76ers Musings: Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid Lineups Aren’t Working

Is the Sixers lineup featuring Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor working? Should the Sixers continue on with the experiment?

Lineups with both Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid on the court have struggled so far | Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Lineups with both Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid on the court have struggled so far | Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers are in the midst of their annual winter road trip, spoiling a pair of golden opportunities with close losses to Phoenix Suns (123-116) and Sacramento Kings (102-100) to begin their trip.

They’re also in the middle of yet another lineup experiment, trying out the a frontcourt pairing of Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor in the starting lineup over the past six games. That lineup, its effectiveness, and whether the Sixers should continue with the experiment going forward will be the focus of this week’s 76ers musings column.

Lineups with Embiid and Okafor haven’t been competitive defensively
Sixers head coach Brett Brown started the twin towers experiment December 14th against the Toronto Raptors when he replaced Ersan Ilyasova in the starting lineup with Jahlil Okafor.

Since then, Embiid and Okafor have shared the court for a total of 65 minutes, yielding some staggeringly bad defensive results in the process. The Sixers have given up an average of 122.3 points per 100 possessions when the two have been on the court at the same time.

What’s perhaps even more disconcerting is that the vast majority of those minutes (55 out of 65 minutes played) have come with the starting lineup, with Embiid and Okafor joined by Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, and Robert Covington in a lineup that has otherwise performed well together defensively.

On the season lineups with Rodriguez, Henderson, Covington, and Embiid have given up 98.3 points per 100 possessions. That includes just 97.1 points per 100 possessions in 97 minutes when Ilyasova’s been the 5th man on the floor, 84.1 points per 100 possessions in the 78 minutes Dario Saric has joined them, and a disastrous 122.3 points per 100 possessions in the 58 minutes (55 of which have come in the last 2 weeks) Okafor has been the final piece of the puzzle.

None of that is to suggest that Ersan Ilyasova or Dario Saric are the missing pieces necessary to build one of the best defensive teams in the league, of course. But Joel Embiid has been playing at the level of a dominant defensive anchor, something which seems absolutely absurd for someone who is 21 games into his NBA career and played his first game of organized basketball roughly 5 years ago. Pulling Embiid away from the basket has had drastic, but predictable, consequences on his impact on the defensive side of the court, and that’s a concern that isn’t likely to go away.

The defensive numbers have been down virtually across the board, in ways that seem entirely predictable. The team struggles on the defensive glass when Embiid is chasing guys on the perimeter, hauling in just 73.8 percent of their available defensive rebounds. Opponents are more effective in the paint, and overall from the field, as they shoot 50.5 percent from the field and 48.8 percent from three-point range against Embiid/Okafor lineups. And the Sixers force far fewer turnovers with both big men on the court, which has an adverse effect on both the defensive and an offensive production of a team that continues to struggle to generate easy transition opportunities.

All of that is in stark contrast to the defensive identity the team has been able to form with Embiid at center.

Lineups with Embiid, Covington, Henderson, and Rodriguez

Opponent ProductionPer 48 minutes
PFMinsFG%3pt%TO%FB PtsPts in Paint2nd Chance Pts
(How the Sixers starting lineup has been performed with various big men playing alongside Joel Embiid. The worst ranking for each category is highlighted in red)

It’s still relatively early in the experimentation process, with Embiid and Okafor sharing the court for a minuscule 65 minutes of playing time since Brown switched the starting lineup, but the early results have confirmed the fears many had about pulling Embiid away from the hoop to accommodate a poor team defender in Okafor.

It still doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to abort the experiment, as there are still a number of teams in the upcoming schedule (Jazz, Wolves, Celtics, Nets, Grizzlies) that start frontcourts with two at least semi-traditional big men. If there was a time to experiment this is still it, and, truth be told, if the experiment runs into mid-January it’s not the end of the world.

4 weeks of experimentation rather than 2 isn’t going to stunt Joel Embiid’s long-term development, it isn’t going to do (further) irreparable damage to Nerlens Noel‘s trade value, and it’s certainly not going to cost the Sixers a shot at the playoffs. As painful as the pairing can be to watch at times, and as much as many (myself included) may not believe it’s the future of the team, it’s still a very short-term problem to address.

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest disappointment in the Okafor/Embiid frontcourt. This was a portion of the schedule Brown specifically targeted because it represented the best matchups for the pairing to work, especially defensively. The Nets (24th ranked offense), Pelicans (25th), Suns (22nd), and Kings (18th) all struggle, to varying degrees, to space the floor. Even the good offensive teams the Sixers have faced in that span, such as Toronto, or those they will face in the next few days, like Minnesota, feature a more traditional frontcourt that shouldn’t put too much stress both Sixers’ big men, at least compared to true pace-and-space teams like Golden State or Houston, where such a pairing would be completely untenable.

It’s that those poor defensive performances have come against sub-par offensive teams, who struggle to space the court, which is the real disappointment.

(Note: this article hasn’t even touched on the offensive production of the lineup, which has been bad as well, although at least that has been in the ballpark of respectability).

Have we lost our stomach for experimentation?
In the past, the Sixers fan base has embraced low-probability experiments with open arms. From the Michael Carter-Williams / Tony Wroten two point guard (and no jump shooting) lineup, to Henry Sims starting alongside Nerlens Noel as a precursor of what was supposed to be a Noel/Embiid frontcourt pairing*, to Okafor and Noel playing alongside each other for much of last year despite obvious contrasting styles of play and marginalization of skill sets.

(* 20 months later and the Noel/Embiid pairing, which former general manager Sam Hinkie dubbed as “violence at the rim”, has played a grand total of 1.8 minutes together over the course of their careers. The best-laid plans of mice and men, as one might say).

Each of those experiments had obvious reasons why they wouldn’t work out, yet the fan base never had quite the same visceral reaction against them that many have had towards the Embiid/Okafor pairing thus far. Which brings up a relatively obvious question: why?

The most simple explanation is because few expect it to work. And hey, I’m right there with you. Yet a 6 game, 65 minute sample size is almost never enough to prove a hypothesis (even if the reasons for those dreadful numbers can be backed up by observation and sound basketball philosophy), and the risk to extending this experiment out another week or two has been vastly overstated. You’re not going to force Embiid into bad habits because of an extra week. You’re not going to torpedo Noel’s trade value any more than it already is, and if he enters the regular rotation on January 14th instead of December 29th he’s still going to have plenty of time to prove he’s healthy before the trade deadline.

There’s also the fact that you have this one known (healthy) building block in Embiid, and you want to see him in his natural role and environment. And I get that. Long-term, I absolutely agree. Moving an elite interior defender, one of the few who can truly carry a team on his back defensively, away from rim and out of the paint isn’t the way to maximize that which can make you unique. But, again, if Embiid picks that role back up in mid-January or early-February (after undergoing a similar experiment with Noel), long-term damage isn’t done.

Really, to me, what it comes down to is fatigue. Bad-basketball-watching fatigue, Jahlil Okafor fatigue, experimentation fatigue. I get all of that. I really do. The defense, which has performed well at various times over the past 3 years when it’s been anchored by both Noel and Embiid at center, has never, at any point, performed at a competitive level with Okafor on the court. The trend has been pretty clear, and it’s been tough to watch, and it gets tougher to watch with each passing day.

And head coach Brett Brown already appears to be growing weary of the experiment himself, or at least desperate enough to get a win to temporarily curtail it. After averaging 16.5 minutes per game playing together in the first two games of this six-game experiment Brown has given them just 8 minutes per game since, including just 4 minutes in Monday night’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, which included Brown diverting back to the Ilyasova/Embiid pairing to start the second half.

Whether or not that’s a temporary switch or the new norm we won’t know right away, since Embiid is sitting out tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz due to rest, as the Sixers will play Denver Friday night in the tail end of a back-to-back.

But the same principles on why you would want to apply a level of experimentation to previous seasons still exist. When Brown and president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo embarked on this experiment, 6 games and 65 minutes played was the absolute bare-minimum they would experiment for. If they continue to run the lineup out there and subject you to bad basketball, it’s likely not incompetence which is the driving factor, but instead a desire for more data to make a decision. Whether that data leads them to suggest a potential future pairing is possible or to prove a negative, it has value either way.

There’s something to be said to rushing to a decision when you can beat the market to an evaluation, such as when Hinkie and his team sold high on Michael Carter-Williams. That’s not the case here. That sell-high boat already departed months ago.

Robert Covington cutting off the ball
It’s no secret that Robert Covington has struggled from the perimeter so far this season. A career 36.3 percent three-point shooter heading into the season Covington has connected on just 29.1 percent of his 158 three-point attempts so far this year.

That’s started to turn around for Covington of late, who is shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three-point range over his last 13 games.

Still, even that’s not up to what we expect of Covington from the perimeter, but he’s offset that in a number of ways.

First, his defense, which has been steadily improving over his three years with the Sixers, has now improved to the point where he is legitimately one of the better wing defenders in the league. Covington’s always had the quick-twitch reflexes and hand-eye coordination necessary to force turnovers, and over time he’s become one of the better pick and roll defenders and has an increased awareness as a help defender. Overall, he’s developed into an extremely consistent perimeter defender.

His +2.19 defensive RPM is 4th among small forwards, his +1.3 defensive box plus-minus is 2nd among Sixers regulars, and the Sixers’ defense is 3.5 points per 100 possessions better when he’s been on the court this season.

On top of that, Covington has done a much better job of making cuts off the ball, especially in recent weeks. According to NBA.com’s “Player Tracking” stats, cuts off the ball now account for 9.3 percent of Covington’s offensive possessions, which jumps up to 11.8 percent of his half-court possessions. That’s in rather stark contrast to Covington’s previous two seasons, where off-the-ball cuts accounted for just 4.8 percent of his half-court possessions.

That has been big for Covington, who is not a natural shot-creator with his own dribble, and replacing those high-turnover, low-percentage dribble drives with economical cuts to the basket should help his efficiency, and if it continues would allow him to maintain his offensive effectiveness just a little bit better when his jump shot isn’t falling.

Covington shot just 43.7 percent from two point range over his first two years in Philadelphia but is shooting 47 percent inside the arc this season. Over his last 13 games he’s been especially effective inside the arc, making 55.7 percent of his two-point shots. This has made him less reliant on the three-ball, which has accounted for just 51.6 percent of his field goal attempts over that span.

Time Period2pt FG%% of FGA From 3
Last 13 games55.7%51.6%

Combine all of that — improving defense, better recognition cutting off the ball, better effectiveness inside the arc, and less reliance on the three-point shot — and perhaps this is the making of a more consistent Robert Covington.

Ooooh boy the West stinks – Draft Pick Updates
In previous Likes and Dislikes columns we told you not to worry too much about the Lakers unexpectedly hot start to the season. The Lakers may have jumped out to a 7-5 start but their defense was still horrifically bad, other teams were just missing open shots, and that was eventually going to catch up to them.

Boy has that turned out to be true.

The Lakers have lost 13 of their last 15 games (worst record in the league over the last 15 games), giving up 113.1 points per 100 possessions (worst in the league), while allowing teams to make 11.1 three-point shots per game (3rd worst) at a 38.8 percent clip (5th worst) over that span. As of now, the Lakers have the 7th worst record in the league, an incredible spot for the Sixers to be in considering the strength of this draft class.

On the downside, the race for the 8th seed in the West stinks. In fact, the Kings — who the Sixers have the right to swap picks with if the Kings pick falls in the top-10 and ends up better than the Sixers’ own pick after the lottery — would make the playoffs if the season ended today, despite the fact that Sacramento has a woeful 14-18 record.

The collapse of the Portland Trailblazers, who won 44 games last season, is the primary reason for this vacancy. The Blazers, one of the most disappointing teams in the league, are 14-20 on the season and have won just 2 of their last 10 games.

That shouldn’t be a problem for the Lakers, who are a solid 3.5 games out of the playoffs and playing horrendous basketball. It likely won’t be a problem with the Kings, either, especially if Portland can figure out some of their (serious) defensive woes. But it’s something to keep an eye on because there’s only one win separating the Pelicans (who currently slot in at the 9th best lottery odds) and Kings, who would send the 15th pick to Chicago if the season ended today.

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