Brett Brown spent last season trying to determine the way to utilize Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. One of the two natural centers had to play out of position when they shared the floor, and maneuvering lineups and combinations was a constant challenge.
This season the floor is even more congested as center Joel Embiid is expected to play and the Sixers have added Dario Saric and Ben Simmons. Elton Brand, Richaun Holmes and Jerami Grant are also returning. So how will Brown figure out how to distribute minutes among the bigs?
It’s up to them to earn the playing time.
“It’s going to be a competitive environment,” Brown said Thursday at his annual media luncheon. “It’s pro sport, it’s the way it should be. As a blanket rule, whether it’s with the bigs or otherwise, it’s my job to reward competitors. I need to reward the most competitive people because there is nothing that’s been anointed as we speak.”
The Sixers are implementing an uptempo system this season. Whether it is an undersized point guard or towering big man, each player will have to fit into that fast-paced approach. Brown has placed an emphasis on “career-best fitness” and wants all of the players to be able to get up and down the floor. The ability to do so will influence their role.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to be in the best shape of your life,” Brown said. “I’m going to help you. We’re going to help you. … We’re going overboard with people’s health and their diet and their fitness base.”
Okafor began transforming his body during his rookie season, and continued to improve his physique in the offseason. Brown said Okafor has recovered from his right knee surgery in March, and even though he rolled an ankle last week, he is expected to be ready for the start of training camp. Brown has been impressed by Okafor’s strength and conditioning this summer, noting a recent photo of Okafor working out in the gym.
“He’s got a six pack, he looks great,” Brown said. “It goes back to that challenge to our guys of, this is competitive. This is career-best fitness stuff. You will reveal yourself in a second, the second you walk through a door in September.”
When it comes to Noel, the Sixers will look to enhance his strength and maximize his athleticism this season. Brown referred to Noel as a “modern-day five man” for his defense, ability to run the floor, connect on lobs, block shots and pick-and-roll. He would like Noel to improve his free throw shooting (59.0 percent), but noted his biggest impact can come at the hoop.
“Personally, I don’t care if he ever makes a jumpshot for the rest of his life,” Brown said. “I mean that. That’s not how his bread is buttered.”
Brown referenced Dikembe Mutombo and Bismack Biyombo, who scored a hefty contract after an impressive defensive showing in the playoffs, as players with similar roles.
“Nerlens has got elite gifts,” Brown said. “He is as athletic and quick off the floor and quick rim to rim as anyone that I’ve coached, as any big man in the league. … Let’s take what he does and tap into that. … Taking all those things that I just said and making them better, making them A-plus elite, A-plus reliable, A-plus consistent, A-plus accepted-this-is-my-role. Do your job and we will help you. The league will reward that, the 76ers will reward that, he will be rewarded for playing that like.”
Of course there is more to sorting out the frontcourt than just two players. The restrictions of Joel Embiid, which are to be determined, will open up opportunities for others as well.
Another season, another abundance of bigs for Brown to allocate. The players will be tasked with proving their place in the rotation.
“We worked through all this last year, didn’t we?” Brown said.