s recent comments that Noel is a center, you wonder if the Sixers might start experimenting with their defensive assignments, at least when the matchups aren’t too unfavorable for the Sixers.

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