As the trade deadline neared last year, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers was candid about his preferences.
“We need a point guard,” Rivers said approximately two days before the Sixers landed James Harden.
He’s yet to make any similar public proclamations as Thursday afternoon’s deadline approaches. Still, calling backup center a concerning spot for the Sixers seems eminently fair.
In the team’s 52nd game of the season, Rivers replaced Montrezl Harrell with Paul Reed early in the second quarter. Neither player shined Sunday night behind Joel Embiid and the Sixers’ bench struggled across the board in a dispiriting loss to the Knicks.
The Sixers do have options at center, but are they appealing when projecting ahead to the playoffs?
“I’m going to play them both,” Rivers said last Wednesday after the Sixers’ win over the Magic. “They’re just going to have to push each other. Trez has his moments. The second half, he was really good, actually. First half, he struggled. Paul Reed struggled a little bit in the first, too, but he hadn’t played. And so with him, I thought it was more rust than how he was playing. He was late on a lot of stuff that he typically is not late on. And so the more we start playing him, the better he’ll be at that stuff. But we also have (PJ Tucker) that we can play at the five. There’s a lot of ways we can go there.”
It’s true that the 6-foot-5 Tucker remains viable at center in certain situations. With or without Embiid on the floor, he welcomes physicality and is well-practiced at being a nuisance to bigger players. The Sixers’ recent success with Tucker defending Nikola Jokic in the second half of a comeback win was encouraging.
And though the Sixers’ defense is likely to be worse whenever Embiid sits, there’s decent evidence now to suggest that Tucker-at-center lineups can be strong offensively and passable overall in the playoffs, provided James Harden is on his game. The Sixers thus far have a minus-3.2 net rating and 120.7 offensive rating (94th percentile) in lineups with Tucker at the five, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Another positive, this one a bit more basic: The Sixers are 8-4 this season without Embiid. That doesn’t speak solely to their backup center play, but Harrell and Reed have each had strong moments in shorthanded situations. If Embiid’s playoff injury misfortunes were to continue and he missed a couple of games, we imagine the team would be better off than it was for DeAndre Jordan’s two second-round starts last year.
Rivers pointed to Jordan’s size as one reason he started Games 1 and 2 against the Heat. The Sixers have gotten smaller since then and, like early in the Miami series, often used zone defense in an effort to mitigate weaknesses. Sunday’s performance was the worst version of the Sixers’ all-bench lineup, but that unit, which has featured Tyrese Maxey the last several weeks, isn’t loaded with above-average defenders. Attempts in the paint of course tend to be more costly in Harrell’s minutes. Per Cleaning the Glass, Sixers opponents have shot 71.2 percent at the rim with Harrell on the court, which ranks in the ninth percentile.
Opposing teams have shot significantly worse than the league average from the mid-range and from three-point territory during Harrell’s runs. However, a pessimistic slant on that fact is luck and weak opposition have played a major role and regression would be unsurprising. The Sixers have the NBA’s most difficult remaining schedule, Tankathon says.
Reed entered the season aiming to gain Rivers’ trust, but he’s had a bumpy ride. Though it would be great to see a sustained stretch of Reed’s high-activity, rebound-chasing, turnover-creating style, he evidently hasn’t proven his dependability to Rivers.
So, what might an external upgrade look like?
Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer reported Saturday that “league personnel” have called Utah’s Jarred Vanderbilt “a leading target in Philadelphia’s quest to fortify its frontcourt reserves behind Joel Embiid.” The Athletic’s James Edwards reported the Sixers are among the teams who have “recently called the Pistons and inquired about (Nerlens) Noel." ESPN’s Tim MacMahon linked the Sixers to the Timberwolves’ Naz Reid. The idea of an Andre Drummond reunion, whether before the deadline or down the line, is intriguing.
No potential answer is perfect and the buyout market might again loom large. Rivers expressed confidence last week in the construction of this year’s team. But, even if he’s not plainly stating exactly what the Sixers need, it’s hard to avoid the reality that backup center matters greatly.
“This team I think is better equipped for the playoffs,” Rivers said. “I think we have toughness. We’re less young. I think we have less holes; every team has holes. I think Joel’s two years down the road with me and the staff. Adding James to the mix, adding Tyrese to the mix, I just think we’re a better basketball team.
“But at the end of the day, we’re still going to need health. I love what we did (my) first year here and Jo in the playoffs is not healthy. I love what we did last year and then we get in the playoffs, and we’re not healthy. So no matter what — and that’s every team, not just us — you have to have health to have a chance. And if we are healthy, we’re going to have an excellent chance.”