CAMDEN, N.J. — All four wins.
Confidently and succinctly, that’s how Joel Embiid responded when asked what he hopes the 76ers can accomplish on their upcoming four-game road swing out West.
All four wins.
And how can they pull off that feat?
“We’ve just gotta play together, share the ball, get back to being that defensive-minded team,” Embiid said from the Sixers' practice facility on Thursday. “The last couple of games we haven’t played any defense. We gotta get back to that.”
Considering the last-place Sixers (7-21) have won only two road games all season and have yet to string together more than two wins in a row, sweeping through their next four contests would be quite the remarkable feat.
There are, of course, more immediate — and perhaps reasonable — goals when their trip begins Friday night in Phoenix, before subsequent stops in Sacramento (Dec. 26), Utah (Dec. 29) and Denver (Dec. 30) to close out the calendar year.
One of them is continuing to see how Embiid and Jahlil Okafor can mesh with each other on the floor — or if they can at all. The two young centers have started together in each of the last four games — with the Sixers going 1-3 during that stretch — and head coach Brett Brown said that starting frontcourt should mostly stay intact until the ball drops on 2016.
“We’re now at four games starting Jahlil and Joel, and my intention is we’ll see this road trip out and begin the new year and reassess,” Brown said. “I think with eight games as a body of work, we can judge it more accurately and feel what’s best for the team and the players. Ultimately, the whole program needs to be based on defense. Whatever that equals in relation to who’s on the floor is the direction I’m going to take the program.”
Given how much Brown stresses defense, there are plenty of people that believe Nerlens Noel and Embiid can form the more effective partnership and terrorize opposing offenses in the paint. Embiid himself lobbied for that pairing after the Sixers’ 108-93 loss to the Pelicans on Tuesday. And despite saying earlier in the week that Noel would be left out of the rotation as he continues to work his way back from a knee injury, Brown said Thursday that he agreed with Embiid’s public comments about giving the two of them a shot together.
“I think he’s right,” the Sixers' coach said. “I get confused sometimes how stuff takes a left turn. We’ve been saying we’ll give Nerlens a chance once he gains his fitness and gets back into this. The other night (vs. New Orleans), we got into foul trouble and we put him into the game and we saw some good things.
“I feel like the bottom line is we have these three bigs and we need to experiment, we need to try different things. It’s on Nerlens to get himself back in shape and learn what we’re actually running. It will be on our bigs to find ways to coexist and for me to manage it. And I think they’re great. The conversations we’ve all had have been very transparent and candid and we look forward to seeing those two (Noel and Embiid) amongst other combinations as well.”
Noel admitted he still might need more conditioning after missing the first 23 games of the season, as well as more time to learn the extra offensive sets that were added to the playbook this year. But he too is eager to see what it might look like to get extended minutes with Embiid — something the team practiced Thursday.
“I think it will be very interesting,” Noel said. “I think it will have some positives and we’ll work through the negatives. But I think defensively, we’ll be something to reckon with.”
It surely will help that Noel is good friends with Embiid — but he’s also quite friendly with Okafor, as well as everyone else on the team. In fact, he’s eager for the upcoming road trip in part because eight days will feel like “a breeze” after enduring a longer West Coast swing last December but also because it will give everyone a chance to bond over the holidays.
“It’s crazy because in my four years here, I think this is one of the closest-knit teams we’ve had,” Noel said. “I think the players we have had over the past couple of years have figured out their niches and guys’ personalities have all come together. I think this team is in a good place and guys are really getting along.”
Embiid also said he’s excited for the road trip and getting a chance to spend Christmas with his teammates at Jerryd Bayless’ home in Phoenix. (As for other preparations needed for eight days out of town, Embiid said, “As long as I have my video games, I’m good.”) And Brown, who called himself a “Christmas romantic,” said the friendship among the players will make for a good holiday, recalling a “heartwarming” moment in the last game when all three of the highly touted big men came together on the court.
“You sort of redirect the spirit of Christmas to your team,” the Sixers coach said. “You’re with each other, so they become your extended family. As much as you miss not having Christmas with your kids and your family, I’m very fond of this group. We’re going through one of the most challenging times I’ve had since I’ve had been here. ... It’s not their fault (Embiid, Okafor and Noel) we are in this situation. We’re trying to figure it all out together.
“So this extended family we have and going away for the holidays, maybe it’s the perfect time to do that.”