Philadelphia 76ers' center dilemma harks back to Chicago's big mistake
In the summer of 2005, John Paxson and the Chicago Bulls found themselves in a bind.
Paxson had inherited from his predecessor Jerry Krause the young big man pairing of Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, and with that pairing came an obligation to have that duo be the foundation of any short, medium and long-term futures for the franchise. Elton Brand, a #4 pick and many years of poor performance had been spent on acquiring them, and the Bulls were riding on the success of that duo as the future – serious injuries to Marcus Fizer and Jamal Crawford, plus the career ending accident of Jay Williams, rather confirmed their importance. Chandler and Curry represented the best chance of an exciting future where there had been no present to speak of, and in 2005, they both entered restricted free agency.
Chicago entered that free agency period with a bit of momentum. In the previous season of 2004/05, the Bulls had finally had some success on the court. After a 0-9 start to the season, Scott Skiles’ rotation changes and disciplinarian defensive drills finally started to pay off, and Chicago finished with a 47-35 record (including stretches of 18-4 and 12-1) and their first playoff berth since the Jordan era. They promptly won their first two playoff games against the Washington Wizards, too, and might have won the series had Curry not been ruled out with a serious-looking heart defect.
Chandler, too, entered his first free agency period with some momentum. Stepping up for Curry in the playoffs (albeit while still coming off the bench), Chandler averaged 11.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.2 blocks in only 28.7 minutes per game in the postseason, and while this has gone on to be standard Tyson Chandler fare in the years hence, it was at the time his breakout performance. This followed regular season averages of 8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game – having missed most of the previous season with a back injury caused by an accident with a chair, and visibly struggling for his usual mobility even when he did play, Chandler that season rebuilt his career and his value - value to both his incumbent franchise and all suitors.
On the other hand, Curry’s value was not as high. Despite his combination of size, agility and deft touch around the basketball being unrivalled in the NBA, and his enticingly high, if flawed, production offensively, the heart defect was a huge black cloud over Curry’s free agency. The Bulls worked to re-sign Curry by offering contracts that provided him with long-term financial security if the heart defect proved to be the end of his career, but Curry rejected that and wanted to be traded to New York. After protracted negotiations, as announced in a press conference by a visibly rattled and frustrated Paxson, Curry eventually got his wish.
Both the Chandler and Curry sagas took up the whole offseason. Chandler eventually re-signed to a big-money deal, but not until September 21, two weeks before training camp. (In an era with next-to-no big free agency movement, Chandler did not exactly have many other suitors, bar some interest from the then-poor Atlanta Hawks. Chicago were essentially bidding against themselves. Yet while this should have conveyed onto them great leverage, Chandler, and his team did not make it easy.) Because of the heart defect and the permutations and negotiations of that, Curry’s trade to New York was not done until two weeks after Chandler’s already-late signing, the rare October trade. And with Curry, the lack of suitors, lost leverage, subsequent fall-out and worrying heart problems meant that the Bulls traded from a position born out of exasperation on a player on whom they were once so high.
Indeed, the Bulls have always traded low. A couple of years later, when the marquee free agent signing of Ben Wallace didn’t work out, they traded his contract when it still had more than half of its life to run and managed only a particularly despondent Larry Hughes and the striking inconsistency of Drew Gooden in return. When Jamal Crawford had hit free agency the year before, despite a 50-point performance, the Bulls found they had only one suitor via sign-and-trade and returned a mishmash of parts (the ultimate haul being Adrian Griffin, Eric Piatkowski, Othella Harrington, Mike Wilks and Frank Williams) for he and Jerome Williams. A persistence in trading low and a reluctance to trade high has arguably cost them true title contention at any stage throughout the Paxson era.
And then, of course, Chandler himself was traded low. One year after his free agency saga, and after a serious regression in his performance due at least in part to how long it took to re-sign him (Chandler was visibly out of shape to start 2005-06, and seemingly hadn’t shot a free throw in five months), he was dealt for the expiring contract of P.J. Brown and the unwanted J.R. Smith, who himself was immediately dealt merely for second round draft picks that become Aaron Gray and Jameson Curry. The Bulls have long done well in acquiring talent via the draft, but not so well at moving it on again, their once prized star young centre being nothing less than salary dumped.
Also significant here was the role Chandler and Curry actually played in that 2004/05 team. They were a part of it, but they were not a pairing. Almost always, Curry started the game alongside the veteran Antonio Davis, and Chandler routinely subbed in for Curry after a few minutes. Chandler and Curry played only a few hundred minutes together all season, with Davis or fellow vet Harrington providing the power forward tandem, and they only started the game together nine times – all of which formed the aforementioned 0-9 start. They were a platoon, not a pair.
The dream pairing had thus essentially by then become a choice. And in trading both one year apart, the Bulls eventually chose neither.
Right now, the Philadelphia 76ers sport three centres. Three young centres at that, and three truly talented centres.
This is a known issue. They have three centres in a league where some are trying to go without any, which leaves them in a position of both strength and weakness – strength because they have something pretty much unprecedented, weakness because they need to do something about it and everyone else knows it.
Of the three, Nerlens Noel is the furthest along in his career. Technically a three-year veteran despite missing his first season due to injury, Noel has 4,276 NBA minutes under his belt, compared to Jahlil Okafor’s 1591, and Joel Embiid’s zero. In that time, Noel has proven some quality.
Tall, long and athletic, Noel’s physical profile was tailor-made for the NBA, and he has already grown into being an exceptional defensive presence. With his length and athleticism to go with his instincts and timing, Noel is a pest when contesting around the paint (allowing only 44.9 percent shooting at the basket); with those same tools plus some foot speed, he can check opponents in perimeter pick-and-roll action.
While his ability to create offence is minimal, his potential as a finisher is there, especially if paired with a better team and guard play that can better utilise him in both pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets, along with an improved free throw stroke and jump shot.
Behind him, Okafor is the scorer, and Embiid is the great unknown. Okafor’s offensive repertoire and touch would have seen him labelled with Hakeem Olajuwon-level potential had he come around at the same time as Eddy Curry did – Curry, remember, was the next Shaq, despite being a finesse player with few moves and no desire to rebound or defend or play powerfully. Embiid, meanwhile, really does have that Olajuwon level of potential, if he can stay healthy. (Perhaps the past tense may be more suited for him here, given that he has missed the best part of three straight years. That potential may have gone now. We’ll have to wait and see.)
There is no real scope for pairing two of the three centres together. It could be forced, of course, and last year it often was. But just as forcing Chandler and Curry together was never suited to work, nor would this. A combination of any two of the three diminishes spacing and puts the team at an unnecessary disadvantage when matching up defensively – moreover, with the arrivals this summer of Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, at least one of whom can be written with pen into the power forward rotation for the next seven years, there is no need to force anything.
Position-less basketball is the modern ideal, but positions remain, and the centre position remains above all others. Someone has to stand at the basket, but not some two.
Someone has to go, then. Indeed, in the medium term, maybe two of them do. Regardless, with three players in each other’s way, someone has to go in order to free up the opportunity for others. [It is generously assumed here that Embiid’s health problems are behind him.]
The rumour mill points to the likely departee as being either Noel or Okafor. Having both played last season, played fairly well (certainly Noel more than Okafor) and been relatively healthy (the relative point of comparison here being Embiid), the Sixers should be able to return more for those two in trade than they could for Embiid.
However, this is especially true of one in particular. By having so much young and (for now) cheap talent, the opportunity is there to theoretically trade high. Trading high is forever important. And yet despite being the ones with the cheap young talents, the only way that the Sixers will be trading from a position of strength will be if they trade Noel.
There are of course two massive reasons why Embiid will not be the player dealt. The first of these is the fact that despite two seasons of NBA “experience” under his belt, he has yet to play a single minute due to myriad serious injuries. And the second of these is that, if ever the injuries go away, he should be the best player of the three. It has been overshadowed by the injuries just how good Embiid looked at his time at Kansas, on both ends of the floor. The Sixers need him to start realising that brilliance for them – trading low without ever even having the chance to get something from his talents would be foolhardy.
Okafor’s rookie season did have some bumps along the way – missing 29 games due to injury, some off-court issues and the dispirited nature of his defensive play– yet he still showed in that time his gifted offensive game should have little trouble translating at this level, a 17.0 ppg total as a rookie ranking up there with that of almost any rookie centre scoring in league history.
However, any market for Okafor and his once-invaluable interior offensive talent is tempered by his weaknesses and playing style. In a pace-and-space league, Okafor is a player who brings neither of those things nor does he rebound or defend with any enthusiasm. With all this in mind, Okafor runs the risk of becoming the situational, only-effective-if-spoon-fed offensive piece that Curry once was. And Philadelphia cannot move quickly to deal him before this potential reality is known – it already is.
That leaves Noel, whose two years of enticing and effective play and favourable physical/skill set profile have value to almost every other team in the league. Arguably, Noel with a jump shot is the best potential long-term fit alongside Simmons – inarguably, however, Embiid has the best upside, and Noel has the best value in a trade. The Sixers need a defensive lynchpin like him, but so do many teams, and so rarely are there ever any available that this should immediately bestow a premium price upon him.
You could make an argument that the Sixers are so replete with ‘assets’ after their interminable targeting of them under previous general manager Sam Hinkie that they need not gain any more nor worry about accumulating maximum value, and ought to just find the best player. There is some truth to this. But regardless of their asset position at any given moment, every team needs to acquire future assets, no matter how good their present is. And as things stand, the Sixers’ “present” is still theoretical. By the most recent measure we have, they are a 10-72 team.
Getting value in a trade, and trading high, is therefore still a consideration. Just ask Chicago.
It is hereby hoped that the comparisons between the two situations are obvious. Comparisons not just in the franchise’s respective positions, but also in the aesthetics and the individuals. Long, athletic, dynamic and far from fluid offensively, Noel is pretty Chandlery; big, wide, with great touch, some footwork, health problems and attitude concerns, Okafor is pretty Curry-like. (Which by defaults makes Joel Embiid into either Othella Harrington or Lawrence Funderburke.)
Nevertheless, for Philadelphia, the results must not be the same.
Chicago acquired two quality young centres – they really both were this at the time – and hinged their success on the pair’s development. They tried to pair them up, but circumstances and poor on-court cohesion meant that ultimately they had to choose one from two. The two entered free agency, one with momentum and the opportunity to sell high, and one without it on whom they would inevitably sell low. Eventually, though, they traded low twice, and while it is certainly not for nothing that the Curry trade actually proved to be a relative boon (yielding the #2 pick in the 2006 draft, as well as the option to swap from #23 to #9 the following year and pick up Joakim Noah), the fortune of running into the onslaught of a particularly excitable Isaiah Thomas is not a path open to Philadelphia currently. Chicago’s platoon was inevitable, their need to choose was inescapable, but the loss of both and decisions to trade low certainly were avoidable.
The 76ers, meanwhile, have by and large bypassed the power forward experiment, save for 50 awkward games, and skipped straight to the choices and the platoons. They cannot play two centres together, they do not need three, they arguably do not even need two when talking about players as good as the ones that we may be talking about, and yet they do not know which of the three will be best. All they know is which of the three is currently best.
Hypothetically, Philly could sit on the trio, platoon these players at center, and have a resurgent season catalysed by the additions of Simmons et al and the continued development of the incumbents. They could enter the summer with momentum just as Chicago did, and have Noel hit restricted free agency with momentum just as Chandler did. But if they do that, they will be running away from the problem they will eventually have to tackle anyway. And in doing that, they will lose Noel’s value.
Chicago had to make a choice due to Curry and Chandler’s incompatibility, as well as Curry’s ailment. It all took too long, and leverage was lost. Philadelphia already knows about the incompatibility of their centers and have ailments of their own – if they are to retain the leverage they have, they should move now.
In theory, as far as value goes, Philadelphia as a franchise would benefit the most from trading Noel. As explained above, his value is highest, and value still matters.
However, Philadelphia as a team might not. Despite hopefully demonstrating why he has the most trade value, the above is not an argument for trading Noel. The team so long concerned with asset acquisition, players be damned, is at the juncture at which it should shift gears. This is the time to build, and you build with your best young players. Especially when they are only 22 years old and already receiving Defensive Player of the Year votes.
Whatever happens here, the Sixers are going to be trading from a position of some weakness. So the talent and the cohesion of the talent must win out. They should therefore not trade Noel.
Instead, they should take a likely loss on the value of Okafor, trade relatively low despite this usually being advised against, and keep the better player in Noel. There was no point building up all those assets if they are not used to better the ultimate end product. And even if the usage of the assets in this instance means only using an excess of them as a justification and a mitigating factor in the thought process behind trading low on a potential star and former #3 pick after his rookie campaign, so be it.
Doing so allows Embiid the chance to win his spot, keeps Noel the best player in his best position, balances the team, and along with Simmons and Saric anoints the front court of the future. Half the team, basically, is then in place, and it’s a very good half. If it means a few less future draft pick assets down the road, so be it. And if there truly is anyone out there willing to do in an Okafor trade what Isiah Thomas once did in his trade for the comparable Eddy Curry, even better.
Noel is both the best candidate for trade and the best player, and only a massive resurgence from an unprecedentedly bad start from Embiid can change that second one. With 10 wins and 13 years of mediocrity behind them, being the best player might now matter more.
Noel’s future probably doesn’t lie in Philly. But until such time as Embiid wins it from him on the court, it should. Sam Hinkie famously piled high the assets, but never actually built a team. Bryan Colangelo has to start finally building that team, and keeping his best big man should be a part of it.