Crowded Frontcourt a Distraction as Sixers Begin Training Camp

As the Sixers kick off training camp this week, Bryan Colangelo and Nerlens Noel square off over the sensibility of the Sixers' crowded frontcourt.

Sixers center Nerlens Noel has expressed frustration over the team's frontcourt jogjam | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers center Nerlens Noel has expressed frustration over the team’s frontcourt jogjam | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

That is, of course, the famous opening to Charles Dickens‘ masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, contrasting the state of London with that of Paris just before the French Revolution.

It’s also an almost perfect description of where the Sixers find themselves as they head into training camp.

The mood at Sixers media day, held at the team’s brand new training complex on the Camden waterfront, was downright joyous for some. Joel Embiid sat at the podium talking about overcoming his trials and tribulations, from his injury setbacks to the personal tragedy of losing his younger brother in a car accident, and finally reaching his goal of playing in the NBA. He joked about learning the point guard position and having a 20-year career, showing off his engaging and energetic personality that had previously been confined to 140 characters.

Dario Saric, his fellow 2014 lottery pick, was in awe. In awe of the state-of-the-art training facility he found himself in, of the reception he got by Philadelphia fans, of his overall NBA experience to date.

Perhaps most importantly it was a day of celebration for the Philadelphia fans who stuck through the controversial and lengthy rebuild, a day to bask in the rewards that now seem to be just around the corner. The fans who stuck through 62 James Anderson finally have something to be legitimately excited about, and it should have been a day of celebration for that.

For now that celebration is on hold, with the focus instead shifted to the unavoidable elephant in the room: Nerlens Noel and his frustrations with having three starting caliber centers on the roster.

In many respects, this is an unfortunate byproduct of the same dogged persuit of transformational talent that has the Sixers in the enviable position of having both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the roster. That organizational philosophy has left the Sixers with quite a bit of talent, but also three highly-touted players who play the same position, and whose skill sets struggle to complement each other. In the end, if Ben Simmons reaches his potential and Joel Embiid stays healthy, it’s a side effect most fans will happily live with.

Still, dealing with the human aspect of it will be tricky at times, something that Bryan Colangelo acknowledged last week when the Sixers opened their training facility.

“The discomfort comes in trying to manage and maintain the happiness of three talented young players. That’s something that I think will work itself out,” Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said last week.

If there was hope that this tricky situation could be resolved with minimal distraction, that it would simply work itself out, that possibility seems to be out the window.

“I don’t see a way of it working,” Noel said very matter-of-factly about sharing the center position with Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. “I think obviously things need to be moved around. Someone needs to be moved around. It’s just a tough situation.”

Noel went out of his way to say that his objections have nothing to do with his teammates, the fans, or the city of Philadelphia. “I love my guys. Jahlil (Okafor) and Joel (Embiid) are probably some of the closest friends on this team that I have,” Noel declared.

His problem is much more situational, a combination of what he has gone through in the past and what he’s in position to show in the future.

The situation Noel finds himself in with regard to his contract is one that cannot be ignored. Entering the final year of his rookie-scale contract, Noel will enter next offseason as a restricted free agent. There are very real world implications to partaking in yet another year of what Bryan Colangelo is describing as an experiment.

For the most part, Noel has been a good soldier in the past about such experimentation, with his defensively versatility almost working against him. Nerlens Noel was asked to defend the perimeter while guys like Furkan Aldemir, Henry Sims, and Jahlil Okafor roamed the paint not because it was the best use of his elite defensive abilities, but because he had the versatility to attempt to do so, a drop in production that was an almost perverse reward for his undeniably unique physical gifts. It seems Noel is done making those compromises.

“I think the perfect future for me is to be in a position where I’m utilized to the best of my abilities and to be on the court for a duration of the game to be able to show what I’m capable of,” Noel said, seemingly making references to both playing his natural position and to getting adequate playing time. “I think I can contribute to a winning program. I just have to be on the court.”

Colangelo, on the other hand, is very much in a wait-and-see mode.

“We have a lot of time for things to work out. Some of it will happen in the preseason, some of it will happen in the regular season, but I don’t feel like we’re up against any kind of deadline of any sort,” Colangelo said about entering the season with three centers. ” The hardest workers will be rewarded, and I think that’s a good thing.

“These are all young players not in a position necessarily to dictate circumstances other than through hard work and effort,” Colangelo continued, with a statement that had some truth to it, even if you wonder how effectively it will be received. “We hope that everyone’s in the same mindset in terms of trying to not only get better as individual players but get better [as a team], and that will factor into the thoughts on how we formulate the roster.”

That wait-and-see stance is one Noel can’t see eye-to-eye with.

“Wait and see? I can’t say I do really understand that,” Noel said. “I just don’t think it makes too much sense to come into the season with such a heavy lineup at the center position. I don’t know what there is to wait and see.”

The Sixers will begin training camp today, with the hope that bouncing balls and squeaking sneakers will drown out the tension that has the chance of becoming a legitimate distraction. It won’t. Not with how competing the two goals are between the major players in this situation.

Colangelo hopes to keep his young big men around until he has a better idea of who to move forward with, or at least until something happens to force a team into giving him something he perceives as being close to fair value. Both of those will take time. Noel, on the other hand, has only a finite amount of time left before the league has to make a declaration of his growth as a player and his value to a franchise, and he knows he’s not in a position to showcase that right now.

Those two goals aren’t likely to be met in the short term. You just hope Colangelo and Noel get better at diffusing the situation as much as possible.

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