Just how much do the Sixers care about the backup center position?
A year ago, it would’ve been a ludicrous question. Al Horford had a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed, which meant the Sixers considered the player behind Joel Embiid to be very valuable indeed.
Now, with Horford heading to the Thunder in Daryl Morey’s first trade as the team’s president of basketball operations, it’s an interesting subject again. The Sixers are waiving Norvel Pelle, a 27-year-old rookie last season whose 2020-21 salary would've been guaranteed if he was on the team past Saturday. Power forward Paul Reed, the 58th pick in Wednesday night’s NBA draft, is worth mentioning here too. Still, the roster is relatively short on big men.
Morey eschewed traditional centers for the second half of his final season with the Rockets, trading Clint Capela in February and acquiring Robert Covington. He thinks head coach Doc Rivers has an important role in this particular area.
“Yeah, that’s a conversation to have with Doc,” he said early Thursday morning. “I do think you like to have optionality in how you play behind Joel. I think Doc and his staff could get very creative with unique lineups where Ben (Simmons) is featured and we sort of build a system around him like I’ve done in the past and Doc’s done in the past. There’s a chance to play really unique, up-tempo, spacing, shooting lineups.
“But I also like adding a big just so Doc has all the tools to basically attack who we’re playing in different ways. I think the main thing is never force anything. Actually having a perceived opening of a big often allows Doc to go to work and use his amazing recruiting skills, which I think (are) the best I’ve ever seen at the coach position, to get top players to consider here because they see a path and an opportunity.”
Increased pace is a shared goal for Rivers and Morey, and speedy, small, non-Embiid (and Simmons-centric) lineups are one smart way to go about that mission. Respected shooters like new additions Seth Curry and Danny Green — and perhaps eventually 49th pick Isaiah Joe, too — help the cause.
Even before he was asked about big men behind Embiid, Morey had Reed in mind as a potential Horford replacement, or perhaps a fraction of one.
“Paul Reed, super underrated in our minds,” he said. “Especially with the Al Horford move, there’s a path there. He can also guard multiple positions. With Joel, for the 13 to 15 minutes when he’s off the floor, Paul Reed’s a guy who can guard multiple positions and we can play a dynamic, up-tempo shooting (style). Good fit with Ben.”
Reed forced a ton of turnovers in college, recording 2.6 blocks and 1.9 steals per game his junior year. He likely wouldn’t fare well against hulking NBA big men, but there aren’t many of those left. Players who can create chaos defensively and score early in the shot clock are valuable, especially for the Sixers, and that’s been Reed’s strong suit.
“I think that’s my game, running the floor like a deer,” he said Thursday. “Up and down, up and down, up and down. Up-tempo, that’s exactly my game.”
We obviously shouldn’t expect Morey to rely heavily on a 6-foot-9 rookie second-round pick. Free agent negotiations are officially allowed to begin at 6 p.m. Friday, and there are several centers who might be affordable for the Sixers. Aron Baynes, Meyers Leonard, Willie Cauley-Stein and Bismack Biyombo will be on the market.
So will Nerlens Noel. Power forward Ersan Ilyasova is another former Sixer who could be part of the picture after being waived Thursday by the Bucks, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Maybe Rivers’ aforementioned recruiting wizardry will come in handy.
There’s no certainty at the position quite yet, but Morey prefers flexibility. In this case, there’s nothing objectionable about the lack of a narrow answer right now. The Sixers knew exactly where they stood on backup big men before Morey’s arrival, and it wasn’t a good place.