The Philadelphia 76ers Crowded Frontcourt, Leverage, and You

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

While it seems like the Philadelphia 76ers’ crowded frontcourt necessitates an imminent trade, GM Bryan Colangelo would be wise to exercise patience.

The Philadelphia 76ers crowded frontcourt has been discussed ad nauseum. Divisive camps have been formed; trenches have been dug with novel-length twitter feeds. Joel Embiid workout videos keep appearing. Cryptic Nerlens Noel tweets have sent us all into a frenzy. And while it seems like the inevitable cents for a dollar trade is right around the corner, general manager Bryan Colangelo has exercised patience and restraint; Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel remain on the roster with no imminent trade on the horizon.

Eventually, one of the two will have to be traded. Colangelo knows this, the league knows this, my mom knows this, and it’s killing Colangelo’s leverage. While it behooves Sixers’ fans sanity to move one of the big men before the start of the season, it’s not the most opportune time to get maximum return for their value.

Context is everything, and the 2015-2016 Philadelphia 76ers team was not the best incubator for developing trade value for the two young centers they would eventually have to decide between. The team won a measly 10 games with one of the worst rosters in NBA history. Both Okafor and Noel were part of a failed comedic experiment — they shared 696 minutes in the frontcourt (which drew Noel away from his one elite skill, guarding the paint, and crowded Okafor on offense for his one elite skill, getting buckets).

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The point guards were given the responsibility of initiating the offense, setting up lobs, and feeding the frontcourt entry passes throughout the season. They were the murderer’s row of Isaiah Canaan, Kendall Marshall, T.J. McConnell, and Ish Smith. To top it off, Okafor was involved in multiple off-the-court incidents and his rookie season ended 22 games early to a meniscus tear in his right knee, putting into question his character and his health in an offseason where he was inevitably going to be shopped around the league.

Trading away two burgeoning prospects (Noel is 22 and Okafor is 20) at the nadir of their trade value seems unwise, but this is the situation Colangelo inherited, and it seems like a near-impossible task to increase their trade value with enough minutes while putting them in the best possible situation to succeed on the basketball court (Also, Joel Embiid would like a word with some minutes).

At the end of the day, if all three remain healthy and on the roster by opening night, there aren’t nearly enough minutes to go around. No matter how you look at it, the math isn’t pretty, and it’s tough to ask second and third year players to take a minutes reduction.

If that’s not enough, the league is trending to more perimeter-oriented players and the center market is oversaturated. The center of Jahlil Okafor’s ilk doesn’t possess the league-wide trade value he would have commanded just a few years ago. Teams looking to fill holes in their frontcourt already used their abundance of cap space to solve their problems, finding it more productive to use cap space on serviceable big men than trade valuable assets for a position declining in value.

Finding equal value for Noel and Okafor’s talent is a fool’s errand in this NBA climate — there’s simply no demand for them. It’s looking more and more likely that the Sixers may roll the ball out opening night with Embiid, Noel, and Okafor all on the roster.

There’s an element of risk in letting this season play out in such a scenario. How willing are you to further disrupt chemistry on a roster desperate for stability? How detrimental will a minutes-reduction be to Okafor and Noel’s trade value? How significantly do you increase Embiid’s minutes at the cost of showcasing Okafor and Noel to the league — and at what point do you make a roster decision based on confidence in Embiid’s health?

Even if the center of yesteryear is trending downwards across the league—to zig with the rest of the league by selling your asset at its lowest value has its risks too.

Sure, there’s risk in cutting back minutes from players you’re trying to showcase to the league, but if the underwhelming offers that were reported this summer are to be believed, the potential loss in trade value from staying pat is nothing to lose sleep over. Even if the center of yesteryear is trending downwards across the league — to zig with the rest of the league by selling your asset at its lowest value has its risks too.

Colangelo could be taking a big loss on two young, high-level prospects that have yet to demonstrate their strengths in a situation that enables, rather than restricts, their abilities. Settling for an offer after a season that plummeted Noel and Okafor’s trade value is the kind of vanilla, predictable move that favors short-term gain over long-term reward — an idea that Process Trusters are all too familiar with.

There’s reason for optimism to gain back leverage on the rest of the league with the crowded frontcourt. Help is on the way. Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless, and Sergio Rodriguez all provide better passing and offensive stability than the 2015-2016 roster we shall not speak of.

The failed experiment is over — Brown will hopefully quarantine Noel and Okafor from each other while the other is on the court, allowing them to maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses with lineups capable of doing just that. An offseason of development for two young centers is crucial at their age — improvements and undeveloped skills can still be learned. At the end of the day, these are professionals — Noel is playing for a contract and Okafor is trying to recalibrate his reputation as a character guy. Even if their traditional per-game numbers shrink from fewer minutes, their efficiency should improve and the wins will follow.

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The Sixers are still at a point where wins largely don’t matter — staying flexible, patient, and hopefully winning back a modicum of leverage is still possible. The downside of patience –depreciating trade value from Noel and Okafor — is less detrimental than the upside of waiting for the opportune moment. Patience allows a multitude of variables from the rest of the league to play out, and the Sixers could benefit.

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Patience and process have been the foundation of Sixers’ fans collective sanity (and ruthlessness) for over three years now. Sam Hinkie’s shadow looms large over the future of the franchise, and it’s up to Colangelo to maneuver the chess pieces of the frontcourt from a strategic disadvantage. Patience is a virtue Colangelo and Sixers fans shouldn’t abandon now — let’s hope the payoff is worth the wait.