Philadelphia 76ers: Who should back up Joel Embiid?

Boban Marjanovic, Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Boban Marjanovic, Joel Embiid | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Brett Brown has a very important decision to make in these playoffs: who backs up Joel Embiid? The Philadelphia 76ers’ backup centers have different strengths and weaknesses. Brown has to decide which trade-off he is willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.

This article features the combined efforts of Austin Krell and Jack Duffy.

Austin Krell (@AKrell_sports)

Now that Elton Brand has armed Brett Brown with an arsenal of weapons to bolster his team for the postseason, Brown is in a position that he is not used to — the Philadelphia 76ers more than enough talent to work with. It would seem that the only task he has left is to find the right way to utilize each of his starters so that they develop chemistry and play well together.

With a 23-point win in Game 2 against the Nets on Monday, it would seem he has found the remedy for the pesky Nets. All is good now, right? The team is ready for a deep playoff run, right? Well, not exactly. There is one more decision to make, and it is not an easy one. Who should he call upon to spell Joel Embiid for the remainder of these playoffs?

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With Amir Johnson seemingly running out of gas, Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe each having their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the backup center minutes. This decision is tricky because their strengths and weaknesses can be traded off for one another.

Marjanovic provides elite rim protection and rebounding on both ends, consistent free-throw line-extended jump shot range, unmatchable size, and historical efficiency on the offensive end (because most of his scoring comes in the paint and is practically unstoppable under the basket with his size and length). However, Marjanovic lacks athleticism, speed, quickness, and agility. While Greg Monroe offers size, post skills, and agility to size-up and attack the rim, he has minimal floor-stretching ability and is inadequate on the defensive end. Having laid out the strengths and weaknesses of each player, let’s go to the film room to make a decision about each potential match-up in the playoffs.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets’ offense is centered around D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert, three guards who like to utilize their speed, ball-handling abilities, and shooting skills to produce. That doesn’t bode well for Marjanovic. While he can protect the rim well against other bigs and some slower or smaller guards, the Nets can use their speed in the pick-and-roll to blow by him and score at the rim with ease. Further, the Sixers’ biggest nightmare with Marjanovic on the court is him switching onto one of the three guards on the perimeter after a screen. Here’s what can happen.

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Here, Dinwiddie sees his matchup and begins to salivate. If Marjanovic backs up to prevent the drive, Dinwiddie  just takes the three. If Marjanovic stays close enough, Dinwiddie can blow right by him. Here, the Nets’ guard uses a quick jab and bursts past Marjanovic for a dunk.

That isn’t the only problem with using Marjanovic. Let’s take a look at what happens in a pick-and-roll with Russell.

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The Sixers have switched on screens all season long. But with Marjanovic switching onto the guard out of the screen, he’s in no man’s land. If he steps up to meet him on the other side, Russell can turn on the jets and burn him for a layup. Rather than give up an uncontested layup, he sags off in order to keep Russell in front of him. The space allows Russell to rise up for an uncontested mid-range jumper.

The more concerning problem is that there is no clear-cut solution to the defensive side with the Sixers’ current options at center. None of Marjanovic, Monroe, and Johnson can keep the Nets’ guards in front of them.

While Marjanovic’s defensive weaknesses play right into the Nets’ biggest strengths on offense, Brooklyn lacks the size to neutralize him on offense. It’s not even necessarily about scoring. Marjanovic’s length enables him to disrupt the defense in a variety of ways. One way is creating second chance opportunities.

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He seems to lose the ball right into Harris’ hands here. But his reach is what even allows it to get to Harris. Marjanovic secures a tough offensive rebound just by sticking out a single arm. Neither Johnson nor Monroe is long enough to consistency create second chance opportunities and Bolden isn’t strong enough to do so.

He’s also impossible to fend off if he actually secures the offensive rebound.

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If Marjanovic exhibits the length and ability to grab an offensive rebound with three defensive players around him, he certainly has the ability to protect the rim against wings and bigs if they’re working around the basket (and not taking him off the dribble).

If the Nets switch their defense from man to zone to protect the rim or hinder cutters, Marjanovic can hurt them with his mid-range game, too–something that neither Johnson nor Monroe have proven they can do with consistency.

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While the Nets’ trio of guards certainly exposes Marjanovic’s weakness, the Nets don’t have the talent around them to force the Sixers to take Marjanovic out of the game. He is currently their best option to back up Embiid in this series.

Toronto Raptors

Just like any opponent as the playoffs advance deeper, the Raptors would present an entirely different set of problems to the Sixers. While they don’t have the guards that Brooklyn has, the Raptors are led by consensus top-10 player Kawhi Leonard. Their entire team is extremely skilled, long, and athletic.

At first thought, Monroe should be considered over Marjanovic primarily because he played half a season with the Raptors a year ago. He knows their system, their players, and their principles well. That could be an advantage for the Sixers. The reality is that this is the perfect storm for the Sixers when it comes to deciding who should back up Embiid.

Every player that Toronto can put in the post is fast enough to get around Marjanovic, and all are long enough and strong enough to make it difficult for him when he’s in the post on offense. Although Monroe is a more attractive option because of his experience with the Raptors, that isn’t the only reason. His combination of footwork, speed, and size makes him a difficult big to defend. Compound that with the fact that he has a few post moves he can use (rather than just the flip shot from Marjanovic), and you’ve got a viable option at center to spell Embiid for 15-20 minutes per game.

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He’s not long like Marjanovic, but he can use his mass and speed to size up defenders on the perimeter and make his way to the paint without too much trouble. On top of that, he has the  agility, footwork, and ball-handling skill to get around a big like Marc Gasol. With his ability to change directions quickly, Monroe can create good looks for himself around the basket.

But wait, it gets better. Monroe offers something that none of the other back-up options can: passing.

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This is an element of versatility and skill that could prove extremely valuable for the Sixers in a second round series against the Raptors. With the size and athleticism to switch onto any of the Sixers’ shooters on the perimeter, it will be difficult to find open opportunities for three-pointers. Monroe can get to the basket, sense what the help defense is doing, and kick it out to an open shooter if the shot is there. The Raptors will adjust on a game-to-game basis if they give up these shots, but it might be enough to help the Sixers win a pivotal game in this series.

If the look isn’t there for a shooter, it very well could be for a cutter.

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Don’t expect the Raptors’ individual defensive fundamentals to be this poor more than a couple of times, but these are just easy looks that will present themselves that the Sixers cannot miss out on.

Monroe’s I.Q. to look for cutters will force the Raptor bigs to drop down to protect the rim in help, opening outside jumpers for the man he’s supposed to be guarding.

While, I do not approve of the following play, it is valuable to have a big who can handle the rock in transition if better options are leaking out for an easy basket off of a defensive rebound.

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Monroe isn’t the defender that Marjanovic is in the paint, but he can thwart an attack at the rim with quick hands.

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Monroe isn’t the rim-protecting post defender that Marjanovic is, but he does have a much more polished offensive game than Marjanovic. Although defense trumps all, Monroe’s offense may be more effective than Marjanovic’s offense in a matchup with the Raptors anyway.

Jack Duffy (@jacckduffy)

Milwaukee and Boston

If the Philadelphia 76ers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, the question at the backup center position reaches new levels of importance. In a seven-game series against elite offensive teams with top-tier head coaches, having defensive liabilities becomes an even bigger issue in the conference finals where coaches will go at that weakness non-stop until that player (Boban Marjanovic or Jonah Bolden) is taken out of the game. That is why in a potential series against these two teams, Boston in particular, finding the right time and scenario to play Bolden and/or Boban will be very difficult.


The Celtics have found great success in running any and all big men off the floor against the Sixers. Boban Marjanvic cannot stay on the floor against Boston, let alone a rookie big in Jonah Bolden. It’s difficult to imagine what the 76ers will end up doing at backup center if they advance this far, not to mention, Joel Embiid has had his biggest defensive struggles against Boston.

During the Eastern Conference Semifinals last May, Joel Embiid was forced to switch his defensive assignment from guarding Al Horford to defending Marcus Morris during the latter part of that series. The Celtics would bring Horford out to the perimeter to go into the pick and roll or pick and pop with a Boston guard, and Embiid would get torched. That along with Horford’s adept ability to put the ball on the floor and become a playmaker for his teammates.

I say all of that to drive the point that if Embiid can’t defend Horford, there is no world where Jonah Bolden and Boban Marjanovic have more success as Embiid. Thus, during a series against Boston, Bobi and Jonah will only get playing time when the Celtics throw out lineups that have Aaron Baynes as the lone big man. Even then those two guys can only stay in the game for four to five-minute stretches. Even with those two in the game, Brad Stevens will still draw Baynes to the perimeter to force the Sixers’ backup bigs to defend the pick and roll.

The solution to this has two roads: One, Ben Simmons and Mike Scott man the backup center position, adapting to the small-ball the Celtics like to play and having much more capable defenders defending the perimeter and pick and roll. Second, throw Boban and Bolden on the floor for a few minutes at a time while Baynes is on the floor without Horford, and leave them out there until you can substitute Ben or Mike Scott to replace them.

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The best option against Boston for the backup center role is a coin flip and depends on the situation. If Horford is still on the floor when Brett Brown subs a big in for Embiid, then I would say Jonah Bolden is a better option than Boban due to Bolden being a better athlete and more capable perimeter defender than the slow seven-foot-three Marjanovic. If Baynes is on the floor than a good match would be Boban due to Aaron Baynes not being a threat putting the ball on the floor, or as a playmaker, so Baynes has more of an interior game that suits the defensive strengths of Boban Marjanovic.


The Milwaukee Bucks have the perfect example of the modern NBA offense under head coach Mike Budenholzer. They have at least four guys on the floor that can knock down three-pointers,  including their center. The Bucks have just that and they tailor their offense to maximize the strengths of MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks have four shooters and one playmaker on the floor at all times when Giannis is out there. The Bucks role for their center on offense (Giannis is sometimes the 5 on defense with a power forward playing the role of the 5 on offense) is that they are always a threat to knock down the three ball with Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova.

An issues that arises when facing an offense where the center is running through screens like a guard is that traditional big men aren’t used to that much movement on the perimeter on defense. Brook Lopez does not move as Al Horford, nor does he have the ability to score off the dribble, so that is an advantage in way of the Sixers’ backup bigs.

In a series against the Bucks, Jonah Bolden would be the choice for backup center. In two games against the Bucks this season, Boban Marjanovic has played just 14 total minutes. Boban’s slow feet were a cause for concern in staying out on the perimeter with Milwaukee’s skilled stretch bigs so Brett Brown turned to Jonah Bolden to take those minutes.

Jonah Bolden has struggled to stay out of foul trouble during his rookie season but most of those fouls have occurred on drives to the basket, not perimeter shots. Jonah is quick enough to run around screens and stay in front of Brook Lopez, Ilyasova, Mirotic, or whoever the Bucks have at center at the time, so I would not imagine seeing him in foul trouble.

Boban is more of a positive on offense than Bolden but defense is half the game and is where coaches will pick you apart in potential mismatches, which Boban creates more of, unfortunately. Bolden played 20 minutes against Milwaukee in their last matchup, racking up six points on 2-3 shooting from beyond the arc to go along with eight rebounds while posting a +1.

An easy solution for a series against the Bucks would just be to have Ben Simmons or Mike Scott out there at the five but if Bolden can stay out there and fend for himself then you may as well do it to conserve the energy of Ben and Scott throughout the course of a series. Especially if Jonah Bolden can consistently knock down the three, then that gives the Sixers even more of an incentive to leave Bolden out there.

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