CAMDEN, N.J. — The players aren’t the only ones on the Sixers who have to follow minute restrictions. It is up to head coach Brett Brown to implement them.
Early into the season, Brown is dealing with the ongoing situation of how to best utilize Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor in limited capacity. Both are capped at 24 minutes per game. In order to maximize the presence of his bigs on the court, Brown doesn’t intend to play them together at the time being.
Brown maneuvers each matchup with a game plan set out by the Sixers' sports science department, led by director of performance research and development Dr. David T. Martin. The Sixers hired Martin in June 2015 from the Australian Institute of Sport (see story). He has over 20 years of experience.
“I am a complete receiver,” Brown said Thursday after practice. “I sit here and am told, 'This is the deal.' Who am I to say, ‘Well, I think that’s garbage?’ The degrees and the expertise and the firepower that we have behind me in that part of our building is massive and highly respected, worldwide respected.”
Win games. Develop players. Build chemistry. Maintain the health. The Sixers, like every NBA team, have a checklist of objectives each season. Unlike most, they have to try to do so with restrictions on the players most integral to their success.
Embiid leads the Sixers with 17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in five games. Okafor is contributing 12.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in six contests.
To this point, neither Embiid nor Okafor has played in back-to-back games. Brown intends for Embiid to play Friday against the Pacers. While Okafor will be available, the Sixers plan to use him on Saturday against the Hawks.
“I feel like, in my mind, I’m going to go into it with Joel and Richaun (Holmes),” Brown said of Friday’s game. “I’ll have Jahlil sort of in the bullpen, knowing if we need him, we’ll use him.”
The Sixers will travel from Atlanta to Houston to play the Rockets on Monday. Embiid expects to play, but Brown isn’t giving him the green light just yet.
“I think I’m playing in Houston, so I think I’ll make that trip,” Embiid said.
Said Brown, “I’m not sure right now. I’ll be advised by the sports science people.”
Embiid has made it clear he would play 48 minutes in 82 games a season if he could. He is eager to be on the court following two years of rehabbing foot injuries. The Sixers would like him out there as well — for the long haul — and are proceeding with extra caution. The team plans to keep Embiid’s max at 24 minutes and evaluate the situation again at Christmas.
There could be more wiggle room with Okafor. The second-year big man underwent right knee surgery in March and aggravated the knee during training camp. He was sidelined for most of the preseason and played only 16 minutes to start the season.
“With Jahlil, that is more fluid,” Brown said. “His situation, I believe, is going to be in a position to increase. But it’s not for me to say. It’s my belief based on what I’ve listened to that we expect forward movement more so with Jahlil.”
Until that happens, Brown will continue to carefully follow the playing time guidelines. In some instances, that can mean keeping his bigs on the bench in crunch time, which happened in overtime against the Pacers on Wednesday.
Okafor had logged 23 minutes and 11 seconds at the end of regulation. He checked in with less than two minutes to play in overtime and the Sixers down by four points. Okafor played 44 seconds in OT, bringing his total just five seconds short of his limit.
“I wouldn’t have done anything differently to try to have him available to go win the game,” Brown said. “Maybe you could’ve spent it at the start of it, but you wouldn’t have had it at the end of it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. At the end of the day, it’s like you win or you lose and there’s your judgement. I sleep at night with how we did it.
“It is an incredible challenge beyond the words I’m even giving you now on how you play our five-men with the restrictions and some people are in, some people are out. It’s part of my world, it’s part of my job. Jahlil last night, that was a challenge.”
The Sixers have 17 games in November, including four sets of back-to-backs. It remains to be seen in how many of those Embiid and Okafor will play.
The players, just like the coach, wait to find out.
“When they deliver to the coach a roadmap, then it’s on me to follow that,” Brown said. “These are our resources, they’re our players, it’s their health. Far be it from me to make a judgement that would ultimately be very reckless and selfish. You’re always mindful of, truly, what’s best for the player and best for the club, and then your world is sorted out.”