Fun With Lineups: Impact of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor

During his rookie season Jahlil Okafor showed that he can score in the post. But can he make his team better?

Sixers center Jahlil Okafor finished the game with , leading the Sixers over the Sacramento Kings | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers center Jahlil Okafor finished the game with , leading the Sixers over the Sacramento Kings | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The 76ers offseason is winding down, with training camp at Stockton University set to begin in a month’s time.

After winning May’s NBA draft lottery, and selecting LSU forward Ben Simmons with the #1 overall pick, the 76ers have more certainty than they’ve had at any point in the rebuild. Yet the uncertainty of the Nerlens Noel-or-Jahlil Okafor situation is still hanging over the Sixers’ head.

Sure, the Sixers will say the right things, if they need to, over being happy to have the depth that they do. About going into the season with all their big men in tow and finding minutes, and touches, to keep them all happy.

But it doesn’t take much to realize that this situation isn’t tenable long-term. Having five high lottery picks at two positions is a temporary situation, a situation which could perhaps be workable while the Sixers wait to see if Joel Embiid can remain healthy, but one which will likely need to be resolved in the not-too-distant future if Embiid can eventually be counted upon.

It makes no sense to ship off Joel Embiid, who has the most talent out of all of them, and having just invested the past two years rehabilitating his twice-surgically-repaired right foot. It’s time to see if that gambit is finally going to pay off. Similarly, Ben Simmons is a near-certainty to be a long-term centerpiece of this team.

That leads us back to the inescapable Noel-or-Okafor debate, one which 76ers fans have been having for the past 12 months. It became readily apparently early on that Okafor and Noel didn’t fit well together on the court and, barring drastic (perhaps unrealistic) improvement from one or the other, it was a situation that was always going to have to be resolved eventually. The additions of Simmons and Embiid just sped that process up a little bit.

It’s a topic that many Sixers fans have become tired of over the course of the year. The two players are polar opposites, with such stark strengths and weaknesses that there’s few, if any, who have changed their mind on which player they prefer if the situation does eventually reach the point if needing to be resolved.

Yet despite the fatigue surrounding the question, it’s still one which could be vitally important to the Sixers’ future.

At this point, the numbers, for those who have been following it, can almost be recalled from memory. The Sixers were really, really bad with both Noel and Okafor on the court (outscored by 19.5 points per 100 possessions, per nbawowy), really bad with Okafor on the court without Noel (-15.6 per 100 possessions), and just garden variety bad with Noel on the court without Okafor (-7.4).

One of the problems with statistics is context. When Noel was playing without Okafor, who were his teammates? Who was he playing against? How close was the score? How do all of these compare to Okafor’s minutes when Noel was off the court?

In this article I’m going to take a look at how lineups with Noel in the game without Okafor performed, then compare that to the same lineup, but with Okafor replacing Noel. This doesn’t solve all the variables, of course. The opponent, who the lineup is playing against, how close the game is, and how important the game is to the other team are all things that are not accounted for. Unfortunately, trying to account for all of those variables would be impossible to do while maintaining a sample size that is even remotely representative of anything.

Even just taking comparing similar lineups runs into difficult sample size constraints, especially considering how much time Okafor missed last season, and how desirous the Sixers were to try to see whether Okafor and Noel could work together. Okafor only played 881 minutes without Noel on the court and didn’t have a single lineup without Noel in it that logged more than 50 minutes of playing time.

With a sample size that low, none of these lineups alone are representative of anything, and certainly contain some noise in them. At best, you can find a trend that, maybe, has meaning. Maybe.

To do this I took a look at the top five lineup combinations, in terms of possessions played, that had Noel in it without Okafor, then found the top five lineup combinations with Okafor but not Noel. In the end, that led to eight different lineups I used for side-by-side comparisons, with one four-man group (Ish Smith, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant) ranking in the top five lineups used for both Noel and Okafor, and another discarded because while it was in the top five for Okafor, Noel logged just two minutes with that group.

In this, I look at Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), steal rate (steals generated per 100 possessions), block rate (blocks per 100 possessions), and opponent field goal percent at the rim, since these are the statistics you would expect to be most consistently impacted by big men. I also intended to look at defensive rebounding, but found that to be inconclusive, as lineups with Noel and Okafor produced a better defensive rebounding four times each.

You’ll notice these are all defensive stats. The reason for that is twofold. First, because whether or not Okafor can anchor a defense is one of the critical questions many have asked about his long-term potential. Second, and perhaps most importantly, because there was no consistent trend offensively. Of the eight lineups I examined five of them had a higher output with Noel on the court. Four of them shot better from three with Noel, four better from three with Okafor. It was a similar 4-4 split when looking at turnover rate.

Defensively, however, there were pretty clear patterns.

All data courtesy of nbawowy.com.

Lineup 1: Ish Smith, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant 

 

1-smith-stauskas-covington-grant

Total minutes: 141

Verdict: Performed better with Okafor.

Real quick on the numbers. Defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and opp0-3% (opponent field goal percentage within 3′) you obviously want lower numbers for, and steal and block rate you want higher numbers on.

This one starts off strong for Okafor, with the lineup performing better when Okafor was on the court compared to when Noel was in his place. What’s interesting about this one is it’s the starting lineup used at the end of the season. In fact, if you look at how this lineup performed with Noel prior to the All-star break (91.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), it would have been a clear win for Noel. The competency of this lineup fell off a cliff to end the season, when it allowed 109 points per 100 possessions with Noel on the court. The team, for lack of a better word, collapsed to end the season, and Okafor’s win here may have been related to his second-half absence as much as anything.

Lineup 2: Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant

2-smith-canaan-thompson-grant

Total minutes: 113

Verdict: Performed poorly overall, but significantly better with Noel.

This lineup was not a good one defensively, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise with Ish Smith (poor defender), Isaiah Canaan (poor defender), and Hollis Thompson (not quite as good as Robert Covington) on the perimeter. Neither Noel nor Okafor could cover up for that, but it was significantly worse with Okafor on the court.

Lineup 3: Ish Smith, Hollis Thompson, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant

3-smith-thompson-covington-grant

Total minutes: 65

Verdict: Significantly better with Noel.

Covington and Thompson on the wing have a better chance of holding their own, and in fact this lineup with Noel was relatively strong.

This lineup starts a trend that was competent with Noel at the 5, but a trainwreck with Okafor in his place. With Noel protecting the rim (45.9 percent), that allowed Thompson and Covington to stick their man on the perimeter, holding them to 28.1 percent from three-point range.

Lineup 4: T.J. McConnell, Isaiah Canaan, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant

4-mcconnell-canaan-thompson-grant

Total minutes: 84

Verdict: Significantly better with Noel across the board.

This is the same lineup as lineup #2, but with T.J. McConnell instead of Ish Smith, an upgrade on the defensive side of the court.

The lineup was better across the board with Noel, and surprisingly competitive with Nerlens anchoring the unit. Again, the lineup fell off a cliff when Noel was replaced with Okafor, with a 126.6 defensive rating not even remotely competitive.

One note on the opponent field goal percentage at the rim: that includes transition opportunities. Both of these units turned the ball over at a high rate, which certainly plays a big role in those numbers being so high, as transition opportunities are generally high percentage shots at the basket. The SportVU data at NBA.com/stats would let you get more granular in terms of whether the center was in position to contest the shot, but unfortunately that doesn’t allow the level of control in specifying the exact lineups.

Lineup 5: T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant

5-mcconnell-stauskas-thompson-grant

Total minutes: 87

Verdict: Significantly better with Noel.

Once again, Noel keeps this unit competitive, as once he’s replaced with Okafor the lineup can’t compete defensively.

This is an interesting lineup for two reasons. First, the minutes distribution is relatively close, with both Okafor and Noel getting at least 40 minutes with the lineup. Second, the Sixers’ initial defense was much better with Noel, even despite the fact that the lineup with Noel turned the ball over as such a high rate (17.3% of all offensive possessions vs 13.9% with Okafor) and gave up so many offensive rebounds (68 percent defensive rebounding rate) that those two weaknesses should have been crippling. But this unit with Noel really defended well, and defended the rim exceptionally well in the half-court.

Lineup 6: T.J. McConnell, Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant

6-mcconnell-canaan-covington-grant

Total minutes: 49

Verdict: Significantly better with Noel across the board.

This is an interesting lineup, with relatively strong defenders at the 3 and 4, a solid fundamental (if physically overmatched) defender at the point, and a poor defender at the 2.

With Noel, this lineup was outstanding, but once again really, really struggled when Okafor replaced Noel.

Lineup 7: Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant

7-smith-canaan-covington-grant

Total minutes: 66

Verdict: Better with Okafor

We had an Ish Smith – Isaiah Canaan backcourt earlier, but this one replaces Hollis Thompson with Robert Covington, giving the lineup two solid defenders at the forward spots.

After five straight lineups that were significantly better with Noel at the 5, here’s the second unit that has Okafor winning out. This lineup shot the ever-living-bleep out of the ball on the offensive end with Okafor on the court, which likely helped. The opponent also shot just 28.6 percent with Okafor on the court. With only 16 minutes with Okafor playing with this lineup, and considering the trend previously established, this is likely the result of small sample size luck.

Lineup 8: T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Hollis Thompson, Robert Covington

8-mcconnell-stauskas-thompson-covington

Total Minutes: 45

Verdict: Significantly better with Noel.

Here’s a variation of a previously used lineup, but the first one that has Robert Covington at the power forward spot rather than Jerami Grant. In fact, it’s the first lineup with just one of Okafor or Noel that doesn’t have Grant at the 4.

Once again, it performed (significantly) better with Noel instead of Okafor.

This would have been an interesting lineup to give more minutes to, if for no other reason than to see how it competed offensively. This lineup actually outscored the opposition pretty handily when it was finished off with Noel at the 5 (96.2 points per 100 possessions to 85.2), with 84.6 percent of the Sixers’ made field goals assisted with Noel at the 5.

Summary

Below is a graphic summarizing the defensive ratings of the eight lineups we looked at, with how the lineup performed with Okafor in orange and Noel in blue. Once again, the lower the number, the better. I’ve also added in the best defense in the NBA and the worst defense in the NBA as dotted lines for context. Again, these are defensive ratings as measured by nbawowy.

points-allowed-summary-3

Once again, while no single lineup has enough minutes to draw a conclusion on, the trend is pretty telling. six of the eight lineups were better defensively with Noel on the court rather than Okafor, and in total we’re looking at a combined 650 minutes of playing time. Certainly not long enough to draw any conclusions on, but enough to raise an eyebrow.

In fact, five of the lineups with Noel would have rated as the best in the league, with five of the lineups with Okafor having a rating that would have come in at last in the league. Please keep in mind that’s in no way suggesting that these lineups could have, or would have, held up to those standards with substantially more playing time, or that Noel was capable of anchoring the best defense in the NBA. It’s just used to provide context for how good or bad these numbers are.

Why no offense? 

The above focused entirely on defense. As I stated above, that was for two reasons. One, whether Okafor’s defense is a fatal flaw is the biggest debate when talking about his viability as a franchise player going forward, and two, because there just wasn’t the consistency on the offensive side of the ball to point to a trend. In fact, the majority of those lineups above performed better offensively with Noel, and when you add up all the possessions used in the eight lineups examined above, the lineups with Noel performed better on both ends of the court.

PlayerPossessionsOffensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating
Nerlens Noel890102.9100.1+2.8
Jahlil Okafor41296.4112.1-15.8
(The overall sum of the performance with Noel or Okafor in the eight lineups listed above where Noel or Okafor are the only big man on the court for the Sixers. Offensive rating is points per 100 possessions, defensive rating points allowed per 100 possessions, and net rating the difference between the two. All data from nbawowy.com).

Okafor really hasn’t found a way to transfer his very real 1-on-1 scoring ability into a form of offense that helps his teammates. Almost across the board, his teammates were not only more involved in the offense when Noel was on the court but were also more efficient despite that higher usage.

Below are three tables: how players performed with Noel on the court but without Okafor, how they performed with Okafor on the court but not Noel, and the difference in how they performed with Okafor rather than Noel. Negative numbers, in red, indicate that their performance dipped with Okafor on the court rather than Noel. Positive numbers, in green, indicate their numbers improved.

okafor-net-2

With the exception of a couple of very-low-usage zones (neither Ish Smith or Jerami Grant are volume three-point shooters, and Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson rarely take two-point shots), almost everybody did (significantly) better when they were paired with Noel.

On top of that, the offense with Noel on the court without Okafor (101.2 points per 100 possessions in 1,259 minutes) was significantly better than with Okafor on the court without Noel (97.3 points per 100 possessions in 881 minutes). Both of those are scary statements considering Okafor’s offensive talent is the reason you would be willing to overlook his long-term defensive concerns.

Right now, Okafor just doesn’t do enough without the ball in his hands to really elevate the team as one would hope. His entire life he’s spent running to the free throw line or elbow-extended area of the court, demanding the ball, holding it while he navigates the defense, then making his move. This is tough in the NBA. It clogs up the paint for perimeter players to drive to the hoop, leaves perimeter players with ticking time bombs when he does pass out of the double team because of the shorter 24-second shot clock, and he hasn’t had the ability to create looks for his teammates because of it. His lack of shot blocking or ability to force turnovers slows down the Sixers’ transition game, also impacting their overall offensive output.

It’s frequently said that Okafor is the Sixers’ one proven commodity. But he’s not. His individual scoring talent is proven, but his ability to consistently have a positive impact on the game is still very much up in the air, and is something that is going to require a lot of development to reach.

None of this is to say that Okafor won’t improve. He will. Nor is it to say that better teammates wouldn’t help Okafor. They would. And ultimately projecting what each of these players will become is far more important than what they were last year. I think it’s fair to be bullish about Okafor’s ability to develop into a player that can help an offense down the line. But Okafor is going to have to not only develop into a star offensive player, but also develop into at least a capable team defender *and* defensive rebounder, neither of which he’s even remotely close to being. All three of those things coming to be creates a very low margin for error when projecting Okafor’s future.

Of course, Noel will improve as well, and better teammates would help him too. Elite perimeter defenders who can focus on denying penetration with the knowledge they have an elite team defender waiting behind them could do wondrous things. You’re not just asking whether Okafor will improve, but whether Okafor will improve more than Noel at a rate high enough to cover up the current discrepancy.

Once again, these numbers alone aren’t enough to prove anything. But they’re not just numbers that show up due to low sample size noise, numbers that you would look at and think they’re atypical to what you’ve seen on the court. Okafor’s defensive concerns, which were readily evident at Duke and which we chronicled prior to the draft, showed up in a big way during his rookie season: an inability to change direction, slow reaction time, poor recognition, limited shot blocking ability, inconsistent effort, poor defensive rebounding technique. Yes, Okafor didn’t play with much talent, but whether or not T.J. McConnell can score in the NBA doesn’t impact whether Okafor is decisive in his defensive rotations.

All of this at a position that has been transitioning to one that has more defensive responsibilities, and places more of a priority on mobility, than ever. A position that, due to rule changes and the ever-changing offensive schemes that came along as a reaction to the rule changes, isn’t likely to swing back in the near future.

Okafor will get better defensively. He’ll learn how to make his teammates better offensively. He’ll use the gravity that he can create with his post game to better create looks for his teammates. But it’s not a question of whether he will or won’t get better, it’s whether he’ll make the enormous leaps necessary to evolve from a talented 1-on-1 scorer into an impact player. Talent and impact are different.

I’m about to say something that’s overly simplistic, but still contains some truth to it: Okafor could develop into a 25 point per game scorer, but he’s going to have to find a way to more consistently have a positive impact on the other 175 points scored in the game.

Right now, he’s far from that.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.