76ers Musings: Can An Okafor And Embiid Lineup Work?

Can the 76ers buck the small-ball trend that dominates today's NBA by pairing Jahlil Okafor alongside Joel Embiid?

Can the 76ers play Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid at the same time? | Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Can the 76ers play Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid at the same time? | Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue our 76ers musings column, where we focus on a couple of (relatively) quick-hitting thoughts on topics being discussed about the Philadelphia 76ers.

You can read previous entries in the “Sixers Musings” series here.

Can an Okafor and Embiid lineup work?
The 76ers preseason finally provided Sixers fans something they hadn’t yet seen from the team: Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid playing in the same game.

With that said, head coach Brett Brown didn’t have the two of them in the game at the same time for a single minute in Friday’s preseason finale, as both Embiid (18 minutes) and Okafor (8 minutes) were on fairly heavy minutes restrictions as they return from their respective injuries. This may continue to be the case over the first couple of weeks of the season as the two big men work themselves back into game shape, but down the line it will be virtually impossible to not play them together for a substantial amount of time.

Is that a pairing that could be viable long term?

The thought of Embiid and Okafor working off of each other on the offensive side of the court is at least an interesting thought experiment, even if one that still has considerable question marks surrounding its long-term viability, and is far more interesting than the Okafor/Noel duo that failed to be effective last season. The Sixers managed just 88.8 points per 100 possessions when Okafor and Noel shared the floor. For perspective, the worst non-Sixers team last year clocked in at 98.6 points scored per 100 possessions. Since Noel could neither space the floor for Okafor to operate down low nor punish teams when Noel had a size mismatch himself, the two were a less-than-ideal (understatement alert) offensive pairing.

The Embiid and Okafor pairing presents a slightly different situation. Few teams in this day and age will have two big men in their preferred lineups who are capable of defending the post, and one of those two having a decided advantage on the block seems as if it would be a regular occurrence. Find the mismatch, attack the weak defender, and let whichever of Embiid or Okafor has the mismatch go to work, right?

To some degree, yes. However over the last 10-or-so years the NBA has moved away from seeking out mismatches to coaches instead seeking out space, of the belief that an open shot is better than a contested shot, even if it is from your best player. With how easy it is to double down in the post, floor spacing and movement would be imperative for Okafor and Embiid to have success attacking mismatches down low. The Sixers right now have a poor collection of talent to run this watered down version of a 90’s-style offensive system, without the shooting, movement, or the recognition borne out of experience to really be successful in the short term.

The short term is, of course, not a problem. The Sixers will not be evaluating the merits of an Okafor/Embiid pairing for this year, but instead evaluating whether it is viable in five years when the team hopes to be legitimately contending, and have more legitimate perimeter talent.

But a large part of the floor spacing concerns come from Okafor and Embiid themselves. Yes, Okafor showed some promise in his jump shot last year, perhaps more than was expected, but his development into a big who can actually stretch the floor and pull a defender out of the paint is still very much in doubt, as Okafor shot just 27.2 percent on shots of 15-feet or more last year. And for as much as Okafor’s offensive output improved after the signing of Ish Smith, he still shot just 29.3 percent on those same shots after the trade and just 27.8 percent in February, his last month of play.

Even just making the shot at a respectable clip may not be enough for Okafor to truly stretch the floor enough to give Embiid room to operate. Okafor has a very slow, station-to-station release that almost has timing ticks built into it, and isn’t quick in his decision making on when to let the jump shot fly. Defenders aren’t going to have second thoughts on doubling Embiid down low if Okafor his going to pause to survey the court every time the ball is kicked out, then follow it up with a slow shooting motion that gives defenders confidence in their ability to recover back out and contest Okafor’s already low percentage shot. It’s not just enough for Okafor to develop 17-to-20-foot respectability on his jump shot, but he has to improve the speed of both his release and decision making so defenders have to legitimately worry about giving him space. That’s far from a foregone conclusion.

Embiid, on the other hand, does show the ability to shoot from the perimeter and already has guys afraid to leave him from that distance. But is that really what you want to relegate Embiid to? Despite the 2.5 year layoff, Embiid already shows flashes of being dominant down low. You want him rolling to the basket on pick and rolls, crashing the offensive glass, cutting off the ball, and posting up. You want him on the move in the paint as much as possible, and if you do that he’s going to live at the foul line. Any offensive possession where you’ve relegated Embiid to standing in the corner is a lost offensive possession. The Sixers need a complementary star who has the skills to make Embiid better, not limit his offensive role.

The challenge for the big-big Embiid/Okafor pairing isn’t whether you can get Okafor exploitable offensive mismatches, but whether it’s worth losing out on the opportunity cost of what Embiid, when surrounded by optimal teammates, can do in the paint, and then whether whatever positive outcome that equation yields is enough to then overcome what you’re losing defensively by having Okafor defend power forwards.

And make no mistake about it, the defensive side of the court is where the biggest questions will come, and it’s also where the least amount of long-term optimism resides. The Sixers spent the first half of Okafor’s rookie season keeping the Duke big man near the basket, instead asking Nerlens Noel to defend the power forward spot and re-train his instincts to defend the perimeter, a transition that even the uniquely gifted Noel struggled with.

Forcing Embiid into that perimeter role defensively makes even less sense. While Noel is a fantastically diverse defensive player capable of both patrolling the paint while also switching anything and everything on the perimeter, his lack of strength and bulk does crop up from time to time as exploitable weaknesses against physical post-scoring presences, and Embiid has the strength and physical mindset to not only deal with that, but also dominate the defensive glass in a way that Noel doesn’t. Moving Embiid to the perimeter defensively, even if he has shown flashes of being able to move his feet at an elite level for somebody of his size, isn’t a win in any book.

Instead you’re going to ask Okafor to defend the perimeter, where he’ll be put in more pick-and-roll situations, run off of more screens, and defend more perimeter oriented big men than he has at any point in his career, something that he’s never really shown the capability of doing. Yes, Okafor appears to have lost some weight, but fleetness of foot isn’t always directly tied to body fat percentage, and perimeter awareness and decisiveness most certainly are not. I’m very much in a “prove it” state with regards to Okafor’s defensive contributions.

Brett Brown has been relatively non-committal about how he will handle his big men going forward. He has stated that the Okafor/Embiid pairing won’t start together at the beginning of the season, and has also said he wasn’t sure whether they would start when both have their minutes restrictions lifted. He has, instead, spoken highly of how having Dario Saric‘s perimeter game next to Embiid opens up his offense.

There’s also the long-term reality of Ben Simmons returning, which could be as early as January. Simmons will likely get a large bulk of his minutes at the power forward spot defensively and is going to want to slash his way to the hoop, navigate pick and rolls, and find his teammates when the defense collapses. That all becomes much more difficult to do when there’s two traditional, post-oriented big men sharing the court, and that would turn Joel Embiid into more of a stretch-5 as the only frontcourt player capable of creating any space whatsoever, once again minimizing Embiid’s contributions.

Brown seems to have the right idea, which is to bring Okafor primarily off the bench as Embiid’s backup, then utilize the Embiid/Okafor pairing from time to time when the matchups dictate. “It’s all (situational),” Brown said about the pairing during Okafor’s first practice since training camp. “There’s no book that tells you how to do it. It’s going to be a gut feel.”

If the pairing works, great, increase the time they spend on the court together. If not, things could get interesting. There’s been a lot of research that post-scoring big men, who are limited in other facets of the game, can be best utilized off the bench and attacking specific matchups. But it’s one thing for Okafor to accept this role in year two of his career, after coming off an injury plagued season that was disappointing off the court, and when being eased back into the lineup. But would Okafor be accepting of this role in two years, when he’s coming into a contract year, when he thinks he’s shown enough to start and log 30+ minutes per game? That’s the real question. Because (health permitting) Embiid and Simmons are the guys you’re looking to build your team around, and finding a way to bring out the best in them is the priority when constructing the rest of the roster.

Sixers interested in Tyus Jones?
Multiple reports have come out over the weekend that the Sixers and Wolves are in discussion about a deal that could bring Tyus Jones to the 76ers. What the Sixers would be sending out in return if a deal is in fact completed has not yet been clarified.

With Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless currently out of the lineup, and Sergio Rodriguez struggling to make the transition to the NBA, the Sixers point guard play is once again an area of concern, with Brown not yet ready to announce who will start in Wednesday’s regular season opener.

Jones, 20, was the 24th pick in the 2015 NBA draft and a teammate of Okafor’s during their national championship run at Duke. His rookie season was a struggle, however, as he shot just 35.9 percent from the field in 37 appearances for the Wolves, appearing in just over 15 minutes per contest.

Jones would give the Sixers another player that prefers to operate out of pick and roll sets and, in theory, one whose shooting would give the Sixers a slightly different look than Sergio Rodriguez’s dazzling passes and creativity. That is mostly theoretical, however, as Jones shot just 31.7 percent when he shot off of pick and rolls, a terrible number for a play type that is typically relatively efficient in nature. Jones has terrific feel for the game and makes good decisions with the ball, and has shown that he can hit an open catch and shoot jumper, something that is important when Ben Simmons does return.

That being said, Jones looked physically overmatched at times last year. He doesn’t have great size for the position and isn’t an explosive athlete to overcome that, and struggled to such a degree both in finishing at the rim and keeping players in front of him defensively that projecting him as more than a backup down the line is difficult to do right now.

Whether or not acquiring Jones makes sense largely comes down to the cost of acquisition. Minnesota is deep, and young, at the point guard spot, so the cost shouldn’t be too high. But giving up much for Jones to be the fourth backup-level point guard on the roster, and to fix a very temporary problem (Simmons will run most of the offense when he gets back), and when the 2017 draft should feature an incredible point guard class, would be a mistake.

Elton Brand retires
The 76ers formally waived Elton Brand today, bringing their roster down to 19. Brand announced last week that he would retire at the end of the preseason.

The 76ers have to trim the roster down to the regular season limit of 15 on Monday.

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