It wasn’t that long ago that Brett Brown was forced to play Greg Monroe in Toronto for Game 7.
Brown was desperate to get anything out of a backup big. He used Monroe, who was picked up off the street late in the season. He used Boban Marjanovic and Amir Johnson, who were both played off the floor. Jonah Bolden was in the mix as well, but it was a tough spot for the 23-year-old rookie.
GM Elton Brand took over his post in September of last year, well after the team’s offseason moves were made. After that Game 7, he said he “wasn’t afforded that opportunity” to get the depth he would’ve liked — especially at center.
This past offseason was a clear indication that it wasn’t just talk. Brand was aggressive in stealing Al Horford away from the Celtics and signing veteran Kyle O’Quinn as an insurance policy.
Though it was more for the intention of having reinforcements to help with Embiid’s load management, the All-Star center’s two-game suspension will offer us another look at Brand’s backup plan.
“It's huge for the team to have that versatility to slide Al to a backup five,” Brand said to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Kyle O'Quinn has played great. We're growing Jonah Bolden and even Norvel Pelle has been a surprise — he had five blocks in a quarter in preseason.
“So having that versatility, that ability to have a backup center so if Joel is not playing or needs a break or we’re subbing him — to have some talent, it bodes well for our squad because last year we went from top two defensively to off a cliff when Joel was out.”
While Bolden and Pelle are intriguing developmental players, it’s really all about Horford and O’Quinn.
The Sixers already won their first game without Embiid in Detroit while the big man was nursing an ankle sprain. Yes, they were up big when Embiid was ejected Wednesday night, but they were able to clamp down after the Timberwolves went on a run and closed the game out.
"It's much tougher,” Horford said postgame Wednesday about playing without Embiid. “But I do believe that we rallied and we understood that they weren't going to go away. They cut it to like 14, 12, and it was one of those things where we had to tighten it back up again. Just had to make sure that we kept making plays. I'll definitely go back and look on film and see things that we could have done better, but I believe there was a sense of urgency from our group, like, 'Hey, we can't relax. We have to close this game out.'"
On most nights, Horford won’t stand out on the stat sheet. He hauled in 16 rebounds against Minnesota and put up 23 points in the win in Detroit, but that’s generally not where his presence is felt.
The same can be said for O’Quinn — although his assist numbers in the preseason were surprisingly impressive (4.2 assists in 11.8 minutes per game). He played just four minutes in the fourth quarter on opening night when both Embiid and Horford got into foul trouble. O’Quinn was able to come off the bench cold and give Brown solid minutes and help preserve a win.
While the rim protection drops off a bit, you could make the argument that the team’s pick-and-roll defense — a huge sore spot in recent years — improves with Horford because of his mobility, savvy and ability to communicate.
Even as the Sixers have posted the best defensive rating in the NBA through four games, Horford still isn’t satisfied.
"The communication was good. It's still not great, to my standards,” Horford said. “We're still getting better as far as that goes. Our defense was good, the effort was there. We got a little sloppy, fouling a lot in the third, slowing the game down. So, we need to be better with that stuff."
Monroe is now playing overseas in Germany. Marjanovic finally got into his first game with the Mavericks in a loss Friday night. Johnson is out of the league.
With all due respect to them, the Sixers are now in much better hands when Joel Embiid doesn’t play.
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