With Joel Embiid possessing the greatest injury risk of any superstar, it remains mystifying that the Sixers continue to have trouble finding a consistent backup big man behind him. A center off the bench for the Sixers could be starting around 15 or even 20 times per season given potential rest for Embiid or whenever he’s banged up. More importantly, that player may even be getting spot starts in the playoffs, as Ersan Ilyasova and Amir Johnson each started a game against the Heat last April when Embiid was sidelined.
Embiid has been out for the Sixers’ last three games with left knee soreness and will be out once again Thursday night against Oklahoma City. Boban Marjanovic will also be inactive as he deals with a right knee bone bruise, leaving the Sixers with just Johnson, Justin Patton and rookie Jonah Bolden as the only available bigs for the team in their matchup with the Thunder.
The injury to Marjanovic only highlights this glaring depth issue. Despite putting up Wilt-like offensive numbers in a small amount of minutes throughout his career, he remains a statue defensively, prone to lapses against any big man with any semblance of speed or an outside shot. He’s a matchup-dependent player who will be needed against the likes of Marc Gasol in the postseason, but may get run off the court against stretchy bigs in the mold of Al Horford, Brook Lopez and Myles Turner.
How did the Sixers go from the team with “too many” big men, rostering all of Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Richaun Holmes at one point, to this?
Poor drafting over the last handful of years is the main culprit. Okafor, the third overall pick in 2015, was a bust from the minute he punched some House of Pain-loving guy in Boston during his rookie campaign. Noel, the sixth overall pick in 2013, and the organization at large seemed to detest one another during his last two seasons in Philly, leading to an underwhelming return for a defensively gifted big at the 2017 trade deadline. Holmes, a high second-rounder in 2015, never possessed the defensive awareness that Brett Brown demands from his bigs and he was promptly shipped off to Phoenix without much fanfare this past offseason.
Those guys were Sam Hinkie’s picks, but Bryan Colangelo completely bungling the 2016 and 2017 drafts only made a bad situation worse.
The Sixers held two late first-rounders in 2016 that they used on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz, respectively. The fact that the Raptors’ blossoming young power forward Pascal Siakam was taken three spots after TLC and just one pick after Korkmaz stings more and more each game. Siakam is a defensive monster with a continuously improving three-point shot who could’ve worked alongside Embiid to create the league’s best defense or functioned as a Draymond Green-lite role player alongside Ben Simmons with Embiid on the bench.
There’s the infamous 2017 case of Anzejs Pasecniks, a Latvian big man, who, for reasons I’m still not entirely sure, I’ve dedicated my Twitter account to slandering. Ol’ Big Collar needlessly traded a future first rounder from Oklahoma City for the right to move up and select Pasecniks, who is about five years away from being five years away. For all the talk of Dario Saric never coming over, this is actually the guy who is never coming over. Imagine Darko Milicic with the frame of a greased up light pole on Broad Street. Imagine Nikoloz Tskitishvili with a Latvian passport. This is the player Colangelo, through the transitive property of trades, acquired for Jerami Grant, a small-ball big currently guarding every position on the court and knocking down the occasional corner three for the Thunder.
Maybe the simplest solution in the meantime is to let Bolden, who has flashed promise at times, go through whatever growing pains that are disauding Brown from giving him consistent minutes or to play super small at times with lineups that have Simmons as the team’s tallest player on the court. This problem isn’t simply going away when Embiid returns to the floor though.
While talks of whether the Sixers can re-sign Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will rightfully dominate this offseason, the team’s backup center situations remains an intriguing subplot. Armed with their own first rounder and two top-35 picks from Chicago and Cleveland, respectively, hitting on one of those selections needs to be a priority for Elton Brand and his front office.
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